Flat mates

Menswear-influenced lace-ups are becoming the footwear of choice for the chic working woman, says Elisa Anniss.

February 10 2011
Elisa Anniss

Embarking on a love affair with easy-to-wear menswear-inspired pieces, women’s fashion has recently turned on its heels in a move that adds up to a sleek, new bourgeois aesthetic. Enter brogues and flat lace-ups – classics that clearly aren’t new but are increasingly relevant to a working wardrobe. Trousers, jackets, shirts, dresses and other simple separates require uncomplicated, smart, wearable shoes, and there are few other styles capable of putting in the hours with so much panache – and even working at the weekend too.

“Lace-ups are the perfect finishing touch to the current polished, minimal look that was started by Céline with its 2010 spring/summer catwalk collection,” says Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty. “Clean-lined trousers, a return to the blazer; all slightly mannish, but we’re certainly not talking androgyny here.” Back in 2006, however, Paul Smith was ahead of the curve when he launched his cheekily named Men Only collection. It comprises Italian-made brogues and loafers based on men’s shoes but produced on refined, more feminine lasts. For his latest spring/summer runway show he paired shiny mohair trousers, waistcoats, silk shirt-dresses and shifts with souped-up brogues that looked anything but clumpy. It was a perfect demonstration of how menswear accents can be employed to inject real personality and style, including an elegant, backless version in unexpected colours such as lime and purple (£340).

Each season, interest in the Men Only shoes (from £220) gathers momentum, and Smith believes they are the perfect antidote to what has gone before. “Recently heels couldn’t have got any higher,” he says, “while with these shoes you can wear them with just about anything.” He also considers it an encouraging sign that, one by one, his female employees are wearing them, not just with trousers, but with skirts and dresses too. And the Men Only classics are also proving popular in Paris, where the gamine look has always had cachet. At Left Bank department store Le Bon Marché, Paul Smith’s women’s shoes are one of the top three bestselling brands.

A mannish vibe is also the hallmark of French septuagenarian Robert Clergerie, who operates one of the last remaining factories in the shoemaking town of Romans. Celebrating his brand’s 30th anniversary this year, he says he’s seen the trend come full-circle. “Brogues were very trendy from the 1980s until the early 1990s but then stiletto heels became more fashionable.” For spring/summer Clergerie has given his Jili lace-ups (£330) – a soft brogue that comes in mustard, white, stone or tan – a subtle new twist by introducing a clever laser-cut trompe-l’oeil that gives the illusion of stitching.

“Robert Clergerie is the godfather of the Oxford,” says David Pianko, who manages the designer’s namesake store on London’s Wigmore Street, referring to the style that has its shoelace eyelet tabs stitched together at the bottom, in a “closed-throat” V-shape. With Clergerie’s store so close to Harley Street, his clientele includes doctors and surgeons who want work shoes that are stylish and smart. He’s seen “a massive increase” in demand for Oxfords in the past couple of years, especially those with a small 2cm heel.

It isn’t just established names that are producing these season-less classics. Husband-and-wife team Tim and Fiona Slack have set about crafting traditional unisex shoes under the name of T&F Slack Shoemakers, namely a five-eyelet Derby (£185) – which harks back to a shoe they first had success with in 1976, which, unlike the Oxford, has its eyelet tabs lacing together over the tongue in an “open throat” – and the multi-suede Ernst brogue (£195). In April 2009 the couple overhauled a derelict store and then opened a tiny shoe factory to hand-produce the shoes in an industrial unit, not in Northamptonshire, but in Notting Hill. “The micro-sole is incredibly light and not slippery at all in wet weather,” says Tim.

Shoe designers better known for their heels have also launched their own versions of these flat classics. Rupert Sanderson modelled his Saddle Oxfords (£320), categorised by its mid-foot saddle-shaped panel, on styles that were a precursor of the sports shoe, typically worn by college girls in 1920s America. Each features a super-light, super-comfortable brick-coloured crêpe rubber micro-sole and a stone-coloured upper in plain or perforated nubuck, while there’s a “Caran d’Ache crayon-set of colour options”, including fuchsia, red, blue, olive, black and stone, for the saddle section. The style is a bestseller that regularly sells out, as is its precursor, the classic-brogue inspired style Joyce (£435), which comes in patent black or cream.

Holli Rogers, buying director at Net-a-Porter, sees the growing demand for brogues as part of a wider desire among women for flats. “The continued popularity of the masculine shoe, including the brogue, penny loafer and Chelsea boot, reflects our customers’ desire for an alternative to the ballet pump,” she says. The online retailer was one of the first to champion Church’s Burwood brogue (£240), which comes in 15 colourways and is shipped to over 60 countries. Church’s itself has sold 11,000 pairs of the style since it launched in 2007. Another British heritage brand, Barker, has also added women’s versions of its classic brogues for spring in lots of pastel-coloured suedes, including dusky pink, aqua and apple green, from £195 and available next month.

When Olivia Morris recently collaborated with Grenson on a capsule collection of brogues (£285), she says she put a great deal of thought into how she could refine the traditional men’s shape to suit a woman’s more elegant foot. “Shoemaking is about millimetres, so adjustments have to be very precise,” she explains. “I worked on a slimmer last, with a newer, more shapely toe, and raised the height of the heel by 10mm in order to lift the foot from the floor and put more spring into the way a woman can walk in a brogue.” She believes the style “transcends fashion and trends and should become as much of a classic for women as it is for men”.

So will the brogue kick the ballerina out of pole position as the favourite female flat? Even ballet flat expert Repetto considers its lace-up Zizi jazz shoe (from £175) the most fashion-forward of its range. And although the ballerina is still very popular, especially during out-of-office hours, some buyers, including Browns’ Pam Brady, are beginning to consider it too ubiquitous and a little bit tired. “I even have some customers who tell me that their husbands don’t want to see them wearing them any more. And, ultimately, I think this summer’s weekend look of Capri pants and shorts works so much better with a pair of lace-ups,” says Brady, who plans to make the transition with a modern lace-up in navy with contrast rust piping, specially made for Browns by Nicholas Kirkwood (£495).

“I wanted a shoe that was a mix of a ballerina and an Oxford and could be pretty much worn with anything; skirts, jeans or cropped trousers,” explains the British designer, who has expanded his repertoire to coincide with the imminent opening of his first eponymous store on Mount Street. His first flat was an elegant feminine silhouette that appeared last year in black suede with a black patent toecap. This comes updated for spring in blue patent leather with an eye-catching cotton stripe at the toe (£460). Although clearly a statement shoe, the designer also considers it a practical solution: “The reason I launched flat lace-ups last summer was because most women who wear high heels also carry a pair of flats in their bag.”

Pamela Garside, a health-sector management consultant and a fellow of University of Cambridge Judge Business School, says she considers the masculine look stylish and frequently wears shoes by Fratelli Rossetti (£300), Tod’s and Robert Clergerie. Brogues are also a favourite of Nicky Kinnaird, founder and president of Space NK. “A flat low-cut suede brogue in an unusual colour or a Jil Sander Oxford works well for me,” she says.

However, as lace-ups have been absent for a while, many women are unsure how to wear them. Lisa Duncan, a former Harpers & Queen fashion editor who now works with private clients from high-profile banks and corporate institutions in both London and New York, explains how flat lace-ups can fit happily into any high-flyer’s working wardrobe. “I think a masculine lace-up or brogue gives all sorts of feminine looks an edge,” she says. “Skinny or narrow trousers worn with a slim top – a sleeveless or button-down shirt or a T-shirt-style blouse – work perfectly with the new lace-up flats. They also look good with a Richard Nicoll or Victoria Beckham fitted dress, or a knee-length pencil skirt. For spring/summer some of the hottest shows, such as Paul Smith, showed lace-ups with skirts and dresses but also with trousers and tailored shorts.”

Trouser and skirt length is key to pulling off the lace-up look without it becoming too masculine. “The general rule is to avoid longer-length skirts or trousers,” says Matches’ buying director Bridget Cosgrave, who advises teaming brogues with a shorter-length, fitted skirt or a knee-length pleated one (and opaque or textured tights), and either cropped or carrot-leg (a skinny style with volume at the top) trousers “for a feminine twist”. When wearing brogues with trousers at the weekend, she suggests going sans socks.

See also