The Leather Magicians: In Conversation with Steven Skippen, Shoeshine UK
For the last twenty two years, Steven Skippen has been building an eminent reputation for his leather work, attracting a thirty thousand strong social media following and even working with some of the world’s top fashion brands – Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Fendi, Harrods amongst them.
While his company goes by the name Shoeshine UK, any client will tell you they’re more than just shoe shiners. Titles like patina artists and leather magicians align better with their work.
Steven can usually be found at The London Hilton on Park Lane, shining and repairing the shoes of well-heeled Londoners and visitors alike, but his deep experience with leather has also led to him making outbound house calls, receiving mail orders from international clients to repair shoes, trainers, jackets and bags, and even working on luxury car interiors.
Here at Marc Oliver, the work of Steven and Shoeshine UK has garnered tremendous respect. We know full well the effect that a great – and well-maintained – pair of shoes has on an outfit. So, we recently caught up with the man himself to hear about his work, his passion for leather, fashion trends, and as a bonus; his tips for investing in shoes and making them last.
Here’s how our conversation went.
You’ve been in the business for over two decades now. Tell us how it all started and your journey so far.
I actually used to work in advertising, but 22 years ago, I’d been made redundant. Frankly. I needed a quick job, so I started shining shoes at the Hilton. That quick job has now turned into a long-term career!
Back in the beginning most clients were from natural foot traffic – they were staying at the hotel and would pop down for a quick shine. Now however with the rise of social media and our Instagram @shoeshineuk growing rapidly, I get clients from all over the world to visit whilst also posting their items to me.
The Hilton is still my main location but I have traveled to private properties and done many events over the years, and we are always willing to discuss options if clients can’t make it to my location.
Talk us through your process. Is it a quick stop en route somewhere for most clients, or do you often have to take a few days to complete work?
I have many clients who pop by for a quick shine and others who send me specs for a five-tone patina – that’s quite literally a piece of art on a shoe and always a fun project.
Every process is unique, to be honest. I treat every new item differently from the last as each item has its own needs. Some shoes need just a shine and others need touching up with dyes before I shine them. Meanwhile, others need a complete strip down, re-dye, and polish.
There’s something special about leather – the way it’s hard-wearing but tells a story over time as the wearer takes it through their life. Give us your thoughts on this as someone who works with it every day.
As a patina artist the way that leather ages intrigues me. Sometimes the oldest shoes can look the most beautiful due to the natural ageing of the leather. Just like a fine wine, leather improves both aesthetically and in comfort the older it gets.
Patina is, in effect, the acceleration of that natural process for clients that haven’t got time to wait for natural ageing.
Each pair of shoes ages differently and that’s the wonder of good leather as they all tell their own story.
No doubt you see a lot of well-dressed people in your day to day. To what extent would you say the shoes can make or break a good outfit?
I personally feel that the shoes you wear define your whole outfit. Wearing a £10,000 Savile Row suit is pointless if you finish it off with a pair of Shoezone shoes. The amount of people I see with grubby or even filthy shoes on my travels whilst wearing full business attire is a bit of a sad reflection of how some standards are dropping.
What shoes are people wearing these days? What would you recommend personally?
The most popular shoes these days are completely different from when I first began in the industry. No longer do you see people in clumpy Church’s, which to be fair are overpriced considering that they’re inferior to what they once were. These days it’s all about sleek and slender – shoes that make a statement that a true shoe aficionado looks for.
For a more casual look, I’d go for the Gaziano & Girling Savoy in a patina of the client’s choice and for a business suit, I’d recommend a classic city two Oxford from John Lobb.
And what about the leather?
Calf leather. It’s both strong and very flexible, and it ages the best. Other options are cordovan leather which lasts a lifetime however it’s much tougher and the styles aren’t as beautiful as calf leather.
Finally, let’s talk about taking care of shoes. What would you recommend to keep our shoes in like-new condition for as long as possible?
Keeping your shoes moisturised is paramount. Once they start to crack due to neglect it’s hard to ever get them back to the same condition. Both Saphir and Bootblack offer wonderful products for all your shoe care needs. I actually apply my products by hand to penetrate the leather rather than just treating the surface which using a brush does. I’d also recommend avoiding off-the-shelf quick shine sponges because they dry the leather and leave skin that slowly suffocates the leather.
Concentrate on the side of the soles and back of heels as much as the uppers. Use a toothbrush to clean the welts as this removes all hidden dust and dirt. Add your polish, preferably a wax and oil-based polish with low chemical content, build up one layer at a time, let it dry then add another and try to get a smooth application. Personally, I use Saphir Medaille d’Or for this. Build up the layers from the toe in a circular motion and blend into the welt and sides of the shoe.
Watch Steven’s 7 step tutorial on polishing shoes below