Swellboy on… patination

Will our man’s new suede shoes be to-dye-for?

Image: Brijesh Patel

The patination of suede shoes is not a subject to which I have tended to devote much serious thought. If you believe that I am capable of serious thought, that is…

When it comes to suede, Cape Buck, reverse calf, stagskin – call it what you will – I have tended to take a fairly monochrome approach. By this I mean that, while I have suede shoes in a number of colours, from cherry to ginger, encompassing tangerine, apple and various other fruity pigments, they have tended to be of an even shade.

Eric Cook is the genius who makes the best of my shoes, and I still wear the first pair he made for me 20 or so years ago: some fabulous suede ankle boots. They are the perfect example of the marriage of great materials with even greater craftsmanship. Their long nap took a little bit of getting used to, but the lightest touch of the suede brush restored them to an almost pristine condition and, amortised over the years, they are getting cheaper with every passing day.

While Eric remains the single greatest shoemaker it has been my privilege to work with, I am still learning about the potential for self-expression that is offered by bespoke shoes. The combined efforts of Xavier de Royère and Pierre Corthay (the Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent of couture men’s footwear – an analogy that extends only as far as their business relationship) have turned the cumbersome machinery of my mind in the direction of patinated suede.

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I was quite frankly astonished, upon visiting the Corthay HQ just behind the Rue de la Paix, to be offered the option of having my suede shoes patinated. I say “my” suede shoes, but the pair was as yet unmade.

I must have passed out from the shock of this new option, because I suddenly found myself lying on the floor being fanned with sheets of soling leather as two young shoemakers tried to revive me.

I was first introduced to the world of patination by the great Yann Debelle de Montby when he was just plain Yann Debelle and went by the official title of ambassador – a nebulous job description that suited his work in the UK on behalf of the Berluti shoe brand. The ambassador lived a life beyond the Ferrero Rocher dream and he turned what is now the upper floor of the recently and spectacularly refurbished Berluti shop on Conduit Street into a sort of ambassadorial residence/cabinet of curiosities. He was always offering to patinate things for me, and it was only the other day that the last of my Debelle-era patinations (a shoehorn) was destroyed by my older son. However, Yann had only dared to patinate calfskin, usually by applying dark polish to lighter-brown shoes. It was, I believe, a principle that Olga Berluti had picked up from the Duke of Windsor, who used to order dark-brown shoes, to which he applied black shoe polish.

The patination of suede is a different matter altogether and requires a much braver approach. It is not the gradual process of accreting various layers of polish, but rather a question of applying pigment and being happy with the result, because nothing much can be done once the colour has been put on.

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I am not sure I have quite the emotional strength required to live on the knife edge that this process demands, so in the end I ordered a pair of unpatinated pink suede shoes. Nevertheless, if they get unintentionally spattered with that most noble of beverages Coke Zero, it is reassuring to think that I can return them for patination at a later date.

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