Men's Fashion

Change is afoot

Don’t tell the Sloanes, but their beloved loafer is being worn on the trendy streets of Shoreditch. Elisa Anniss reports.

July 12 2010
Elisa Anniss

Who better than Gucci to announce that the loafer is back, even though many would probably say that it had never really gone away?

“The horse-bit loafer is one of the most iconic items in all of the Gucci archives,” explains Frida Giannini, Gucci’s creative director. Dustin Hoffman wore his with socks in the 1979 tearjerker Kramer vs Kramer, while Colin McDowell described them as the most famous status shoe of the 20th century in his 1989 book Shoes: Fashion and Fantasy. And, more recently, at the autumn/winter 2010 Gucci show, loafers stepped out on the runway sans socks. “It’s an absolute classic,” continues Giannini. “I play with the design each season, updating the shape, material and details, but the shoe’s essential beauty and functionality remain the same.”

Back in the early 1980s, when Peter York wrote The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook with Ann Barr, Gucci loafers were considered the ultimate status shoes. “The Gucci loafer has migrated since then,” says York. “At that time, it appealed to a small audience and was about the Sloane going Euro.”

Today, York boasts a wardrobe full of loafers, including Crockett & Jones, Tod’s and, of course, Gucci versions. “I don’t know any time in the past 30 years that I haven’t had several Gucci loafers on the go,” he says, adding that he considers classic ones as being those featuring red and green braid under the snaffle (£410) or in simple black suede (£340). Recently, when he pulled a pair of these out, his friend, GQ UK editor Dylan Jones, commented on how he was wearing “vintage”. No, he replied, they weren’t. They’d always belonged to him. “These days, though, I’m wearing the latest version with a bamboo snaffle [£410]. It’s a comedic, ravishing thing.”

Eddie Prendergast, who founded Duffer of St George and more recently Present, was once a devotee of the Gucci loafer. He still considers loafers to be a summer staple and has been wearing them without socks from Easter to October since 1977. At Present, he has been busy reviving another old favourite – the Bass Weejun (Larson version, £95), famously worn by JFK. A US classic, it last enjoyed popularity in the UK when Levi’s 501s helped make Nick Kamen a heart throb. “It’s a casual, Ivy League look,” he says, “something that companies such as J Crew currently do very well.”

Shoreditch-based Present appeals to a wide demographic, including loft-living men, many of whom are wearing the pared-down James Dean look of jeans and a T-shirt, together with £95 penny loafers in black or oxblood leather, for the very first time. Another proponent of the all-American look is US fashion designer Mark McNairy, who unveiled his first co-labelled Bass Weejuns this summer. The Mark McNairy for Bass Weejun collection totals about 30 styles (from about $312; suede version $342) and includes loafers with tassels, white-suede uppers or luxe designs in alligator, and is available at Barneys New York. McNairy says the popularity of this iconic loafer is part of a trend towards celebrating heritage American brands.

Many footwear connoisseurs believe that Alden offers the Vanden Plas of men’s loafers. “Their popularity stems from their all-American character and the leather itself,” says Robert Clark, Alden’s vice-president of sales. “Genuine shell cordovan is exceptionally durable and has a deep, rich lustre that improves with age. It also adapts to the foot shape of the wearer, giving a custom quality to the fit of the shoes.”

“They’re bought by someone who really knows their shoes and seeks them out,” explains Ivan Donovan, men’s buyer at Browns, where the classic hand-sewn penny loafers in shell cordovan leather sell for £450 (alongside another classic tasselled loafer by Dries Van Noten, £415).

“I think guys have got used to wearing a moc toe over the past two years, mainly through the boat-shoe look, and loafers are a natural progression,” says Neil Steptoe, Kurt Geiger’s head of men’s buying, who selects shoes for Kurt Geiger stores and shoe departments the company operates in Selfridges, Liberty and Harrods.

Evidently, loafers aren’t just American. British company Oliver Sweeney, brought out of administration last year by former Marks & Spencer director Maurice Helfgott and Tim Cooper through McFL Trading, has also peppered its summer collection with the style. There’s the brown suede San Pietro (£240), or the navy suede Gamberi (£195), both from London’s Oliver Sweeney flagship store. And Harrys of London also offers a wide range, from the James Port box-calf penny loafer to its original Jet Moc reverse-suede loafer (from £275).

“I don’t consider them an American style,” says New England-born creative director Kevin Martel, who has been making frequent trips to Kuwait, where Harrys opened a store in May. “I consider them a Continental style, a sort of easy, breezy Côte d’Azur look. In Kuwait, not one man has lace-ups. That’s because it’s warm and men want slip-on shoes. The same is true in Japan where they’re forever putting shoes on and taking them off.”

Fin’s Shoes, a relatively new men’s shoe brand, also nods to a more Continental way of dressing. A post-school taster of the fashion business, courtesy of an internship at American Vogue and Emanuel Ungaro, whetted the appetite of British-born Alexandra Finlay. But instead of writing a tell-all book à la Lauren Weisberger, 27-year-old Finlay put the experience to good use by launching Fin’s, a men’s loafer-focused label, in 2008.

Interestingly, the pretty socialite, dubbed a “posh-preneur” by one newspaper and who counts Ben and Kate Goldsmith among her investors, values affordability. None of her shoes is priced above £200. This is because she wants her customers to buy not one, but many pairs of her loafers. Fin’s started with the George loafer (£90), which comes in 15 sumptuous shades of suede, including Palm Beach Violet, Cartagena Tobacco and Portofino Yellow, and has a rubber sole. “The idea for moccasin loafers came from a friend who always bought his in St Tropez,” she explains. “They cost between €40 and €50 and he’d buy them in all colours and wear them like slippers.”

Finlay realised that here lay a gap in the market for simple, classic shoes. She says that at first she knew what she didn’t want rather than what she did want – “nothing too pointy, or square, or with too long a vamp” – and found a factory north of Porto in Portugal to make them up for her. Originally, the collection was aimed at the progeny of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook – who Finlay calls “my boys”. However, with the George loafer launching in Selfridges and Harrods this July, the launch of the Marshall loafer (£120) with its blake-stitched nubuck sole, as well as a collaboration with Bill Amberg, the appeal of Fin’s is likely to widen. The Bill Amberg shoe (£115) is white with his signature red, white and blue webbing. Without the webbing though, Finlay quips, it is dangerously close to a hospital shoe – something her “boys” probably wouldn’t be seen dead wearing, even if it eventually turned out to be trendy.

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