Spit and Polish

At a party hosted recently by friends, I found myself in the kitchen (where else?), with a group of men and among the suspect and somewhat expected line-up of footwear . . . scruffy Converse, Campers, dodgy loafers and non-descript lace-ups (it was a casual affair), we spied one of our friends, the Italian – surprise, surprise, sporting the most sleek and uber glossy shoes from Prada.


The Italian's Pradas

No baggy boy jeans and worn sneakers for this guy. Oh no! He looked slinky and sharp in a slim-fitting shirt, beautifully cut trousers and those to-die-for Pradas! Given that he hails from somewhere near Milan rather than Islington I guess its to be expected, but never before have a pair of shoes drawn so much attention from the species from Mars, each one admiring them and oohing and ahing like they were peeking under the bonnet of a vintage Porsche.

Admittedly, the Pradas were new, having been no further afield than the floorboards of Number 3o. But I kid you not, those shoes were so shiny I could see my own reflection in them (not a good thing given the amount of alcohol I’d consumed by that point), and the luster of them against the pedestrian footwear worn by everyone else prompted the thought . . . is the art of shoe polishing dying on its feet?

Well Olga Berluti, creative director of the men’s luxury shoemaker Berluti, doesn’t think so. Olga’s credentials extend beyond her hand-made shoes for the likes of Andy Warhol and John F. Kennedy, to a shoe-cleaning club she has established for her favorite clients. The ‘Swann Club‘ is a gathering where the members come to ‘dine and shine’ and indulge in a highly meticulous shoe polishing ritual to the music of Vivaldi and Wagner, involving iced spring water, Venetian linen sheets, pots of coloured wax, chianti and vintage champagne.


Mention shoe shining generally and most people think of the military – where having anything less than a mirror finish to your boots is likely to result in a court martial. Or a bygone era, when a tin of wax polish was an essential for shining gents’ shoes on a Sunday evening. All my friends acknowledge having watched their fathers and grandfathers polish their shoes regularly, but few admit to rummaging around in the under stairs cupboard in search of a rusty tin of Kiwi, an old sports sock and a well worn horse-hair brush inherited from a long deceased relly, on a quest to return their now scuffed and scratched ‘best’ leather shoes to their former glory. Not quite the same league as The Swann Club!

But what is it about our generation that has caused a decline in the art of shoe shining? One which Asda, the Wal-Mart-owned UK supermarket chain, claim is dramatic and upstoppable. Well, we’re a lazy bunch and we’d rather be indulging in 101 things on a Sunday evening than applying a bit of elbow grease to our leather uppers. Modern footwear is far more low maintenance than brogues and loafers and many of us don’t actually know how to clean our shoes using old-style polish and a frenzy of buffing, opting instead for timesaving wipes that are growing in popularity. In our consumerist society, we’re not about ‘make do and mend’ as it was for our forefathers, and the preservation and longevity of shoes just isn’t important when its easy and relatively cheap to replace worn out pairs, or those we simply no longer like.

And a final thought for the rare beasts who today believe in the importance of a parade-ground finish – is it strictly men? Would the fairer sex be caught spitting on a duster, applying a good level of elbow grease and buffing to a shine . . . or do we reserve that ceremony exclusively for our thighs?

For advice on how to achieve the perfect shoe shine, go to ‘ask andy about clothes.’


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