Light in My Loafers
Most men probably wouldn’t wear loafers adorned with petite one-inch bows. I will. Most men probably won’t pay $500 for an effete looking pair of shoes. I will. And, I think it’s fair to say most men lack the sartorial style it takes to carry off a pair of black leather Belgian loafers with red piping. I don’t.
Belgian loafers—“Belgians” to its loyal fans—were created by the upscale New York retailer Henri Bendel. In 1959, Bendel purchased two 300-year old Belgian shoe companies and began manufacturing and selling soft-soled slipper-like loafers to Manhattan’s WASPY upper crust. In fact, the Upper East Side is the only place one can try on and purchase Belgians. If they let you…
What I mean is that if your behavior is unbecoming of the shoe’s image, you may be dismissed. The first time I made a pilgrimage to the Belgian Shoe Store there was a loud pushy blonde woman from Texas trying on shoes and obviously trying the salesman’s nerves. Finally, he snapped one of the two dozen open boxes shut and announced in a very stern voice: “Madame, your feet are flat…you cannot wear our shoes.”
She stormed out and he calmly gathered up all the boxes and returned them to the back of the store before turning his attention to me. He was unflustered and with a calm demeanor, as if nothing out of sorts had happened.
Yes, the help can be prickly if ruffled. But that’s part of the charm. The place is decidedly old-fashioned. If you can find it…
The store sits discreetly and tastefully on East 55th Street off Park Avenue. There is a sign on the store window that’s easy to miss. The Belgian Shoe Store does very little advertising. The shoes are sold mostly by word of mouth—the original social media—among the tonier crowds in Manhattan and the Hamptons.
Once inside the shop, you’re transported into another world, a retro WASP world from the 1960s. Customers sit on uncomfortable Windsor-style wooden benches and chairs that probably came from a library and patiently await their turn. There is no music. There are no mirrors. Shoes are lined up very simply on shelves. Women’s shoes are in the front of the store in outlandish color combos and patterns. I was shocked to see silver and gold. Men’s shoes come in more reserved colors and patterns and are displayed in the back of the store. There are no price tags or descriptions. Several old relics are showcased here and there. Customer records are kept on index cards and have been so for decades.
I purchased my first pair of Belgians about ten years ago: black suede Mr. Casuals. Besides being a great name, Mr. Casual is also the classic Belgian, the one with the low heel and the soft sole and the little bow.
There are other models, but I wouldn’t dare go there. Over time, my Mr. Casuals have patinaed well; stains from beef fat dripped from a thick ribeye and manhattans spilled at the Blue Moon Bar. I’ve also worn a hole the size of a nickel through the sole, which I now regularly patch with duct tape.
Over the recent holidays, I decided it was time to venture to New York and treat myself to a new pair of Belgians. When I stepped inside, I noticed the place hadn’t changed a bit. I saw stacks of old Social Registers on a table and a strip of flypaper hanging from the ceiling in the cramped little office. I breathed a sigh of relief.
What was new was a Mr. Casual in a camouflage pattern. According to the salesman, they can’t keep this particular model on the shelves, which is hilarious to me, considering how few sizes of each style the store keeps at all. Luckily, they had mine!
To the uninitiated, all this probably sounds a bit fey if not pretentious. But, for me, all this “color” is part of the fun of wearing something unique, a shoe not found in every mall in America. Belgians are stylish and comfortable and ethereal. And seriously, what self-respecting gay man doesn’t want to feel a little light in his loafers every now and then?
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James. More from Rich Barnett.