Words and portraits: Lee Osborne

TheBeardedBuffer_1lo Shining example

The resurgence of shoe shining is no better epitomised than in the vicinity of
Bow Lane in London’s East End where the ‘Bearded Buffer’ is gaining a bit of
reputation for himself

One of the joys of social media is that you discover fascinating like-minded people in your field of interest. Marc Debieux, shoe shine aficionado, neo-dandy of French-Swiss descent is one such example and hands down the smartest West Ham fan I know. He plies his trade selling and buffing, at the tiny Joseph Cheaney & Sons store within earshot of St. Mary-le-Bow church (as in the one immortalised by children’s nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons) in original cockney heartland. His shoe artistry had already caught my eye on instagram. From his before and after picture postings, arguably some of the finest re-conditioned shoe porn in existence.

I’d marvelled at how he’d brought his customers shoes back from the brink. I just had to get myself down to Bow Lane to meet the man otherwise known as the Bearded Buffer, and hand over my trusted tan chukka boots for their second coming. (Check out the results below, I am one happy customer).

Marc is a man who not only works with his hands, he talks with them too. If I was the MD of Cheaney I’d sign him up for life. For he is a true ambassador, consciously and subconsciously evangelising Northamptonshire shoe artisanship in every breath, extolling the virtues of an oak bark sole or goodyear welt, a man brimming with pride for the job he does. You very much sense that for him the job is a hobby he just happens to get paid for.

What I like about Marc is that it’s not just about the shoe. Sure, he has all the sales patter you’d expect from a store manager, but he genuinely cares for his customer’s needs and articulates advice very profoundly. His dapper sense of style, think wool suits, tartan ties and natty pocket squares, are the mark of a man with his finger firmly on the sartorial pulse. As his cropped pants testify, he’s a man not afraid of showing a bit of “mankle”. A trait that naturally leads the eye to focus more on his his double monk straps and iridescent socks.

One particular customer came in for some brown brogues for his wedding. After sitting him down in the window seat and pouring him a glass of scotch, as Marc does for all his customers that are au fait to imbibe (a Glenfarclas in this instance) he was quick to point out that they’d look as sharp with his wedding suit as they would afterwards with a cavalry twill or Donegal tweed. Shoes like these needn’t be a one hit wonder. Cheaney’s are timeless investment pieces, built to last, so keep on wearing them, regardless of your outfit. But be sure to heed one of the Bearded Buffer’s hallmark pieces of advice – use shoes trees. Not only will they help soak up moisture but will help maintain the shape of the shoe for greater longevity.

What’s more, with Marc’s ongoing shoe maintenance (he is very insistent you make regular trips back to the store so he can continue his love-ins with your shoes, leaving you to further explore his single malts) they’ll be regularly revived. It’s the footwear equivalent of having your car serviced indefinitely without having to pay for it.

I caught up with him, between fittings, bristle brushes and beeswax, to find out what goes on behind that immaculately manicured facial hair of his…

Sartorialee: Talk me through the buffing process you applied to my chukka boots?
Bearded Buffer: The first part of the process is to clean the boots and strip the old polish. Brush down with a good horse hair brush to remove any loose dirt and dust, then use saddle soap to clean the leather removing any surface grease and dirt. Use clear beeswax next to remove any old stubborn polish. Then it is important to re-hydrate the leather, I apply Saphir Renovator with a cloth and leave to soak in for about an hour before brushing down. Then we get to the polishing, I used a bit of cotton rag and applied the beeswax polish in circular motion all over the boot, not forgetting to use a welt brush to polish the welts and sole. I then like to leave the polish on over night before brushing off the next day to release the shine.

BEFORE and AFTER…what a difference Before&after

Then comes the magic… using my index finger wrapped in the cotton rag I set about creating the mirror shine, small circular motions over the shoe with just a bit of polish, then a drop of water, repeating the process until you reach the desired result. I used a mix of Dark Brown, light tan and clear beeswax polish to create the final colour patina, using the Dark Brown at the toe area to give a burnished finish and helping to disguise the marks and scars near the toe. The whole process was done over 3 days allowing for creams and polish to soak in with around 3 hours application time.

S: How long does it take and how many applications are required?
The amount of polishing varies greatly. I offer the service for customers, whether its a old pair of shoes or a new purchase. Most customers appreciate the extra shine and if they have time to leave them for a few days they normally request the polish at time of purchase. If someone is buying shoes for a special occasion it is almost a certainty that they will want the shine.

S: I know it’s a free service, but how many clients tip you?
BB: I offer the complimentary service as a nice way to build relationships and say thanks to my customers. I don’t encourage or seek tips but my Scotch collection has certainly grown since I started the service… BeardedBuffer_3lo

S: How did you first get in to shoes?
BB: I left school with no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life, after a couple of years working in a sports shop I got a job with Clarks in Regent Street and just loved the interaction you could have with customers when selling footwear. I recognised the influence you have when selling shoes over any other item, this is all because there is no self service. You have to bring a selection of styles based on the information the customer gives, this and the aspect of sitting with the customer and finding the perfect fit started my passion with footwear. I then moved to Russell & Bromley in Bond Street where the store manager Mr Antony Katz took me under his wing, he put me in charge of the menswear section. Then moving to Oliver Sweeney, working very closely with the then Retail Manager Rod Hardman and Oliver himself. Rod had incredible enthusiasm and energy, he taught me everything about customer service and retail. I still use a lot of the practices he taught me today. Working with Oliver was a real privilege, he really opened my eyes to the different possibilities within mens footwear. He had incredible vision and artistic flair, every design had a back story and a sense of fantasy which I loved.

S: Do you have any particular favourite type of shoe that you love to buff?
BB: I love buffing Wholecuts (one piece of leather) particularly if they are in the more interesting colours. Cheaney have recently released them in Olive Green and Burgundy. I prefer to use different colour polishes, generally with a darker burnish, like I did with your chukka boot. This really transfers to the whole cut as it is a clean canvas to work on.

S: And any that make your heart sink when the client presents them for buffing?
BB: If it’s a high shine leather or a corrected grain it’s less fun. Due to the coating on the leather you can’t penetrate the pores so you can only bull a shine but not add colour or depth.

S: Describe your own personal style…and any influences
BB: I have quite an eclectic style and like to mix trends depending on how I’m feeling. Firstly I like to dress from the shoes up, I build my days outfit once Ive decided on what shoes I’m wearing. If its my wholecuts then sharper tailoring with cravats. Country boots then salvage denim or cropped trousers. Loafers, then most likely to go preppy with chinos and shawl collared cardigans. I like to use accessories to keep outfits fresh. Ties, cravats, ( Drakes is my current obsession ! ) braces, glasses and hats completely change the outfit from one day to the next.

S: Favourite shoe destination?
My wife has booked a trip to Paris in June, where I will drag her around all the French shoe houses. I can’t wait to see the elegance and flair of brands like JM Weston, Berluti, Corthay and Aubercy. It will be interesting to see how it compares to Jermyn Street in Mayfair which is my favourite place in London (well, just behind Bow Lane…) BeardedBuffer_4

S: Favourite brands and styles of shoe?
It really helps that I work for one of my favourite brands in footwear, Cheaney. It is so exciting what we are producing at the moment and have the perfect mix of strong classics and more experimental designs coming through for SS15. For clothing, I have just had my first taste of bespoke tailoring at Choppin & Lodge in Cornhill (Bank) and it’s safe to say I’m addicted!!

S: If one shoe could define you, what would it be?
BB: The correspondent two tone brogue. It is flamboyant and bold using contrasting colours or materials but still very classic and refined in the structure of a brogue. BeardedBuffer_5lo

Be sure to pay Marc a visit at:

Joseph Cheaney & Sons 8 Bow Lane London, EC4M 9EB

Tel  0207 236 4899

Instagram + twitter: @BeardedBuffer