The famed designer and high-end shoemaker Manolo Blahnik once said ‘shoes are the quickest way for women to achieve instant metamorphosis’.
It’s a great line from a man who certainly knows what he’s talking about, but I reckon his insight in this case needn’t be gender-specific. While it’s true that the canonical footwear choices for men aren’t quite as metamorphic as their feminine equivalents — no pair of bluchers are likely to have as dramatic an effect on someone’s posture and appearance as a set of Mr Blahnik’s heels, to be sure — but there’s no denying the transformative power of a good pair of shoes. They can have you looking, walking, and, most importantly, feeling like a new person. Despite the comparatively modest portion of real estate occupied by footwear in the full sweep of an outfit, pound-for-pound they might have the greatest effect on the overall look and feel of an ensemble.
This applies equally to external appearances as it does to one’s subjective experience. It’s not for nothing that shoes have become an archetypal link to our sense of wellbeing. The notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes or describing a displeasure as a stone in the shoe speaks to a universal link between pedial discomfort and some degree of physical pain. Equally, you could fill entire songbooks with music proclaiming the giddy boost of confidence conferred by a new set of kicks.
Now, all of this can be true of footwear that flies entirely under the radar and simply does its job well without drawing too much attention — as with a comfy pair of trainers or a modest set of dress shoes, say. But I’d argue that the transformative, morale-boosting quality of a good pair of shoes is all the more acute when they have a bit more flair to them. The course of the entire sneaker industry post Air Jordan 1 speaks directly to this, as does the giddy kid in a pair of light-up trainers, the model flashing the scarlet soles of some Louboutins, or even the healthcare worker sporting some Jibbitz-bejeweled Crocs. Once again, the archetypal examples abound: Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Cinderella’s glass shoe, even Marty McFly’s self-lacing Nikes — all striking shoes symbolising a changed reality to the person wearing them.
At which point, let us consider the case of the Tyrolean shoe. I grant you that these odd-looking numbers with their moc toes and heavy soles are hardly obvious bedfellows to all these high-class heels or storybook slippers as far as appearances go, but they are (to my eyes anyway) every bit as striking. In fact, in the looks department, Tyrolean shoes have often been described as downright ugly, yet their soaring popularity over the last few years perfectly illustrates the point I’ve been circling around: Wearing an eye-catching pair of shoes — even ones that aren’t straightforwardly pretty — can have you feeling brand new and box fresh.
But while the endearing look of a set of Tyroleans is part of the draw for those who swear by them, their appearance derives from more practical considerations. Born in the region of the Alps known as Tyrol, located in the mountainous divide between Austria and Italy, these were shoes built for long walks in mountainous terrain. Hence their comfy feel, grippy soles, and weatherproof construction (including leather uppers, Norwegian welts, and bellow tongues). It’s also why, beginning sometime in the 1950s, they caught on with a wider audience looking for an all-weather alternative to boots, particularly in Japan and France.
The French, in fact, lay claim to the most famous maker of Tyrolean shoes, the cult-favourite shoemaker known as Paraboot, which has been making its signature ‘Michael’ model since 1945. The Paraboot Michael has defined the style for a global audience for decades now, although in recent years it has reached previously unseen levels of popularity. While once a rare bird spotted nearly exclusively in the pages of Japanese fashion mags and on the likes of France’s BCBG set (short for ‘bon chic, bon genre’, meaning ‘good style, good class’ — in essence the Parisian answer to the Sloane Ranger), Michaels have since become a pretty standard footwear option for workwear enthusiast, as well as the odd prep and streetwear fan.
Naturally, this growing popularity has meant that a number of other shoe brands have gotten in on the game over time. Apart from Paraboot Michaels, some of the other classic choices include the Kleman Padror, the Mephisto Peppo, and the Heschung Thuya. You can also get versions made by G. H. Bass, Velasca, and even high street retailers like Massimo Dutti, a sure sign that Tyrolean kickers have truly broken into the mainstream.
For my own part, I’ve often spoken on here about my love of characterful footwear (cf. Birkenstock, New Balance, Bean Boots, etc.) and Tyrolean-style shoes have been top of the list since my teen years. Since such exotic fare was nearly impossible to come by in the rural setting where I grew up, I settled initially for a cheap imitation that wouldn’t have passed muster in any mountainous setting, since they swapped out those famously hardy oiled leather uppers for a synthetic carpet-like material that would start wearing through on about the tenth outing or so. Moreover, they delighted in soles slippery enough to turn any walking surface into a defacto ice rink. I nevertheless wore those, along with other moc-toed approximations like Wallabees and chunky boat shoes all the way until I moved to the UK a few years ago. At that point, one of the very first pairs of shoes I bought was a set of Kleman Padrors. They were the cheapest option I could find at the time (the £300-plus price tag of a pair of Michaels proving rather too dear for me), but I ended up being so pleased with them that they soon became my go-to leather shoe.
Having thus put my own pair of Tyrolean kicks through the wringer over the last couple of years, I’ve come to swear by their all-around utility. In fact, they are probably the only pair of shoes I wear consistently throughout the year without ever needing to swap them out since they’re sufficiently hardy to cope with rain and ice, all while being low-cut enough to work equally well on hot summer days. Their two-eyelet lacing also makes them a breeze to slip on and off, while those heavy soles mean they can take a lot of miles before showing much wear. What’s more, with the possible exception of your snazziest suit, you can wear them with just about anything and they never fail to elevate a given ensemble.
Plus, coming back to the business of looks for a second, while I realise that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, allow me to remind you of one last metamorphic archetype: The ugly duckling, which starts out looking like a dowdy duck only to turn into a very swaggy-looking swan. So, if you remain at all sceptical of these oddball Alpine creations, perhaps now is the time to reconsider. After all, they might offer you just the transformation you’re after.