In the Window

Long ago, when your correspondent was only beginning his sartorial journey, a well-informed Paris resident offered him these wise words: “The most beautiful shoes of the Paris shoemakers you love are the ones in the window…”

Because in the display windows of what then were a handful of shops worldwide, their designs and mad colors violets, turquoises, burgundies that glowed like the sang-de-boeuf glaze on a vase, and yes, the rich tans and browns whose variegated shades appropriated the ravages of time on century-old antiques for completely new – looked the best they ever would. Ironic, then, the antique patination on shoes that were completely new, that would not look better with age… Leathers could stretch and bulge with wear, the striations of a patina distorted like a tattoo on a skin that was no longer tight… 

The promise, the siren song, the fascination of these unusual objects that borrowed from the vocabulary and ethos of more respectable luxuries – furniture, art. No accident that late at night the windows of the darkened shop would still be strategically spotlighted because these were items that seemed at the time out of a dream, especially for passers-by themselves sometimes in some altered state of consciousness, whether drink or simply lack of sleep. 

The former chief designer at that house dealt in dreams: that is, in ideas bigger than shoes. No accident that its first major ad campaign reflected that attitude perfectly with its tagline “Your shoes have a soul.” In the windows of its boutiques, those shoes, without speaking, at least seemed to promise that. In those days its longtime flagship was on rue Marbeuf, across from the tailor Cifonelli. Those windows, framed in authentically patinated oak panels, really were different, really were the most beautiful French shoes. In those windows, alongside shoes from current ready-to-wear lines sat its bespoke samples and various unusual special orders: shoes tattooed with garish images, house shoes with someone’s glowering cat picked out in needlepoint, and, most strikingly to me, suede evening slippers adorned with peacock feathers.

They resonated with me, just a cynical, skeptical passer-by by the time, they resonated as some sort of ideal of that house’s design philosophy, appropriating the naturally beautiful and ornate and transposing it onto a shoe, as an innovation in shoe decoration. No more bows or fancy laces, no punching or broguing. Just the borrowed iridescence that framed uvular yawning eyes.

That chief designer dealt in dreams, but she trafficked stories. I used to call her the Pythia, after the oracle of Greek myth who would inhale the noxious vapors steaming out of the ground at Delphi and exhale addled, oblique prophecy. Her story of how these shoes came to be, which I learned some years later researching my book, was true to such ridiculousness. An aristocrat, she declaimed, had first ordered those shoes. He was inspired by the attire of his mistress at the time, a cabaret dancer who performed in nothing but a few strategically placed peacock feathers. By the time the shoes were ready, she sighed, he had already moved on. A story as flimsy as the wispy fronds of the feathers themselves, full of the usual themes of the flattering tales she’d cobble together: aristocracy (the better to attract social climber clients) mixing with the demimonde, for in those stories no one but princes and artistic tramps (who may have been princes incognito) visited rue Marbeuf. Some of her stories involved hoboes who revealed they had the feet of princes, hazily recalling the story of Cinderella. Her slippers only became glass because of French confusion, after all – the original old French vair, fur, mistaken for modern verreglass.

She made art seen the barest, thinnest pretext for lust. Coincidentally the same year I saw those slippers a new erotica magazine called Paradis came out, its cover with erogenous peacock feathers demonstrating exactly what paradise the publishers had in mind. 

A decade after my strange brief glimpse I stumbled upon a pair earlier this year. As miraculously as Cinderella’s tale, they fit my feet perfectly, against all odds (as any purchaser of vintage clothing knows) really had only been worn once, and then only imperceptibly. The black suede was still lush, the feathers delicately resplendent. So much cooler than the current fashion for Belgian loafers… or are those even current? When I recently visited a nice men’s store I was surprised to see expensive designer slippers and loafers with graphics, eye-catching brocades, and other patterns that 20 years later seem to copy what this formerly small Paris house had done. 

Feathers brown faster than memories, become brittle, surprise with their crumbling obsolescence. Silly stories fall apart too. But the beauty of an item itself that impresses without narrative can persist, especially if that item like these shoes was so unusual and elusive. Earlier this year a salesman I’d known for years recalled this model, told me that they periodically get pairs back to replace the feathers as they wear out. The reality of owning what had just been an evocative memory: I have no occasions to wear these, but for the last decade most of my rare purchases have just been to save something marvelous, something instinctively beautiful sans rationalization from disappearing completely.

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