Women's Fashion

Shear bliss

Shearling is the defining trend for boots this winter that’s sexy, sophisticated and super snug, says Elisa Anniss.

September 20 2010
Elisa Anniss

There’s no getting away from it – last winter’s big freeze, which blasted the northern hemisphere and lasted well into 2010, provided fashion and footwear designers with food for thought. It has been the source of some memorable runway moments – an iceberg melting at Chanel, and head-to-toe aviator-inspired shearling at Burberry Prorsum worthy of that beloved fictional British adventurer Biggles. But most importantly, it has encouraged shoe designers to play with all things fluffy, namely materials of ovine rather than bovine origin.

Although the emphasis this season is on getting cosy in shoes and boots, neither style nor sophistication has been compromised. After all, this isn’t a look that’s levelled at the beleaguered school-run mum or the laid-back Ugg-lover.

“In contrast to the hard-edged styles that have dominated the past several seasons, shearling has appeared as the practical, fashionable, comfortable option,” says Liberty’s new managing director, Ed Burstell. “Now in stores, options range from classic, cold weather boots from Moncler (from £380) to sporty sneakers from Lanvin (from £350) to classic boots from Manolo Blahnik (£790). Even Stella McCartney interpreted this trend in her signature faux-fur flat boot (£335).”

Some of London’s leading buyers consider Christopher Bailey’s boots the ultimate in must-have footwear. “Burberry Prorsum did the most beautiful boots for its show,” says Erin Mullaney, buying director of Browns, who promptly put in a personal order for a pair straight after the show (Cadet boot, £695). Averyl Oates, Harvey Nichols’ buying director, describes Bailey’s efforts as “amazing, fashionable and functional”, but cautions that the heel is “not for the faint-hearted”.

Net-a-Porter, meanwhile, has stocked up on shearling by Alexander McQueen (Faithful boot, £695; Ski boot, £895), Marc Jacobs (from £580), Marni (from £430) and Mulberry (Postman’s Lock pull-on boot, £525) as well as Burberry Prorsum. “Footwear is such an easy way to experiment with key trends,” explains Net-a-Porter’s buying director, Holli Rogers.

“I think a shearling boot or wedge can look fantastic with cropped, slim-cut trousers and oversized knitwear, or with opaque tights and a fitted dress,” says Bridget Cosgrave, fashion and buying director at Matches. “They are easy to wear and pretty much go with everything.”

At LK Bennett, there’s a crossover in materials used for clothing and shoes. For autumn/winter the London-based women’s brand has produced one jacket (£495) and four different shoe and boot styles (from £225; wedge knee-high boot, £350) in shearling. “It offers warmth and comfort, and feels great against the skin,” says LK Bennett’s creative consultant, Annick Gorman.

New York-based shoe designer Tabitha Simmons also wanted the material to enhance the comfort level of the wearer. “Mine are shoe-boots lined with shearling (from £965),” she says. “It’s like walking on soft foam – but it looks sexy rather than fuzzy.”

Interestingly, many consumers and even designers are unsure about the key differences between sheepskin and shearling. All, however, are agreed on the fantastic properties offered by both materials. “Shearling is a wool-on sheepskin from the skin of a one-year-old sheep that was shorn only once before slaughter, so its wool is quite short,” explains Amanda Michel, director of Northampton-based Leather Wise. “Sheepskin means any wool-on sheepskin with wool of any length.”

To confuse matters further, Americans use the blanket term shearling, while sheepskin is more British. In recent years, though, the UK has followed the US and sheepskin has been shrugged off in favour of the word shearling. This could be because sheepskin is often wrongly perceived as downmarket – and that’s probably because of the traditional sheepskin jacket favoured by uncool 1970s football commentators and some unsavoury characters in popular British TV series.

Rupert Sanderson believes that the widespread use of the word shearling is just another example of American terminology creeping into European fashion. “It came the same way as ‘resort’ and using ‘merchandising’ as a verb,” he says. Using the material for three new styles this season – Almira, Bougie and the aviator ankle boot Moray, with a distinctive chunky zip exposing the fluffy sheepskin lining (£765) – Sanderson says he was inspired by his mother, who in the 1970s wore similar boots with a ring-pull zip.

Milan-based designer Max Kibardin explains that in his native Siberia the material goes by the name of dublenka. Rather than being “popular”, he says, there the material is indispensable given the harsh climate. However, he didn’t look to Siberia for inspiration for his shoe, an eccentric combo of glamorous open-toe with shearling (£1,540), but instead was influenced by those brands that do everyday sheepskin styles.

In this, Kibardin is the exception rather than the rule. After all, construction is the reason why this new sheepskin/shearling trend shouldn’t be confused with Uggs – a brand and a trademark of Deckers Outdoor Corporation, the US-based owners of UGG Australia. Sheepskin Uggs (from £150) have a simple construction, a combination of sheepskin boots with a flat, stick-on sole. This gives the boot its slouchy, off-duty appeal; after all, it’s rooted in Aussie surf culture, not chi-chi après-ski. In contrast, the new trend in shearling footwear is about lasted shoes and boots, most with stitched soles and with a wide range of heel heights and shapes.

Jimmy Choo has successfully managed to straddle the two approaches to shearling. On the one hand, it has its limited-edition collaboration with UGG Australia (from £495) and on the other, military-inspired styles in its own collection, such as Trixie, a shearling ankle boot, available in tan suede or black patent, on a 11.5cm stacked heel with a platform lug sole (£750).

Italian shoe designer Giuseppe Zanotti says he offers shearling to his customers year-round. “In summer we sell it in Siberia, northern Europe and northern China; in winter we often have Russian customers who buy it in our stores in Las Vegas or Dubai. Shearling is an excellent material – it’s natural, very warm and adaptable. The fibres of shearling tend to wick away or retain moisture, depending on humidity, and thus an item of footwear made from it tends to be comfortable year-round. We make all kinds of footwear with it – thigh-high boots, boots with flat or high heels, wedges and platforms – and it is less expensive than other types of fur.”

Price aside, the UK appetite for fur isn’t as voracious as it is in Continental Europe, a fact that many British designers take into consideration. “I design with shearling every season – because we eat lamb it’s far more acceptable to wear than fur,” says Georgina Goodman, whose collection includes Finn, an aviator-inspired shearling boot with a cracked finish on a kitten heel (£621), and a higher version called Tristan (£621).

In the UK 5.9kg per capita of sheep meat is eaten a year, and some 15m animals are slaughtered for food. “The ‘fifth quarter’ of the sheep, its woolly pelt, produces a valuable, sustainable national asset much prized in a thousand practical, durable artefacts,” says Peter Robinson, honorary secretary of The Real Sheepskin Association.

“Shearling is a by-product, so we don’t think of it as being cruel, as we might with other furs,” agrees Manolo Blahnik. “It is cheaper than fur, just as warm, looks great and is more durable. Those reasons have probably been the cause of shearling’s recent popularity. It is not easy to design boots that are warm and stylish, but in this collection I think we have a few,” he says. According to Blahnik, Zala (£790) was inspired by a durable Canadian boot and is lined with shearling. However, he says the warmest one is Isidora, a short, kitten heel boot in curly lamb fur (£700). He adds: “Even in countries where the winter is not so severe, people will want to wear them as a fashion statement.”

It’s the French, including designers Alexandra Neel (Aspen boot, £625, from Browns) and Laurence Dacade, who have created some of this season’s most eye-catching footwear. “I have always put shearling in the collections I work on,” says Dacade, who also designs for French couture houses and whose snug grey biker boot (£750) is available from Browns. “This time the aim was to combine the comfort of the fur with feminine, sexy lines. What was very new was the use of curly hair, short or long.”

Sexy and snug? It seems suffering for fashion is finally out of fashion – at least for this season.

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