Gender fluidity may be one of today’s more impassioned topics, but in fashion the lines between masculine and feminine have long been blurred. Katharine Hepburn is many a woman’s favourite role model for the subversive charms of androgynous chic and today’s women continue to embrace the sartorial language of their menfolk; tuxedo jackets and boyfriend jeans have become a staple of many a female wardrobe and Phoebe Philo has become a 21st-century pin-up for borrowed-from-the-boys cool.
And let’s not forget the enduring popularity of masculine shoes. There’s something about their robustness that makes them a perfect foil to a feminine dress. At a recent dinner party the most stylish guests were two friends from the world of fashion who turned up in brogues (one pair from GJ Cleverley’s range for men and the other from Zara’s for women) and I have spent the last two winters sprinting around town in Robert Clergerie’s flatform brogues, deemed by far the coolest shoes in my arsenal by anybody who knows me.
Although Church’s introduced its first women’s shoe in the Roaring Twenties, those who loved the masculine aesthetic had little other choice but to raid the shelves of men’s shoemakers. Now, however, some of them are producing ranges specifically for women. At JM Weston, which in spite of its rather English-sounding name is an old Parisian men’s shoemaker established in 1891, artistic director Michel Perry launched its women’s line two years ago. “I’ve always thought masculine dress codes enhance femininity and can be disturbingly seductive,” he says. “They somehow intensify a woman’s sensuality and charm.” Favourites for this season include the Richelieu (£460), an Oxford brogue in glazed burgundy or navy calfskin with a double rubber sole; a simple triple-soled Derby (£460) in black or brown; a Chelsea boot in black or light brown boxcalf (£650); and black patent leather loafers (£445) that would look particularly terrific with a tux. “When designing for women I imagine she might mix her JM Westons with a pair of socks, a negligee-style satin dress and a jacket or chunky wool sweater. The Richelieus would also look fantastic with rolled-up boyfriend jeans and a white shirt.”
Meanwhile, at Grenson, one of Northampton’s most renowned makers of traditional men’s shoes, Tim Little decided to introduce a range for women shortly after buying the company in 2010. “Women kept asking if we would make the same shoes but in their sizes,” he tells me, “and the surprising thing was that these weren’t country women looking for practical footwear, but modern, city-chic women looking for an alternative to the 5in heel.” Today, it’s the styles almost identical to those Grenson creates for men – brogues, loafers, Oxfords and Chelsea boots – that are among the bestsellers, and women’s shoes now account for 30 per cent of the business (rising by around 50 per cent year on year). Emily (from £210), a brogue with a white wedge sole, is many a fashionista’s favourite, while the Rose brogue (£215) is more classic though no less striking in white or silver for summer. The Ella brogue boot (from £210) channels a rock-chick vibe, softened in the grained black leather version with cream laces.
Much like Grenson, Gaziano & Girling – a British brand founded in 2006 that counts Fiat heirs Lapo and John Elkann, Ralph Lauren and Tom Wolfe among its fans – found the wives and girlfriends of customers began clamouring for shoes for themselves. This year it will unveil three women’s styles – the Maddison Chelsea boot (£1,040), the Liberty slip-on (£835) and the Florence, a one-eyelet Derby (£835). With a factory in Northamptonshire (the first to be set up there in over 100 years), and now a boutique on Savile Row, it also offers made-to-order shoes from £835, and a bespoke service from £4,000.
Crockett & Jones has long had a women’s line but 18 months ago it ramped up its design credentials, pairing beautifully made brogues (from £355) and boots (£305) with ribbon laces. This summer I like best the Cora Oxfords (about £350) in ivory calfskin with beige ribbon laces. To put your own spin on a pair of Crockett & Jones, the special-order service starts from around £600, while the bespoke service, available at its Paris shop, starts at €3,000.