If you have spent time reading through articles on ModernGentlemanMagazine.com, it should be no surprise that we advocate for buying high quality items, made by those with a passion for what they do. In short: buy better quality items, and support the artisans that truly care about what they make. Acquiring items of quality is only half the battle, however. After all, one of the arguments for owning quality items is being able to enjoy them for a long time to come. It also may give you the opportunity to pass them on to a future generation of gentleman, for their enjoyment as well. It’s from that perspective, that this series of articles is based. Over the coming weeks and months, we will look at how to care for, and prolong the life of the items in your wardrobe. We start with footwear, and specifically calfskin leather shoes. In a future article, we will share tips for caring for other types of leather footwear, including shell cordovan and suede.
Part 1: Calfskin Shoes
Here at ModernGentlemanMagazine.com, we believe in and endorse the positive effect that thee addition of high-quality shoes will have on you and your wardrobe. We are talking about a shoe that is (1) designed and constructed/lasted with the human foot in mind, (2) made with high-quality full grain leather, and (3) constructed in a traditional method (hand welted, Goodyear welted, Blake stitched, etc.) that allows for future re-soling/re-construction of the shoes.
If you’ve made the jump to a pair of high quality footwear, first of all, enjoy wearing them! Please don’t leave them in the closet to look at, afraid of what might happen if you wear them outside the house… High quality shoes are tough, and are made to last with some simple care.
The best and most simple advice I can share when it comes to caring for your footwear, is to use shoe trees. Shoe trees come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. I recommend having a pair of shoe trees that is made from wood (most commonly cedar or beech), and properly sized for your shoes. Often, high quality shoe makers will sell lasted shoe trees, which are made to fit snugly inside shoes made on one of their specific lasts. There are also plenty of generic options that work just fine.
Simply stated, buy a pair of shoe trees, and insert them in your shoes as soon as you take them off your feet. The trees will help keep the leather uppers stretched (helping the leather resist developing deep creases), and absorb moisture and odor from the insides of the shoes, preserving the life of the leather.
Once you insert shoe trees, I recommend giving your calfskin shoes a thorough brushing with a horse-hair shoe brush. Brushing the uppers will remove dirt and grime that accumulates over the course of the day, and will buff out surface scuffs. Shoe brushes are also used in the polishing process, which is described below. Simply put, these are the workhorses in your shoe conditioning/cleaning/shining regimen. In addition, some companies make small, stiff-bristled brushes meant for brushing the welt. If you don’t want to purchase a specialty brush, a toothbrush with stiff bristles will do the trick.
If you are taking care of your high quality footwear, you are going to want to maintain that beautiful shine on the leather upper. One way to prolong that shine in between wearings, is to store your shoes within shoe bags. Shoe bags, made from a soft fabric that won’t scratch the shoes uppers, can be found sold by most high quality shoe makers. They are often provided by the shoe maker when a pair of high quality shoes is purchased.
Using a shoe horn to put your shoes on each day will help prolong the life of your shoes. Specifically, it will keep your heel counter from being crushed as you press your heel down while putting the shoe on your foot. Keep in mind there are many options, and plastic shoe horns can be acquired for cheap, if you do not like the idea of using natural horn. A nice shoe horn is a splurge, but is an item that a gentleman can look forward to passing on to someone else, later in life.
Fight the Elements
Caring for your high-quality shoes has to include consideration for the outside conditions (weather, setting you will be walking in, etc.). Having sole protectors (Topy and Vibram are two brands to consider) installed by a cobbler on your leather soled shoes is one option to prolong the life of your outsoles. Sole protectors will not only provide protection for your leather soles from water and salt, but also provides improved traction on slick surfaces. Sole protectors can be easily replaced when they are worn through, and can help extend the time between re-soling (which we touch on below).
Having a pair of rubber overshoes or galoshes will also come in handy if you face the potential to be caught out in the rain. Two sharp looking options for overshoes are made by Swims and Covy. If you do happen to get caught in the rain or snow, remember to let your shoes dry out naturally. Do not place them next to a heater, air conditioner, etc. The air will dry the leather out and cause damage that is difficult to repair. You can also ball up newspaper, paper towels, etc., and place them within the shoes to help absorb the excess moisture.
>Disclaimer: Widely believed to make the best shoe care products in the world, the French brand Saphir makes absolutely fantastic shoe care products. I have used them myself for a long time, and I can’t recommend them enough. I will therefore use their product examples through the rest of this article, but keep in mind, many high quality shoe makers offer their own versions of these products that will also work very well.
Clean and Condition the Leather
Leather is a skin, and just like our skin, it needs regular cleaning and conditioning to remain hydrated, supple, and to keep from cracking or deteriorating over time. For heavy dirt and grime, start by wiping off your shoes with a damp cloth (or applying a leather cleaner/stripper as described below). After the leather has time to dry, you can apply a specially formulated leather cleaner/conditioner with a rag in small, circular motions to the shoe. Saphir makes a product called “Renovateur” that is a mink oil based cleaner/conditioner. If there is one product to own and use, this is it. A little bit of the cleaner/conditioner goes a long way, and regular application will keep your leather uppers clean and supple for years to come. Once the product has dried, brush your uppers vigorously with a horsehair brush, and you will find a beautiful shine is produced. Many times, this is as far as you need to go with your routine maintenance.
Over time and with regular use, you may find that the color of the leather uppers becomes dull, or scraped. A colored cream polish can be applied to your shoes, to bring back the vibrancy of the leather, and to cover scrapes or discoloration in the leather that do not buff out otherwise. If you want to maintain the color of your shoes, do your best to find a cream polish that closely matches in color. I recommend using Saphir’s Medaille d’Or Pommadier cream shoe polish, which is an all-natural polish containing beeswax, turpentine, shea butter, and other nutrient waxes. For the sake of your shoes, please avoid cheaper polishes that contain silicones or resins, which are not good for the leather. Application of a slightly different shade of polish can be used to add depth to the leather. Go easy on the application, and over time with routine use, you can develop a beautiful patina.
Wax polish (either neutral or also tinted with color) can also be applied to provide additional protection, especially at the toes and heels, and can be buffed to a mirror shine if desired. Again, Saphir makes a great line of wax polishes. I won’t go into detail on the process of shining shoes… There are many methods that can be easily found with a quick internet search, as well as good videos online showing master shoe shiners at work. Have fun figuring out what method works best for you!
Leather cleaners, like Saphir’s “Reno’Mat”, can be used occasionally to deep clean the pores within leather, to remove deposits of silicone and resin from cheaper polishes, as well as accumulated dirt and grime. These cleaners/strippers are also effective at removing polish that has previously been applied (in case you don’t like a darker polish that has been applied, etc.)This type of care should only be done on rare occasions, and should be followed with application of a high-quality leather conditioner and polishing regimen, as described above. Make sure to test this product on a small, unseen area of leather, to ensure there are no ill-results of use on your particular pair of shoes. This is a strong product, and it can strip the finish off of cheaper leathers or delicate finishes. Also beneficial, a product like Reno’Mat is effective for cleaning accumulated polish off of horse-hair brushes.
When it becomes evident that your outsoles have reached the end of their useful life, high quality footwear can often be easily re-soled and re-crafted. Often times high quality shoe makers offer re-crafting (which consists of not only re-soling, but stripping and re-finishing your leather uppers) in-house. Most reputable cobblers can also re-sole and/or re-craft high quality footwear as well. Just make sure you read reviews and know who you are entrusting with your footwear! There are a lot of really amazing before and after photos you can find online that demonstrate what a re-sole and re-craft can do for a pair of high quality footwear.
In summary, caring for your high quality footwear is an essential part of any gentleman’s routine. In time, I think you will find the process enjoyable, and will even come to appreciate your shoes more each time you put them on.
The methods and products described above are just some of the many options and techniques that you can employ to care for your footwear, and is by no means an exhaustive guide. I encourage you to explore additional options and advice, and find what works best for you! If you have techniques you currently employ, or products you recommend, please share them in the comments below. Up next, we will discuss caring for your suede footwear.