For a surprisingly large set of men, particularly Frenchmen, who care about beautiful shoes, an artificial patina is, with apologies to Mr. Bungle, the sweetest taboo. Layers of shading and subtle hints of contrasting colors suggest decades of polish. That connotes not just history but heritage, so it is no accident that other writers have compared this effect to the depth of tone on a fine antique. And the process of creating such surface depth is indeed called antiquing. On a new shoe, it’s care unearned: the addition of dyes and polishes, often burnished in with a buffing wheel, confer the character of time without cracks or wrinkles. Those opposed to it argue that a shoe should age naturally, without such elaborate and exaggerated gimmicks.
One form of antiquing compounds the taboo to the irredeemable: the bleaching of darker leathers to approximate custom shoe samples slowly faded by wan English sunlight in London shop windows over a lifetime. One old English shoemaker is notorious for this, its samples head-turningly gorgeous, almost chameleon-toned from sun and polish. They’re so gorgeous that the maker came up with a way to replicate this sun-bleaching on new shoes. But creating this sort of patina new requires first stripping off the shoe’s polish and discoloring the leather with chemicals before reapplying dyes and polishes to attain an irregular, faded patina with hints of bone-white and fleeting, decadent tones.
Some shoemakers refuse to do this to their new shoes. The irrepressible Dimitri Gomez told me the process burns the leather and compromises its integrity. Why take years off of the life of a shoe? I filed his advice away, far away, as I proceeded with an experiment: antiquing and polishing new black shoes so that their very fading and bleaching could be mistaken for the gleam of a mirror-polished shine. With the addition of flat black ribbon laces, these would take the place of the usual patent leather or black plain toe oxfords to wear with black tie, although in truth I had very little call to wear a tuxedo anyway even before this spring. But fantasy, not utility, the pleasure of an indulgent experiment, is the motivating force of dandyism.
Exploring a fantasy can help dispel the mythology that has crept up around all aspects of #steez, particularly in shoemaking. Patination and antiquing can be done to any decent properly tanned leather, not just the proprietary leather certain shoe brands boast of using. Nor does it take secret specialist unguents to recolor the leather – waxes and polishes are fine, although some companies also sell dyes you can use. Along with the original foolhardiness that spurred me to do this, bleaching does take, though, time and caution.
Acetone and bleach were my extremely suspect friends, used sequentially and never together. Acetone is a powerful solvent, as well as a carcinogen, and as such I worked in a well-ventilated place, with latex gloves, and masks that I then put away until some months ago. It took some effort for the acetone to begin removing the original flat black color of the shoes. Once it had done so, and after letting the shoes rest, I again masked up and used the bleach to further lighten the shoes. After stripping most of the color from the toe, instep and rear quarters, I began to reapply polish and wax in many, many coats. Mostly black, I also added hints of green and purple. Gradually they went from the creepy bone-and-black of a Dead Can Dance album cover to dark with hints of light, polished and burnished first with cloths, then a buffing mitt, then a piece of silk (that or nylon can bring out extra shine in shoes, according to a shoemaker I once used).
After that expenditure of time and effort, I couldn’t help but find the results, as they emerged, rewarding. Today they rest on display on an old trunk in my study, taking in some extra sun for some natural fading and patina. They rest, like other pieces of former self, since I haven’t worn them or any other shoes but sneakers, since confinement began. Are they even hopes for a return to more resplendent occasions? We now live with daily reminders that simplicity, the absence of all the draining time and effort that needs to be put into tasks like patination, is the greatest luxury. For now they are sublime and strange artifacts, as if that former self were even a different species from today’s polo-clad, homebound drudge, acutely aware that subsistence and survival are today’s luxuries comparable to the whimsical tuxedo shoes of yesteryear.