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These Shoes Might Be Boring, But They’re The Latest Cult A-list Buy

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I might as well state the obvious. This is not a pretty shoe. But revolutions often start from the feet up, so why should a shift in the way we think about beauty, comfort, fashion (the three are not always synonymous) and the wider impact of what we wear, be any different?

Shoes have always been a harbinger of change. Imagine dodging the sewage of Paris in January in bare feet. If you were lucky, you might share some clogs with your 13 siblings, but really, that’s not the basis of an egalitarian society, is it? Et voila, the French Revolution.

Cherchez la shoe. Charles I’s inability to get to grips with this fundamental truth meant he took to wearing pom-pom bedecked mules.

Not a good look as far as parliament was concerned and he ended up on the scaffold. Louis XIV teetering around in heels subsequently named after him was another symbol of decadence – and a dynastic disaster waiting to happen. And so it continues, throughout history.

Upper class Chinese women in children’s sized shoes that only fitted because their feet had been bound (an innocuous word for bloody and bone-breaking mutilation) were a sure sign that sooner or later, several hundred million would rise up in irritation, if not nihilistic rage, ready to avenge their sex.

The shoe is deeply symbolic of all kinds of subconscious ferment. When Fragonard wished to portray wantonness he didn’t paint another topless lovely but a mischievous young woman bouncing around on a swing, one shoe flying off a dainty extended foot in the direction of a lascivious looking older man.

Perhaps even more than the sex, fetishes and socio economics, what’s really odd about shoes, is how uncomfortable so many still are, and how, a century after we unlaced our corsets, so many of us have been prepared to tolerate shoes that are downright painful.

“Shoes seemed the ideal place for us to tackle everything we wanted to change,” says Tim Brown, a former national soccer player in New Zealand, alumnus of the London School of Economics and co-founder of Allbirds, makers of something that is part sneaker, part jazz-shoe, part old-man slipper, but not really like anything you’ve seen before. The upper is made from top grade merino mule from New Zealand and Australia (from sheep that haven’t been mulesed) and milled in Italy (and also sourced by Tom Ford for his suits). The sole contains sugar cane derivatives and, unlike other casual footwear, no petrochemicals. The laces are recycled plastic. Brown is particularly proud of this because even though it squeezed their margins and everyone told them they were mad to insist on it, they did. Will the finished shoe, designed by an ex-Tom Dixon product designer, give Manolo Blahnik sleepless nights? Possibly not, despite being tweaked 27 times. But it’s oddly engaging.

This is precisely where Brown and American co-founder Joey Zwillinger, an engineer and renewables expert, were aiming. As a national soccer player, Brown had been showered with product from his sponsors Nike and adidas. “Nothing wrong with their product but their business model is predicated on constant change and bigger and bigger logos,” he says. “There’s a general assumption in leisure wear that progress is about adding stuff, when often it should be about subtraction.” Brown and Zwillinger were intent on doing something that looked simple (they call it “the right amount of nothing”) and challenging the prevailing mindset that comfort was “somehow a dirty word, something only old people are bothered about”. Their desire to be as sustainable as possible inevitably turned this into the most complex project of their lives. “It’s mad isn’t it,” muses Brown, “we can put people on the moon but we still haven’t come up with a shoe that, at the end of its life, you can bury in the garden?”

Allbirds aren’t quite there yet either, but they’re much further down the path than most of the other shoe brands.

I first came eye to eye with a pair when my Kiwi sister arrived in London last summer in a pale grey style she referred to as “runners” (I let it pass; she’s gone native). She only ever took them off to sleep or chuck in the washing machine (she says the spin cycle improves the shape, as it does baggy denim and, according to Brown, she’s right). They were perfect for a heatwave, since merino naturally wicks away moisture and is soft enough to wear without socks.

By the time she left, I wanted my own, as well as to feature them on these pages, but back in June, Allbirds weren’t shipping to the UK.

Four months later, they’re not only shipping, they’ve just opened their first store in Covent Garden, spiritual home of hip brands that look like start-ups. Allbirds is still a baby, having launched just over two years ago. But by word of foot, they’ve become a cult. Oprah, Gwyneth, Emma Watson, Cindy Crawford and Randy Gerber, Amy Adams, Barack Obama (and my sister) are fans. Leonardo DiCaprio was so impressed, he invested in the company.

They recently sold their millionth pair of runners (a term Brown’s wife also takes issue with, since, as she legitimately points out, they were not designed for running, although in fairness they also have loungers and skippers). Having just secured a further £38 million of investment, the company is now valued at a billion dollars. High stakes for something that chimes with many fashionable themes that might, as is the way with fashion, prove ephemeral. “I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on trends,” says Brown. “All I know is that 40 years ago my dad would come home from the office, switch off and change out of his suit into something more comfortable.

“Now, with the demarcation between work and leisure increasingly blurred, casual, comfortable clothing seems less like a fad and more a fact of life.”

Kate Spade’s Death Is A Lesson In The Price Of Illusion

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I was standing in the immigration queue at JFK when the news of Kate Spade’s suicide flashed on the TV screens in the hall there. It was all the more shocking because, even if you don’t believe in that ultimately empty trope about having it all, Spade, one of the fashion industry’s more discreet, more down-to-earth individuals, really did seem to have a lot: husband (and business partner) she’d been married to for 24 years, a longed-for child, one business empire already behind her- she cashed out approximately $94 million from Kate Spade- and a nascent label, Frances Valentine, named for her daughter, which she launched in 2015.

At 55 she seemed in her prime.

They’re quite brutal about news delivery in the US. It’s infotainment red in tooth and claw. Snatches of the suicide note she left to her 13 year old daughter Frances Beatrix Spade (“This has nothing to do with you. Don’t feel guilty. Ask your dad”), footage of her body being carried out of the Manhattan apartment block where the Spades lived, complete with selfie-snapping onlookers….all in ad-friendly bite sizes.

Waiting for the passport stamp, I looked up an interview I did with Kate in 2003, parsing it for any clues of the darkness to come. Ghost seeking.

When we met she was delightfully upbeat and strikingly approachable, although for someone who was cheerleading the world into its first steps towards wearing colour after a decade of monochrome, she wore an awful lot of black. When I asked her the question that all women asked (how to incorporate colour into your life), she sweetly suggested a big coloured ring. “Because for a lot of people, colour’s quite scary. You have to take it slowly.” Was this some kind of prophetic metaphor?

Flashbacks to Alexander McQueen’s suicide- in 2010 he too hanged himself – and L’Wren Scott’s suicide in 2014 are inevitable. What about John Galliano’s crazy apparently alchohol-fuelled and self-destructive anti-semitic rant in 2011? Or Claude Montana’s tormented and tormenting relationship with his wife and muse Wallis Franken Montana, which ended when she killed herself in 1996 – a scandal from which his reputation never recovered. And who can forget the tragic early death of fashion stylist Isabella Blow in 2007 after suffering from depression for years and becoming concerned about her career waning?

The journalist Michael Gross famously described the fashion industry as a place filled with beautiful people and ugly deeds. By their private and often suppressed nature, it’s impossible to say whether depression and despair are any more rife in fashion than in other industries. One of the desperately sad aspects to emerge from this latest tragedy was Kate’s sister Reta Saffo saying that the designer’s death was not unexpected and that the pressure of having a famous brand may have both caused her bipolar disorder and also stopped her from getting treatment. “We’d get so close to packing her bags, but in the end, the ‘image’ of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out,” she told the Kansas City Star.

Yes, the pressures of fashion are immense and public – but that’s also true if you’re a surgeon, a politician or a single parent holding down three jobs. It’s also true that the relentless fixation on surface means there’s an inherent unwillingness to grapple with deeper truths.

The disconnect between being a glazed style plate and the messy reality of being human, add to the weight, sometimes to an unbearable degree. Maintaining a glaze of perfection at all times becomes as much as part of the job as anything else.

Let’s not forget the self-reinvention that is one of fashion’s immutable rules for career advancement. Whether it’s enhancing one’s early childhood to make it seem more aristocratic (a favourite among older-school designers) or emphasising gritty episodes to flesh out a street-cred image, designers especially, often feel they need a dramatic back-story to attract interest and many end up feeling trapped by the contradictions.

André Leon Talley, the cape-wearing, larger than life eminence who for decades abseiled the heights of Mount Fashion as an editor-at-large on American Vogue, last month railed to The New York Times about the way fashion doesn’t care for its people.

Reaction to his comments were mixed, but he certainly encapsulated a tension that whilst not unique in fashion, can be toxic: that of needing to look glossy, successful (read rich) and connected, even when you’re lonely and isolated in a hotel room on peripatetic schedule that would defeat most nomads.

For the most eloquent disquisition on isolation and superficiality, read Joan Juliet Buck’s recent autobiography. Buck, once a mink-and-Cartier-swathed editor-in-chief on French Vogue (and also Von Ackermann’s one time boss – the two did not get on), was eventually “let go” amidst rumours of a number of personal problems. Buck is notably hazy on the details but searingly lucid on how in-thrall she was to the outward trappings of a successful fashion career. The title of her book, The Price of Illusion, says it all.

Interestingly, it has been mooted that Spade may have had financial worries. The same was said of L’Wren Scott, a state of affairs which if true, would have been all the more worrying to Scott whose brand was all about expensive aspiration.

But even rooting a label in a Gothic sensibility, as Lee McQueen did, is no inoculation against external expectations. Those death-obsessed, poetically dark shows of his might have been cathartic, but in the end he still yielded to the demands of being McQueen.

Kate Spade’s business and persona were predicated on a sunny, upbeat quintessentially American interpretation of chic. As the tributes on social media and the floral offerings laid outside the 200-plus Kate Spade stores across the world suggest, her playful but ultimately pragmatic aesthetic touched millions of women. Her death, however, is a reminder that outward glamour is, by definition, a chimera. We should all, in an age of endless self-branding, be wary of the price of illusion.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

When TV offers a more thought provoking take on women’s clothes than designers, it’s time to hit refresh


Most people in decent societies would agree (above the line at least) that a woman should be able to wear whatever she likes without being jumped on. But, as we’re finally beginning to acknowledge publicly, what we wear has consequences.

Clothes matter. They can offend in their sloppiness, their ostentatiousness and their lack (or excess) of modesty. Alternatively, they can seduce entire nations, as when a visiting Duchess wears a maple leaf hat in Canada, or a First Lady chooses British for a rendez-vous in London. Read More…