Ever since I was at school, the Sunday night ritual of popping open a tin of Kiwi shoe polish and slowly breaking that mirror-black surface to unleash the heady scent of carnauba wax has held a Proustian quality. But on this particular autumnal evening, with my tired-looking boots sitting accusingly in front of me, my trusty old tin of Kiwi was nowhere to be found.
After a fruitless hunt around the house, I went online to buy some more and hit a wall: “Out of Stock”. On Twitter, I stumbled upon a thread in which men of a certain age and background (public school, military, City) noted their own vain efforts to track it down. “After weeks of fruitless searching in supermarkets for the iconic little black tins, I’ve just bought the last three in my local shoe shop,” wrote one, a military historian. “But the shop owner says there’ll be no more.”
There was a pained tone to these tweets, a fear. Was this the beginning of the end of polished shoes? The ravens — or Kiwis — leaving the tower of sartorial standards and signalling a wider malaise in the process?
Kiwi polish was invented by an Australian called William Ramsay. (His wife, Annie, was a New Zealander, hence the product’s name.) He sold his first tin of polish in 1906 and it took off when soldiers in the British and US armies adopted it during the first world war. In 1984, the brand was acquired by the Sara Lee Corporation, the consumer goods company best known for its frozen food. Yet despite Kiwi’s ubiquity, sales were sluggish and the company attempted a $2mn marketing blitz in 2004 with questionable lines such as “Unpolished shoes are the open fly of footwear”. The brand was sold on to SC Johnson, the Wisconsin-based company that also owns cleaning, pest control and storage brands Mr Muscle, Raid and Ziploc, in 2011. In Britain today, Kiwi is practically synonymous with shoe polish.
I contacted a customer service rep for SC Johnson to find out what was going on. “After a thorough evaluation, SC Johnson (SCJ) has decided to exit the Shoe Care business in the UK in order to redirect our investments and resources to the company’s strategic businesses and initiatives,” the rep replied over email. “With this decision, Kiwi will no longer be distributed by SCJ in this market.”
A spokesperson later added that the company had seen “a rise in casual shoes that don’t require formal polishing and an overall decrease in consumers polishing their shoes in the UK, but that it would continue to remain active in markets “where formal shoe care remains relevant”.
I was stunned, and sad too. As if Britain hadn’t already lost some of its shine in recent months thanks largely to a series of (mainly self-inflicted) knocks, polished shoes were now deemed irrelevant in this sceptred isle.
Britain, I thought, was like one of those traders photographed after the collapse of Lehman Brothers; here we now stood on the cold damp pavement outside the EU, battered by the chill wind of inflation, in a pair of tatty unpolished shoes with a hole in their sole and clutching a cardboard box containing our treasured possessions (a trade agreement with Australia, a framed photo of an iceberg lettuce). Could it really be that things were so bad we’d given up even caring for our appearance?
If anyone was keeping the side up, it’s the barristers, I thought. “We generally do our best to look smart in court,” agrees Ben Seifert, a human rights lawyer at Temple Garden Chambers. “But the judge can’t necessarily see your feet stuck under a desk. I wear black shoes — Loakes — and I keep on meaning to polish them,” he says. “But I haven’t done it for years.” There’s a pause. “I was looking at the King’s shoes the other day and they are beautifully polished,” he offers, hopefully. “So there’s obviously someone still using shoe polish . . . ”
If anyone knows the state of Britain’s shoe leather it’s Romi Topi, founder of TopShine in Burlington Arcade, who has been deftly polishing the shoes of London’s well-heeled for more than 20 years. “Covid-19 has definitely changed the culture of what people wear at the moment,” he says. “We’ve gone into that trend of being too casual. People work from home and those few days that they are working in the office, they look like they’re just coming out from the gym. The City is more like a university campus now.”
Topi, who has been based on Piccadilly for 16 years and last year set up an outpost in the Royal Exchange in the City of London, grew up using Kiwi and was taught how to polish his shoes by his father. In recent years, however, he’s started selling his own brand of TopShine polish (£10 for a 50ml tin) and cleaning equipment from his stand and also online via Amazon. However, sales since Covid have plummeted: “We used to sell so many shoe polishes and suede cleaning products and creams but in the last few years it’s dropped dramatically. Now Amazon is returning my products because there’s not enough sales.”
He does, however, sense a shift in attitude as people want to make their shoes last. “Now we’re going back to basics when we buy quality, not quantity.” He gets younger men coming to him with their new shoes still in the box, wanting them polished — but also wanting to learn the fine art of shoe care.
Topi has also adapted his services to embrace new footwear trends: in addition to polishing leather shoes (£8) and cleaning suede (£12), he now also offers a trainer service (£15).
The move was sparked in part by the arrival in Burlington Arcade of luxury footwear specialist Kick Game in 2020. Here, exclusive trainers can cost thousands of pounds. “If people are paying £3,000 for Nikes,” Topi figured, “surely they will be interested to know how to clean them.”
It’s a trend confirmed by the department store John Lewis, which has recently updated and streamlined its shoe care range. “As well as traditional lines like shoe polish, we’ve introduced trainer care — reflecting the move to more casual styles,” says Charlotte Brown, a buyer for John Lewis. Waitrose, meanwhile, is extending the number of stores that sell shoe-care products, and has seen sales increase sixfold.
John Lewis stocks British-made Cherry Blossom (£1.55 for a 40g tin), while the likes of Dr Martens, Grenson, Loake and Church’s all sell their own branded polishes, creams and cleaning equipment.
Perhaps the shine hasn’t completely come off, just yet.
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