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September 5, 2014 5:12 pm
John Lobb, like James Bond, is a blunt name for something world-famously grand and English. It should be called Maximilian Beaumont-Cowles, I think, as I arrive at the Jermyn Street bootmaker for a tutorial in shoe maintenance. The class is a newly launched initiative by the store, and I am to be its first pupil.
Noel, the crisp and attentive store manager, ushers me past the display rows, where Oxfords and loafers (from £735) pose under tasteful lighting, their taut leather almost audibly breathing dignity. As we settle down in a back room, I anticipate a culture clash. Loyal to a nearby bootmaker at the bolshier end of the market, I have turned up in a pair of winkle-pickers the colour of blood.
But Noel is game, even murmuring his appreciation as he reads a line from “Sympathy for the Devil” that is etched into the leather. He then leads me through 90 minutes of assiduous work on an old pair of Lobbs. We brush off surface dirt, we apply cream with a softer brush, we coat the welts and wax the upper, we buff in small circles and scrub in long strokes, we dab our cloth in literally one drop of water and rub it into the waxed leather. We brush again.
Shine, I am told, is a question of effort, not technique. The more layers of wax, the more blinding the finish. I am rapt, and it is not until I return to my office, gazing into the harsh white of a computer screen, that I understand why. For a writer, or anyone who works in the service sector, the shoe-shining ritual is an escape into the tactile. My hands are just happy to be used.
It also feels faintly transgressive, as though the line between fastidious grooming and outright narcissism is being crossed with the fourth application of wax. And – there is no getting around this – the process is sexualised in a way that, say, ironing a shirt or brushing lint off a jacket is not. The leather, the strokes, the scent: there is even something called a buffing glove.
Then there is the thrill of communing with British history. “Metrosexual” is a neologism of perhaps 10 years’ standing but, in this country, it actually describes something very old. In no other nation except Italy has menswear been taken so seriously for so long, and by so many levels of society. This is the land of Beau Brummell – whose statue sneers at passers-by a few hundred yards from the John Lobb premises – and the mods, a country where even football hooligans wear Burberry and Pringle.
Nothing in this culture of peacocking is more cherished, more subject to one-upmanship, than our shoes. I am a veteran of the trainer wars of the mid-1990s, when Reebok Classics saw off Adidas Sambas to become the imperial power in school playgrounds. Now, at 32, everything I wear is high street-bought except for my shoes.
The cost justifies the hard work and sheer ceremony of keeping them in good order. But I would make the effort anyway because, really, it is about identity.
Hipsters and aristocrats see a shambling appearance as a mark of taste. But I am not a hipster or an aristocrat. I am a product of British male youth culture and the immigrant tradition of showing your best to the natives. In both these worlds, the point of getting dressed in the morning is to look richer than you are. You might not have a pair of Lobbs, or a goat’s hair brush to clean them with. But you get the best shoes you can, you fight to preserve their shimmer and, if someone calls you a flash git, you take the compliment.
Janan Ganesh is a political commentator for the FT
Photographs: Christian Sinibaldi
The John Lobb Shoe Care Service is available at John Lobb flagship stores for existing clients and, by special request, at the homes of John Lobb clients. www.johnlobb.com
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