Confessions of a shoe artist

August 31, 2016

Ten frequently asked questions about antiquing shoes that I received from all my readers. I apologize if I did not answer when asked….I just wanted to compile all of them and to respond in one go.

(1) Why do people antique shoes?

The short answer is shoes without antiquing all look rather bland and characterless. It doesn’t matter whether it is a cheap or very expensive bespoke shoe…it’s not an issue of prestige, pedigree or even price….ALL shoes straight out of the box are quite characterless. The function of antiquing is to highlight and amplify the richness, texture and grain of the leather thereby giving it depth, mystery and a narrative…it’s a transformative process where if done right, it adds sophistication, style and story.

(2) What is the history of shoe antiquing?

There are many accounts. But this I consider the most convincing. It first began during WW1, when soldiers regularly applied dubbin on their army issued boots to waterproof them in water logged trenches. Since military issued dubbin only came in black and not in neutral or tan. This created a contrast between tanned leather. In the latter stages of WW1 when warring nations began to suffer from materiel shortages resulting in acute shortage of full scalp leather to form full length boots. Field wear at the front was relaxed considerably to even allow for waxed cotton putties and leather gaiters to be worn with boots and in the case of the British even country brogues. After the war, cobblers continued to offer the dubbin service. That is the reason why traditional antiquing styles emphasis highlights on the toe cap, vamp and erector region of a shoe as these are the areas that require the highest level of waterproofing. Today antiquing has nothing whatsoever to do with waterproofing and is purely done for the cosmetic effect.

(3) What must be done before antiquing a shoe?

It should be worn by the owner normally for at least two weeks straight out from the box without any application of waxes, creams or any surface treatment. As this will stretch the grain of the leather and open up it’s pores at a cellular level to allow dyes to permeate fully during patînage. A failure to ‘run in’ the shoe before patînage will result in unsightly crack lines and color contrast and render high quality leather a processed look.

(4) Do I need to learn to maintain my shoes after antiquing?

Yes. And I would most definitely encourage you to do so in the name of furthering your education in the art of manliness…if nothing else. As patin is only a superficial surface treatment and not a dye ‘thru to thru’ leather treatment. Since shoes will invariably be exposed to the elements and daily wear and tear, it is perfectly normal for scuffing and scaring to occur. Most shoe dressers will ONLY patin 70% of a shoe and finish the rest off to create the final la effect with creams and polish. To maintain your antiqued shoes. You should be proficient in dyeing touch up and polishing techniques. This is the fun part as it gives the proud owner a certain degree of creative license to customize their shoes exactly the way they want to. I am a strong believer in empowering people.

(5) I have never antiqued my shoes before. What style should I best choose for my first pair?

This is a very subjective question. My recommendation is start off with an orthodox style that allows you first learn how to maintain your shoes without too much fuss. It’s like you first suit, charcoal is good to go…after that, then maybe a tweed or herringbone, but never before. Usually most shoe dressers will never advise first time customers to opt for unusual and unorthodox painting styles. As they are virtually impossible to maintain. An orthodox painting format emphasizes, three zones of a shoe for highlights, the toe cap, sides of vamp, eyelet wings and rear erectors. Usually the tongue of the shoe is not dyed to provide the novice with a guide as to how the leather original looks to allow him to adjust the shade and contrast.

Learn FIRST how to maintain your first pair of antiqued shoes. AFTER you have mastered this confidently only then do you proceed to more unorthodox designs. It’s useless to have a shoe that one cannot maintain with ease and confidence or is afraid to wear for fear of scuffing and scaring. Shoes are after all made to be worn.

(6) Do I need to send my shoes back for redyeing once the dye fades?

That’s not only unnecessary but it’s also hazardous to your investment. If it’s done right the first time – there should be no reason to rework your shoes a second time. Besides most reputable shoe dressers will never dress a shoe twice due to necessity to use corrosive chemicals during the pretreatment process. Once is acceptable, but twice threatens to dry out the leather and even destroy the threading. Shoes especially the bespoke (personalized lift) variety start at USD$3,000. The highest grained leather is used and they are expected to last a life time. Get it right the first time.

(7) Can I learn how to dress shoes from the internet?

In my humble opinion…No. For the simple reason shoe dressing is an apprenticed trade. It’s very niche and to exacerbate matters every Maison prides itself with it’s own unique style along with school of thought. It’s doubtful that you will ever be able to glean anything significant at all from just the internet as the unspoken rule is no one will ever share their trade secrets with you. If you want to learn this trade. You really have to start as an apprentice in a Maison under the supervision of a master. Conservatively it will take anywhere between two to three years before you will have the confidence to paint without any reservations. The main road block as I see it is getting a good master whose really serious about teaching you the craft instead of just exploiting you as a source of cheap labor.

(8) What is the most difficult aspect of this trade?

Establishing your branding presence and competence trust amongst the fraternity of shoemakers. Every shoe artist has a distinctive style and philosophy and unique work history that ultimately shapes his outlook. There’s no such thing as a supermarket service. Not that I am aware of. But most importantly custom shoemakers have to be internally convinced that if they entrust you with their valuable shoes. You are able to deliver consistently on the quality and delivery reliability without spiking their blood pressure. Ultimately business boils down to trust. In my case it took me the better part of nearly 15 to 20 years to establish rapport and I am still working at it till this day, it’s a continuous work in process. Even then it was a very slow and incremental rather than a revolutionary overnight process. Hence my style is heavily weighted towards the Japanese market that tends to favor a minimalistic and natural wabi sabi style that appeals to an ultra conservative crowd. That I feel is quite natural as it’s market driven. What’s important to emphasize here only because it is seldom ever discussed – is as a shoe artist I don’t really have a lot of latitude for creativity as an indelible part of my job requires me to take very specific instructions rather than do my own thing. That is perfectly understandable when one considers most Japanese shoemakers are very small set up’s that churn out less than six to eight pairs of shoes per month! So a pair of shoes can easily cost ten to fifteen thousand US, they’re never going to give you the artistic latitude you want to even experiment. It’s nothing personal. They just can’t afford too at that level of the game. Having said that it doesn’t mean my trade is necessarily corseted. Not at all. As there is yet another range of customers who insist on dealing with me directly. Only these happen to be die hard shoe cognoscenti’s who already know exactly what they want and so when they talk to me, it’s really just the discussion on the means to achieve their intend end. I am quite lucky as I happen to have a very good rapport many of my direct clientele who incidentally happen to be my friends. They seem to know a lot more about my trade than I do myself! So this enables me collaborate and learn with them to push the envelop of my craft further. I am always surprised by where I end up whenever we collaborate together…it’s always a joy and privilege to work with customers who take a serious interest in one’s craft.

(9) What is the strangest request you ever had?

To dress a shoe in the presence of the client who requested he be present when I worked on his shoes from beginning to end. The process took three days. I was provided lodgings and meals. All my gear had to arrive three days before I showed up to be checked off by security. I was not allowed to call anyone during my stay. When I showed up I was given a six hour briefing by his aide de camp on protocol along with do’ and don’t’s. One of which required me not to smoke which I objected too very strongly. As it interfered with my natural work rhythm. Eventually some happy compromise was hammered out. The client was very knowledgeable about my trade and most considerate to only ask questions in between intervals when I put my brush down. He remains today one of most loyal direct customers.

I think it’s always important in life to take care of your valued customers…by this I don’t mean just top drawer service only. Rather it involves sharpening one’s attitude from the transactional to relational – if on every occasion the client sees you and it’s really only about a quid pro quo or cui bono, that anyone can do. It’s a hit and run business model. No sustainability there. So a large part of my job involves education along with keeping discreet – the importance of respecting your clients, not gossiping and keeping one’s mouth shut tightly like an oyster.

If one always posting pics in the internet without their permission. That I feel can get very complicated, embarrassing and troublesome. Having the correct etiquette goes a very long way I reckon to establishing a long term relationship based on trust, respect and dignity.

(10) What do you consider the perfect antiqued shoe?

That’s really a loaded question that cannot be answered satisfactorily to satisfy all quarters. But if you ask for my subjective opinion – it has to be a pair of shoes that is so inconspicuous that it doesn’t really subtract from the rest of the ensemble. By this I mean, shoes are supposed to only compliment and not steal the whole show – if for any reason they’re so showy as to grab all the limelight, then in my book that has to be an epic fail….Ronald McDonald comes to mind!

That’s a bit like someone just appreciating your ears or nose singularly without really considering how those aspects of your other features such as the jawline, eyebrows, eyes and hairstyle combines together to create the whole package. For me the same philosophy of aesthetics applies to shoes as well, it has to all combine together seamlessly with the belt, shirt, pants, suit, tie and pocket square to all create a sartorially pleasing package.

I admit my philosophy of aesthetics is relatively narrow and conservative. As whenever possible I do strive to be as natural as possible.

It’s not unusual for example for me to dress the left shoe differently from the right…only because that is how most people typically acquire the impression of wear on their shoes, it’s never asymmetrical as it is very different.

So to me artistic form isn’t something contrived like a pattern or shape I simply conjure up in my head. I can for example see the beauty in criss cross lace lines impressions on leather or where the leather strains and protest in the vamp area only to amplify it further with dyes. Rather for me, beauty cannot exist without a complimentary philosophy otherwise it’s just eye candy and that can get rather vapid after a while. For beauty to acquire a magical quality, it has to be an accretion of function and so form always follows function – the emphasis to me at least is always on highlighting what’s already there in the shoe as opposed to adding something that’s foreign or not there. I feel this philosophy is what differentiates me from other shoe dressers. I am not saying I am better. Or even necessarily more thoughtful in my approach. But I believe that’s my speciality and you can even call it my style. There are many roads to Rome…I just happen to be one of many roads.

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