And you thought bit loafers were polarizing? Precocious menswear buff Al Castiel III, a Boston University student spending his summer interning in New York in the Paul Stuart custom department, herein offers an ode to the dainty, delicate footwear specimen known as the Belgian Shoe.
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Just off the corner of Park Avenue lies a secret club of sorts, one that rarely advertises its existence and seems to be happily stuck in a bygone era. This club isn’t one of those old-boy institutions (even though some of those clubs’ members are lifelong patrons), but one of a sartorial nature. Earlier this summer I gladly became a part of the “Manhattan cognoscenti” when I slipped on my new Belgian Shoes.
While generally restricted to “post-collegiate” status, I couldn’t resist getting a pair of the soft-soled Mr. Casuals that I had long been lusting after. Yet my embarrassment over purchasing a pair of the luxurious slip-ons was diminished when I learned that Paolo, the younger of my two bosses at Paul Stuart’s bespoke department, had purchased his first pair at the tender age of 20. Marching back to Paul Stuart from my lunch break, newly shod in my Belgians, I proudly joined the ranks of captains of finance and industry, real estate brokers, the New York Social Diary set, interior decorators, and #menswear enthusiasts.
Belgian Shoes was founded by Henri Bendel in the 1940s. Much like with the Bass Weejun in the ‘30s, his goal was to market the Belgian peasant slippers to upper class WASPs. They quickly caught on, becoming a staple everywhere from Palm Beach and the Hamptons to Grosse Point. Every pair is made by hand in Bruges and is only available at their Manhattan store. The slight imperfections in stitching add to their old-world charm. Belgian Shoes come in a vast multitude of materials and colors, from black velvet for eveningwear and burgundy calf for the more conservative, to green lizard or leopard print for the more brazen. Special orders are even available (for an additional fee) for those who aren’t satisfied with the countless color combinations in stock.
After purchasing their soft-bottomed Mr. Casual model (the original model) and thoroughly wearing them down on the pavement, you return to the store and have a rubber pad applied to the shoe’s sole for added durability and support. This increases the shoe’s life considerably and they can be re-rubberized as many times as needed.
I remember the first time I knew I had to have a pair. The summer I turned 17, my parents and I were vacationing on the Cape and visited Nantucket for the day. On the back way to the ferry, I spotted a gentleman wearing a pair of Nantucket Reds, a light blue gingham cutaway collar shirt, and navy blue Belgian Shoes. From that point on, I knew that a pair of Belgians would eventually be on my feet. More recently, my yearning was intensified by observing a khakis and blazer-clad gentleman on 5th Avenue in a pair of chocolate brown Belgian Shoes (the exact same pair I ended up purchasing) on the first day of my internship at Paul Stuart. He also carried a monogrammed tote bag with multiple squash racquets in it, to complete the picture.
Since coming to Manhattan at the beginning of the summer, I have seen a substantial amount of Belgian-wearers on the street. Not a week goes by when I don’t see a pair on a nattily dressed gentleman’s feet in Midtown. I even encountered a young gentleman wearing a pair with beat-up khakis, a polo shirt, and a baseball cap at a pizza place in the West Village. After striking up a conversation about our similar footwear choices, I ended up seeing him a few days later at Paul Stuart. As it turns out he was a regular customer.
The scarcity and polarizing design of Belgian Shoes have given them a cult following, and devotee swear by their comfort and quirky elegance. Menswear author and designer Alan Flusser (who’s rarely photographed without a pair on his feet these days) sang the shoe’s praises in his 1996 book “Style And The Man.” Even though they are inherently casual, many wear them with a suit, including myself. They add a jaunty twist to an otherwise more formal look. The shoes also pair great with white denim for the summer months. I also find myself wearing them sockless with shorts and a Lacoste shirt on weekends.
Regardless of how ostentatious the shoes may seem to many, I have solace in the fact that my feet are insanely comfortable and in good company. — AL CASTIEL III