Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Belgians Bandwagon

Reggie is one of the legions of bloggers who is a devotee of Belgian Shoes.  These iconic, soft-soled slippers, known as Belgians, have a long-time, cult-like following among the Social Register set and fashion cognoscenti, and more recently among certain lifestyle bloggers.  They are available in this country today only from the carriage-trade Belgian Shoes store on East 55th Street in Manhattan, and also from the company online.

The "Mr. Casual" in brown calfskin, a personal favorite

The store isn't all that much to look at, as it sits in a nondescript building on a side street, and is very plainly decorated, if one could call it decorated at all.  But what treasures are to be found inside of it!

The store on 55th Street, just east of Park Avenue

Belgian Shoes was founded in the 1950s by Henry Bendell, a nephew of the founder of the Henri Bendel store in New York (and who was, himself, once president of that fabled retailer), and their shoes are still hand-sewn to this day in the country from which they've taken their name.

A catalogue from years gone by
(note colorful options for women)

The store is open only from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, and from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays.  They do minimal advertising, only in The Wall Street Journal and Quest Magazine, and the shoes are mostly sold by "word of mouth" to repeat customers and those introduced by same.  Not surprisingly, they are rather expensive.

Belgians have been the subject of countless blogosphere postings, including a recent one by Admiral Cod.  While it's not that I've got much to add to the volumes of what has already been written about these addictive slippers, I do feel compelled to write about them here because, well, Reggie believes he is the one who really discovered Belgians in the first place . . .

. . . at least among a group of friends he once had, but doesn't run with anymore.

In addition to plain leathers, Belgians come in exotic hides and fanciful prints
(not for the faint at heart)

But long before that, I first learned about Belgians shortly after moving to New York after college, thirty years ago.  That is when I met and befriended a high-tone decorator named Harry who I am no longer friends with for reasons that are known to him but remain a mystery to me to this day.  I guess I did or said something off-putting, but Heaven knows I don't recall whatever it was.  Ah well, life goes on.

One can also have one's crest applied to one's velvet or patent leather Belgians

Anyway, Harry wore Belgians almost all the time, as certain swell-New-York-lifelong-bachelor-decorator types are known to do, and insisted that I make a pilgrimage to their store on (then) East 56th Street and buy myself a pair or two.  Being an open-minded chap I took his advice and did so.  I've been a devotee ever since.  In fact, I'm wearing a pair as I write this post that you are now reading, Dear Reader.


One time Harry and I were out on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where we were, admittedly, doing a bit of slumming.  We had gone out to a boozy dinner at the then white-hot fashionable Bowery Bar, and were standing on a street corner afterwards, discussing what to do next.  As we stood there, up towards us came a stumblebum, hand outstretched, begging for change.   As I reached into my pocket, Harry leaned over to me and said, sotto vocce, "The shoes, check out the shoes!" and motioned with his head toward the feet of the supplicant in front of us.  I looked down at the fellow's feet, and saw, much to my surprise, that he was wearing what appeared to be a brand-new pair of Belgians.  The incongruity of this was, to put it mildly, astonishing.  "Where did you get those shoes?"  I asked the bum.  He responded, "Do you like them?" "Why, yes I do like them,"  I said, "but tell me, do you know what those shoes are?"  I asked.  "They're comfortable, that's what they are," he said.  I responded, "Yes, I'm sure of that, as I have the same ones.  But those are expensive shoes, and not usually seen in this part of town.  Where did you get them?"  He said, "I got 'em at the Mission.  They've got lots of good stuff there they give away, for free.  You should check it out, you might find something you like there, too!"   Harry and I roared with laughter at this, and I said, "I'm sure that you are right, my good man, given what's on your feet."  I then handed him a dollar, and off he wandered into the night, wearing his Belgian Shoes.

The Belgians ad in the May Quest Magazine

Several years later I took a share in a beach house in Fire Island Pines and fell in with a fast party-boy set that found my choice of footwear to be almost as amusing as Harry and I had found what the Bowery bum had on his feet that night.  At the time, the prevailing shoes of choice in the Pines were decidedly more plebeian in origin than my favorite slipper.  During the better part of the decade I spent going to the Pines I don't recall ever seeing a person there, other than myself, wearing Belgians.  Admittedly, Reggie was a bit of a fish out of water in that particular community on Fire Island.  For, on the other hand, when he visited friends in East Hampton it was, at times, difficult to find someone who wasn't wearing Belgians.

Reggie in his Belgians-wearing Fire Island days

But it was not until Boy and I bought Darlington House that my fondness for Belgians truly became an addiction.  As my readers know, Darlington is an old house and in the country, and for much of our occupancy has been a drafty and sometimes chilly place to hang one's hat, at least when the weather turns cool.  Under those circumstances, having a comfortable house shoe to slip in to when coming in from a sometimes wet, muddy, or snowy outside is advisable.  That such a shoe should have a soft sole is desirable, too, when many of the floors in said house are wood.   And that's where the genius of Belgians comes in.  Easy to slip in to and out of, they are supremely comfortable to wear, and their soft soles are perfect for silently traipsing through Darlington's rooms.


Part of the pleasure of wearing Belgians, aside from their comfort, is that they have tone: one doesn't often see them off of the UES/Greenwich/Hamptons/Palm Beach/Hobe Sound axes.  Of course there are other, more off-this-beaten path enclaves that one occasionally encounters a Belgians-wearing fellow traveler, such as Far Hills, Lake Forest, Grosse Pointe, Wayzata, Hillsborough, Santa Barbara, Pasadena, River Oaks, Highland Park, Mountain Brook, Buckhead, Charleston, Middleburg, Chevy Chase, Gladwyne, New Canaan, West Hartford, and Brookline . . . just to name a few.

One each of our Darlington Belgians

Boy and I have, between the two of us, eight pairs of Belgians that we keep at Darlington, in assorted colors and leathers.  We wear the soft-soled "Mr. Casual" model, the only one worth owning as far as I'm concerned.  We each have several more pairs in our city apartment, too.  Boy also keeps a pair of Belgians (which he calls "Belgiques") in his office that he brings with him to wear in clients' recently installed houses or apartments, where the occupants often initially go shoeless or wear slippers to protect their new (and rather expensive) polished floors and handmade carpets.

I don't usually wear my Belgians when out and about, as I consider them to be primarily a house shoe.  I rarely wear them when leaving Darlington's property, and almost never out in the city.  I will admit to occasionally wearing mine when making a quick trip to the corner for a carton of milk, or when taking Pompey out for a discrete morning constitutional, and I sometimes change into them for a long plane ride.  However, that's about the extent of my public wearing of Belgians.  While I think women can look marvelous wearing them when out and about (and the color combinations available to women are extraordinary), I generally think most men look a bit, well, fey when doing so.

But I can't imagine life without them.

Tell me, where do you wear your Belgians?

Belgian Shoes
110 East 55th Street
New York, New York 10022-4540
(212) 755-7372
http://www.belgianshoes.com/

All photos, except of Reggie, by Boy Fenwick; photo of Reggie by Hazel Hazaga

33 comments:

  1. I bought my first pair of Belgians in 1990, I believe, and word them into the ground. The next pair too. (Never could afford more than one pair at a time, alas.) I haven't worn any, however, for about a decade. Perhaps I should begin investing in them again? They were very comfortable and stylish. I have several pairs of Stubbs & Wootton's now, of which I am greatly fond.

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  2. Dear Aesthete: Ah, yes -- Stubbs & Wootton. I have a pair (the one with the red devil on it, natch), of which I am fond. I'm thinking of doing a post on velvet slippers and shoes at some point...

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  3. What an absolutely fabulous post. I kept hoping it wouldn't end:). My Aunt Priscilla, she of the Norwich terriers and dairy farm, wore these all the time. But back then I had no idea what they were called. Nowadays I find myself thoroughly appreciating the design, and admiring the concept of quality. However, Northern California is not a hotbed of Belgiques.

    One question - on a sidetrack - does the Social Register still have much influence? Does it still exist? My parents fled the Register when they moved to California, my father hoping I think that no square-jawed denizen would find him and wrest him from his professorial endeavors.

    Finally, Reggie, you were a young Adonis and that is all I will say about that:). I think we may need to hear the Darling opinion on hats, however.

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  4. Great post...and I love the look of the shoes with the shorts.
    I might just have to buy a pair for the man in my life, and bring him back to his roots of having had a family that actually was in the NY Social Register of 1965. He could become a Belgian wearing fellow traveler from Bel Air.

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  5. Mine is a rather sad story, to say the least. I had four pairs in the 80's which I purchased while living in NYC when I was a 7 1/2. For some strange reason, almost overnight, I went up a half size and couldn't wear them anymore. They were packed off to my mother's who now wears them, much to my horror, when she is out gardening! Every time I see this I have a hissy fit but no matter how many times I try to explain what she's wearing, she continues to torture me. I am already prepared for the day I walk in and see the cleaning lady mopping the floor with my Belgian shoes on!

    S&W belongs to a dear childhood friend, Percy Steinhart, who used to be a banker in NYC. The yearly sale at the Palm Beach store (January) is incredible, worth the trip down. Check it out, don't know if they have the same in NYC. Most of my friends own a pair of the one with the Havana Yacht Club insignia HYC which I don't find amusing...rather like the one with the devil, or the martini glass!

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  6. LPC: When next you visit NYC be sure to stop by East 55th Street and pick up a pair. It's time. BTW, I don't recommend buying online because the sizing varies considerably, as the shoes are hand-sewn. As far as I know, the SR is pretty much obsolete. Still published (Forbes bought it in 1970), I learned they fired their editor recently when researching this post. My striving stepmother was furious to find that her marriage to my father in 1977 prompted his being dropped from the Washington Green Book (the DC equivalent) rather than her being included...Mummy Darling also had a Norwich Terrier, a marvelous breed if there ever was one. Thank you for the compliment! Your Adonis, I mean Reggie

    Hello Belle: Then you must buy him a pair!

    Lindaraxa: How maddening! I still own a pair of chestnut brown Brooks Brothers Alden tassel loafers that I bought in my twenties that I have since outgrown when my feet grew. Too beautiful to get rid of, for some reason. Boy wears his old Gucci loafers when gardening, so comfortable. S&W has same sale in NYC as in PB; I was crushed to find that the devil slippers in navy velvet with gray embroidery were sold out in my size this past January...Oh, and thank you -- noone has called Reggie a "hunk" in years!

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  7. Love the Belgians, I too had a pair in the past and haven't added, and also went up a half size,(how does that happen?)

    Reggie, what a good looking guy you were and are!!

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  8. it is good to get all this down on paper -as it were. I think the side street, nondescript nature of the shop is fitting- only those that know know but isn't it time to put a little pep in your step Why don't You? custom color a pair to match a Darlington House wall perhaps?

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  9. Karena: Thank you!

    LA: What a good idea. Perhaps I shall have a pair done in the Darling racing silks...

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  10. Loved the panhandler in Belgians scene. I'll be that guy in a few years-mainly due to spending the dosh on so many pairs. Mine have traipsed with me down South Audley...'round Grosvenor Square...back to Mount Street...just prior to then slipping over to Claridges for a drink. But honestly, the dissonance,the dichotomy manifest in wearing Belgians up to the top of the Sombrero tower at South of the Border on I-95 is palpable.

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  11. Belgiques! Bravo! And they shall be known as such around the manse from this day forward.

    I hadn't thought of it, but next to going barefoot on the ancient wood floors, they are the next best thing. Summers I switch to my espadrilles for padding about, but les Belges make their appearance at each dinner party, with khakis, jeans, a dinner jacket or silk trousers. Mrs. E. slipped on a pair of mine to do a quick errand (although far too big on her foot) and is now a closet convert.

    The Green Book. Hadn't thought of it for years. Mrs. E.'s side (and the Bal'mere version), not mine.

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  12. I so enjoy your writing/conversational style! Here on the border of New Canaan and the northern part of Westchester NY, (the horsey part) and yes, literally right smack dab on the border...I can attest to the popularity of these shoes. Or the Stubbs and Wooton version, honestly, I have a tough time telling them apart, as they are really not where my radar seems to focus. I met my husband on Fire Island, much to the chagrin of all my friends, who begged me to head to the Hamptons with them instead, (having outgrown the frat house atmosphere years earlier)...but fresh out of law school, it was the raucous behavior that only a beach sans cars could provide that I so craved! And yes, no Belgium shoes to be found...only flip flops and Teva's! :)

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  13. ADG: I am a loyal follower of your blog, which I find funny, witty, and charming. Shut up! I look forward to reading it as often as you post, and I am honored of your comment.

    Easy: Glad you like the "Belgiques" quite amusing I think. We shall have much to speak of when we meet some day. Mrs. E must buy her own Belgians, as they come in such fun colors for les gals...

    Zhush: Do I hear Bedford in your response? Or is it Pound Ridge? Both mistakenly left out of the littany of Belgians' Communities. I, too, have no regrets for my years on FI --one can always age gracefully in more conventional watering holes later in life...

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  14. Reggie, that is a fabulous photo!

    My grandmother and her friends used to wear their loafers when they'd walk into the 'village' for lunch (in southern Westchester, the non-horsey part ;-)).Consequently I always thought they were for, um, more mature ladies.

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  15. Reg- I am embarrassed to say that I own about ten pair. As you say, comfortable beyond belief,and, like T. Anthony luggage (the canvas kind, please) they speak volumes about their owner beyond mere footwear- whether good or bad is not for me to say. My vote is GOOD,GOOD,GOOD, though. Much to my surprise, a very trendy younger friend of mine in the fashion business tells me that they have become all the rage among the younger set in his industry. Go figure. I also love the wonderful, slightly quixotic business methods of the store itself. Ask to special order a pair and you will be told that delivery will be from six months to two years. My experience has been: It's really in stock, they just haven't opened the box;It arrives a week later or it arrives four years later. It's well worth the wait though as I think to myself every time I put on the dark grey flannel pair with the black piping. My most recent purchase was the leopard print pair you have pictured. I bought them as bedroom slippers, but must confess that I have worn them in public when the doggie needs an especially early morning or late night walk. Usually, I've pulled a pair of blue jeans over my PJ's at such times and haven't combed my hair, so don't think I make too good an adverstisement for the excellent shoes (I probably look somewhat like your panhandler friend). Naturally, I invariably run into one of my fancier friends at such moments-

    And Reg- next post should be on Vilbrequin bathing suits- illustrated with a photo of you on Fire Island without the shirt.

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  16. I have only one pair, and as you might imagine, I am probably the only customer in Olive Branch, MS. The salesman told me to wear them for a while and then send them back to be resoled for wear outside the home. Are any of yours specifically street-wear?

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  17. Hello Patsy: I suppose that there are some people out there who would likely snicker that most wearers of Belgians really are "more mature ladies," regardless of their actual age or gender...

    Magnus: Ten pair? You may have just inspired me to buy a pair in the jaguar print, regardless of Boy's contrary opinion when I asked his opinion when writing this essay. In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Italy in several weeks we just bought some more T. Anthony luggage (black canvas with brown leather trim, of course) to add to our collection (on sale!), but this time we broke down and bought suitcases with wheels. I've been resisting buying wheeled luggage (ugh) for years, but have finally relented as porters have become as rare as hen's teeth in my experience, and carrying heavy suitcases through miles of airport corridors is not fun in the slightest. Boy just bought another Vilbrequin last week to add to his (already impressive) collection, as we'll have some time to loll around a pool while visiting Italy. Unfortunately, no photos exist of Reggie in his Vilbrequins from his FI days, at least none that I care to post! Finally, you have broken the code: Reggie is planning on posting additional essays on iconic brands favored by the Belgians-wearing set, T. Anthony luggage and Vilbrequins among others...

    John: Welcome to RD. I've had several pairs of my Belgians soled with rubber soles through the store, which is required when wearing them out and about, in my view. Scuffing up the soles ahead of time is advisable so that the rubber soles adhere properly.

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  18. Reggie, you are so, so fetching in that photo!
    I live in Canada and I have never seen a pair of Belgians until now, so I thank you for the Education!
    (Truly it was a wonderful post.)
    I may have to stop by that little shop in NYC...

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  19. RD, this is by far the best post on Belgians. Brilliant stories and anecdotes. And the illustrations...! Just wonderful.

    P.S. Thanks for the link ol' chum!

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  20. Anne (wait-listed for the leopard model)June 9, 2010 at 2:18 PM

    Hello Reggie from a fellow 'Belgique!' NOTHING is as comfortable as these shoes for my little round peasant feet (5W)--quite unlike your elegant 10N. I wear mine everywhere--work, home, erranding and when I know I am going to be on my feet a lot. They are great for museums, etc. Mine have been to London, Bangkok, Paris--everywhere! I am currently down to just 4 pairs with a hot pink/white piped pair now back in rotation for summer and the most used probably the black croco patent. One tip for the others--any decent cobbler can put rubber soles on them for you. Mine on lex between 71st/72nd has been doing them successfully for years. No need to bring them back to the shop, which, by the way, I think is closed on the weekends in the summertime. Oh, and newbies be warned! The original soles are SUPER slick on carpeting--get them rubber soled as you will wipe out. I would also add that its really important to go to the shop and be fitted as they are all handsewn. There can be a difference and also for those not familiar, they come in widths. At one point, there was a shop in chelsea/sloane square in London that had a small selection but I don't know if they still do.

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  21. This is the most entertaining post I've read in quite a while!

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  22. Hello, Reggie! I arrived here via Willow Manor. While I have never owned a pair of Belgians, I have dear friends from Mountain Brook who
    have! However, I have owned a few pairs of Italian made shoes thanks to one Ralph Lauren. One year I spied the most exquisite suede ballet slippers with a ribbon laced up the back and tied in a small bow! (At Lenox in Buckhead-Mark Shale). I was totally smitten! Since I share a birthday with the King, my husband insisted I get the "blue suede shoes" ....and I did. Before that season ended, I had them in burgundy & black suede...and black patent leather! I was soooo in love with those shoes...soft leather soles and looked fabulous with everything!
    I happily wallowed in every word of this post... Your story of the stumblebum/supplicant in Belgians really had me doubled over!
    Thank you!
    Oh yes, "Peace be with you."

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  23. 1) I had lots of Belgians back in the day. The rule was, you took them to the local shoe repair shop (Bredice Bros.) before those soles *ever* hit the sidewalk. I gave them up when I turned fifty. (It may have been the example of the once young Kinsey Marable, who seemed to have all of my shoes.)

    2) I thought the BS store was limitlessly offensive. There were always half a dozen copies of the SR strewn about-- as if they were fetish objects. (And considering the staff, they doubtless were.)

    3) Reggie -- You're somewhat right about the SR, but the Class of 1887 probably takes a different view. That's why Forbes could double or triple the subscription price with little or no consequence.

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  24. NaniBP: Tell them that Reggie sent you!

    LBT: You are the master, I the student, in these matters.

    Anne: Welcome, fellow-traveler.

    Willow: Thanks, Reggie aims to please.

    Firelight: Welcome, thank you for your comment.

    Ancient: You are most amusing, a characteristic that Reggie adores.

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  25. DaniBP: I mistyped NaniBP, but meant you.

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  26. In my younger more carefree days, I owned many and now I am down to a classic camel and a neutral suede with chocolate piping. I do think I need a new pair, but alas, we have a renovation that will take more than pennies. Let me see what is left in the piggy bank for my little pigs.
    I also agree, they are much more of a house slipper.
    pve

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  27. I just happened upon your blog. In reading your profile, we have a lot in common...except finance. I will have to subscribe as I have already read about 15 different posts. Now, about Belgians, I did by a fake pair once on Worth Avenue. They looked like they would stand up to moisture better and I liked them, but the real McCoy is unbeatable--I love mine. You are also right about location. When I wore them in Pasadena in the '80s, nobody got them!

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  28. PVE: I knew I cottoned on to you when we met at the cocktail party the other evening, and this is confirmed by your appreciation of La Belgique! Go mad, and buy yourself a new pair soon.

    Dovecote Decor: Thank you for your visit and comment, too. Fellow Belgians Unite!

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  29. OMG! It's You! You were standing next to me at the sweater counter at BG's when I first started thinking about coming out. Or was it PS? I had just come from E56 St, yes, with my newest Belgians. I was besotted......

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog, and regret I didn't kidnap you then, and fly us both back to Buckhead at the time! But images of Patty
    Hearst were still on my mind, and thus I was not so bold.

    Life is wonderful, yes?

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  30. Hello Bob: Life is, indeed, wonderful! Thank you for your comment, and the possibilities it conjured up, or might have led to had you but initiated a conversation with me at that sweater counter long ago...

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  31. Dear RD,

    I love these gushies better than my guccis!
    You do look amazing in that FI shot!

    Dean

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  32. Dovecote! Too bad I didn't see you in Pasadena! I had about 6 pair of Belgians; and you are right; hardly anyone "got them"!

    Now everywhere you look; people are dressed as they must have been in "Inner Slobbovia"; or "Outer Slobbovia" (as in Al Capp's cartoon strip!!)

    Even in Santa Barbara and Pasadena! Quel Horreur!!!

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