English footwear enthusiast Nigel Cleaver explains how to care for leather shoes

I clearly recall much of my grandfather’s words of wisdom, though primarily, ‘attention to detail, dear boy’ and ‘you can always tell a man by his shoes and his wristwatch’ always resonate with me.

My grandfather sowed these seeds which have served me well—his ‘attention to detail’ mantra in particular. Suffice to say a life with an eye for the meticulous, for something finer, lay before me…spectacles, tweed, wine, wristwatches, neckties…the list is endless. We’ll save those for another day. Let’s look at one of my passions: English shoes.

fine english footwear

Fine English Shoes

As a proud Englishman I have a bias; the vast majority of my collection are made in England. In considering English shoes we are contemplating a piece of history, we are buying a pair of shoes steeped in heritage. As we age, evermore distinguished(!), a certain shoe care regimen shall ensure our trusted footwear ages with distinction as well. 

English shoes are, made then as now in Northamptonshire, as wise a purchase as one can make. Here are just three venerable companies…

John Lobb, established in 1849. Lobb’s motto is “The Bare Maximum for a Man” as each pair of shoes undergoes an exhaustive and exacting manufacturing process.

john lobb shoes at italist
John Lobb
edward green shoes at italist
Edward Green

Edward Green learned his craft as an apprentice at the age of 12 eventually establishing his own Northampton workshop in 1890. “Excellence without compromise,” was his promise.

Crockett & Jones, established in 1879, is still managed by the family that founded the company one hundred and forty one years ago, on Perry Street, Northampton.

Each august shoemaker offers a choice, several in fact, and ultimately ‘you pays your money, you takes your choice.’

Sizing

Before we discuss how to care for leather shoes, a word on sizing:

Shoemakers will call to you and your taste. Peruse their wares and try them on for size, literally. Typically I’m a UK 7.5 standard width shoe though have size UK 6.5 wide and UK 9 in my collection! The last of a shoe has a direct bearing on its suitability. There is no substitute for trying on the objects of our desires with the insightful support of a knowledgeable member of staff. 

That being said, in these pandemic times, we should avail ourselves of the same obliging staff remotely, and take measurements of your favored shoes to assist them in supplying your fittingly-sized treasure via post.

how to care for leather shoes with nigel cleaver

Shoe Trees

Your shoes have now arrived. You will have been asked if you wanted last-specific shoe trees—the wooden apparati that maintain the shoe’s form and keep the leather moisture-free—and of course you said yes.

If you declined, then insert your locally purchased shoe trees. Your shoe trees will be gainfully employed at the end of each day, without fail, and your shoes shall be bestowed in their shoe bags after a swift brush down. It is wise not to wear your shoes on consecutive days, allow them to feel the benefit of their cedar sleepers whilst you rotate your collection.

how to care for leather shoes shoe trees saphir renovateur cream

That’s the first part of the ‘shoe-care regimen’ to ensure our shoes age as well as we do.

Onward…

Leather Care & Shoe Polish

So, how to care for your leather shoes? Shoe-care is not a chore; it shall be a therapeutic experience. Set aside some time, play soothing sounds and enjoy a glass of your favorite tipple and you will be rewarded.

The tools of the trade? There are some key inhabitants of my shoe-shine boxes. You should include:

Renovator oil is perhaps the most important in the proper care of leather shoes. My particular go-to is Saphir Renovateur, which contains mink oil—helpful in conditioning and moisturizing the leather. A word to the wise, a little goes a long way, please use sparingly!

proper leather shoe care
  • First: dry brush your shoes, then use a barely damp cloth to wipe impurities or particles away.
  • Next: use sparing amounts of Renovator, subsequently buffed, followed by a shoe cream or polish of your choosing.

You will develop a rhythm, realizing quickly that using sparing amounts allow one shoe to breathe while you work on the other—less is indeed more. Suitably nourished, now employ your softest clean brush, buffing to your preference.

Stop there if you wish, safe in the knowledge that your shoes have received more care and attention than your coworkers have spent on their entire look! Should you wish to go the extra mile, employ a wax polish for that stand out mirror-shine. Who knows, your coworkers could see the error of their ways in your perfectly twinkly toe-caps!

Additional Notes on How to Care for Leather Shoes

Patience is key. Resist the temptation to apply more wax to speed up the process—that never works.

I like Pâte De Luxe by Saphir. The key is in the application. Use a cloth wrapped around index and forefinger and secured how you wish. Dab lightly in wax and apply across the toe allowing to set.

Using water, or saliva, gently moistening the cloth, then lightly dab the wax. Using small circular sweeps, lightly agitate the incumbent wax adding your subsequent layer, you’ll notice a change in texture, a slight hardening of the wax indicating you can move across the toe, bit by bit.

how to care for leather shoes nigel cleaver italist

Once the toe is completed, please buff the toe-cap with your friend the chamois leather, a product typically used by carwashes to dry automotive paint. If you don’t already use a chamois, you’ll quickly see why it is indispensable to your shoe-care routine. Repeat this process, as required, not forgetting the other shoe of course!

Suede Care

Perhaps you chose suede, and why not? Looked after correctly, it’s a four season choice with the right undercarriage. One thing to remember, wire is a thing for conducting electricity. It is not, and has never been, a friend of suede. Please use a crêpe brush, which is specially designed for suede and nubuck care, and will stand that leather nap to attention!

Are some of those strands standing tall? Are you feeling brave? A brief dalliance with a naked flame will bring you that uniformity. Develop this skill on a discrete part of the shoe if you can.

suede shoe care with nigel cleaver on italist

Steam will also reinvigorate your suede as will a Renovator spray. Ultimately there are many excellent sprays for waterproofing suede to protect against the elements. 

One final matter of note is an oft-overlooked detail that aficionados and pedants will identify with glee: no amount of love, care and attention for your English shoes will distract from the screaming sight of unkempt edges! You can of course buy specialist dye, but if you do, please wear the gloves, or run some polish round those edges anyway.

After all ‘attention to detail dear boy, attention to detail’!

-Nigel Cleaver, @ignoreatyourperil


Discover related topics: John Lobb, a name to know; Church’s Shoes, another name to know; and Designer Shoe Size Conversions.

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