On the disappearance of Kiwi shoe polish
The lack of interest in formal shoe care shows how Brand Britain is losing its shine
Recently, during one of my brief sorties into the world of daily news, I read an article which informed me that Kiwi shoe polish — mainstay of the formal shoe care sector for as long as I can remember — has chosen to withdraw from the UK market. The reasons given for this were the effects of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns, plus the inexorable rise in popularity of casual footwear like trainers.
Before it descended into the usual round of tiresome, repetitive Brexit whinging that seems to form the backbone of FT reporting these days, the article detailed the reasons for this decision. SC Johnson, the conglomerate which owns the Kiwi brand, had registered a remorselessly upwards trend in the UK for casual shoes that don’t require formal polishing. Leather shoes are no longer “in”. SC Johnson made clear that, despite withdrawing the classic shoe polish from UK shop shelves, it would continue to remain active in markets where formal shoe care remains common.
Whither Brand Britain?
Devoted customers in the UK who still want to use Kiwi shoe polish will of course still be able to order a tin off Amazon. I will still be able to get mine from supermarkets in Austria. Yet this new development says a great deal about how far modern Britain has moved away from the image which a lot of foreigners still associate with it.
Well-polished, good quality leather shoes are a part of Brand Britain. They put one in mind of James Bond, City traders in expensive, custom-made Savile Row suits, and King Charles arriving at a public engagement — his shoes shining brightly in the omnipresent English drizzle. Clean, shiny shoes are a hallmark of a person who takes pride in their appearance and who knows that clothes make the man (or woman). They signal a certain level of self-respect that goes a long way towards making a good impression on, and commanding the respect of, others. Do Converse trainers really broadcast the same message of pride and attention to detail? Not especially.
A commitment to keeping one’s shoes immaculately polished is also strongly associated with military personnel. At its core, this is a matter of simple practicality: soldiers need equipment which lasts and withstands the demands they place on it as part of the job. Properly caring for their footwear keeps it waterproofed and extends its useful life. Beyond that, the very act of polishing boots and shoes is an indispensable piece of the larger jigsaw of military mentality and culture — along with personal discipline, courtesy, and observing certain codes of conduct and honour.
Cleaning my shoes like Grandpa
That’s the route through which this activity likely entered my life and became a part of my own routine. My paternal grandfather, who had served during World War II, was a committed shoe polisher.
I suppose that the devotion to the practice was in part due to his career in civilian life — he had sold men’s suits and so was obliged to keep up a certain appearance as a professional obligation.
However, when I asked my parents why Grandpa cleaned his shoes so often and so thoroughly, they thought it was more to do with the discipline instilled in him during his time in the military. This seemed to fit: my Grandpa was a highly disciplined, very ordered man. Even when at home, he would dress properly. Ironed trousers with a flannel shirt; a pullover when it was cold. And he was always clean-shaven, Coal-Tarred, Old-Spiced and had his hair neatly combed (over, bless his heart). He was never, ever overweight.
When we played cards, untidy piles of discarded cards were not tolerated. Even at play, good order was paramount. He wasn’t all seriousness though. Although he never showed a lot of emotion outwardly, he giggled like a schoolboy when he watched Tom and Jerry cartoons on the telly. I loved him to bits and think of him often.
A precision operation
Watching Grandpa polish his shoes was a bit like watching a surgeon preparing for and then carrying out a complicated operation. For one, he never did this in the house. As a dirty task, it was consigned to the territory of the garage. And even there, setting up his things on the big wooden work bench, he spread out a sheet of newspaper to put everything on. Observing the performance, I wondered whether the paper was there to protect the rough, paint-splattered bench from the shoe-cleaning or the other way around.
Just as I do now, he would lay out the cleaning implements within easy reach: a tin of Kiwi shoe polish, a firm-bristled brush to apply the polish, and a larger, soft-bristled brush to remove excess polish and buff the shoes to a shine.
Massage the waxy polish into the leather, trying not to flick too much around. And don’t just apply it to the leather upper, but also around the sewn or crenelated “ledge” where the leather meets the sole — colour allowing. (To this day, I feel a wave of disappointment if I see that someone’s shoes are basically clean but they’ve missed out the ledges. These people are clearly up for cutting corners. Watch them carefully.)
Leave the shoes to stand a few minutes, then take the polishing brush and work over the shoes with generous, sweeping motions until they shine. Use a matchstick to poke out any polish from buckle holes and a cloth to remove it from metal details. Voilà! Beautiful, shiny shoes that you can feel proud to step out in.
A plea for formal shoe care
Performing this task not only reminds me of a much-loved Grandpa. I’m also investing time in making my things last longer, and thus reducing the amount of waste going into the environment. Furthermore, it’s an important element of taking care of my appearance. I’m not especially talented in matters of style and never quite feel free of scruffiness: having nicely polished shoes helps me to feel that bit tidier and more confident.
And it is precisely this that bothers me: the decrease in value Britons seem to place on such practices in favour of the casual, the disposable and the convenient. It makes me sad. Britain no longer seems to be a country of self-discipline, tidy, buttoned-up outfits and tidy, buttoned-up emotions. It is giving itself over to chaos, emotional incontinence, beer guts, trainers and joyless consumption.
This is what Brand Britain is becoming: less James Bond, more Vicky Pollard. A slobby, shabby country which has lost its self-control, its self-respect and — ultimately — itself.
Bring back looking tidy, even when you’re at home, I say. Bring back only eating and drinking as much as you really need (Christmas time excluded). Bring back buying a proper, good quality pair of shoes. And polishing them and taking care of them, as you take care of yourself.