“It’s STYLE not fashion!” enough of us have trumpeted, reflexively, defensively, guiltily, at surprised interlocutors who have confused our interest in clothes no one else wears with fashion. Fashion, we have told ourselves, is fleeting, style – as manifested in the continued and compulsive frittering of our wages on items with details only our parasocial internet peer groups care about – is eternal.
And against the frenetic unpredictability of fashion’s changes, even the twenty or so years I’ve pursued my personal style give me a fair claim to a sort of eternity. But no style has a permanence that allows it to exist completely outside of fashion. The esthetics of cutting-edge fashion can still filter over into pedantic classic menswear, literally shaping gentle changes those of us who cling to that grammar are seeing, as trousers are getting wider and baggier. And, more pointedly, every strange clothing subculture has its own particular fashions, and thus is subject to fashion’s strange bedevilments within their own frames of reference, like some spooky exotic particles.
My twenty years of being a clothes bore means I have endured the style wars. Twenty years ago, the foolhardy and conservative hailed the return of traditional menswear (suits, ties, nice shoes) as if Arthur himself had returned from Avalon (rather than Bryan Ferry on yet another tour). They did not realize that the look of traditional menswear, too, was now simply one of the many fads fashion cycles through, a temporary resurgence. (As I literally have too much invested in it and, thanks to high school, have ample experience living on the margins, I’ll keep wearing what I want anyway.)
The heyday of that trend took classic dressing to flamboyant extremes: fussily detailed pocket squares, vividly colored and patterned suits, and the freak explosion of a mannered little feature of a classic, if previously rare, shoe: the double monkstrap. This, readers, is the story of how I succumbed and overcame.
The monkstrap is a relatively uncommon design for closing shoes – laces and slip-ons are classic, and seven-year-olds everywhere are grateful to the inventor of the Velcro that closes their sneakers, but there’s always been a shoe in most classic shoemakers’ catalogs that closes instead with a leather strap that buckles like a belt to close your shoe. Like a belt, it also can be less forgiving in fit than closures that allow stretch (like elastic-sided slip-ons), or laces’ element of give. But two straps?
The double monk has been a specialty of the shoe brand John Lobb, a brand that is actually two separate companies, whose odd relationship is a complicated detail no one but the fellow esoteric bores we talk to gets right. Suffice to say, this style, invented about a century ago by William Lobb, at his family’s custom shoemaking operation in Paris, had become something of a cult classic in the years prior to the classic menswear fad. As even a cult of fops is not made only of the insanely wealthy and self-indulgent, what allowed this fussy, intricate design to become a classic was the ready-to-wear version John Lobb Paris had begun selling in the years following its acquisition by Hermès. (Hermès bought Lobb Paris in the early 1970s, kept its French custom shoemaking operations going and launched an English-made Lobb ready-to-wear line based on some of the most famous Lobb custom shoe designs. All the while Lobb London, solely a custom shoemaker operating out of a single shop in London’s West End, has continued separately.)
The benefit of a second strap to fasten a shoe is debatable. Its main attraction seems to be its novelty, and as a style it was relatively unusual for decades, perhaps because it’s hard to make a shoe pattern with two straps that fits comfortably, unless the shoe is made to fit a single person – the excellence of custom. And no matter how well made a ready-to-wear shoe is (and Lobb ready-to-wear is quite nice), there are limits to how well it can be made to fit an individual wearer.
Once classic menswear was indeed in fashion, the double monk was adopted by dandies, posers and happening fools alike, some of whom would even walk around with their double monks unbuckled for obvious, obnoxious sprezzatura, a superficial nonchalance that was no longer studied but copied from an Internet essay library. Lobb Paris ran with it, coming up with new styles of double monk shoes and making the double strap its attempt at a signature brand design, even offering what may be the ugliest briefcase ever made.
Lobb London stayed above it all. As a purely bespoke shoemaker, it makes whatever design a customer asks for, one pair at a time, although it has a vast catalog of samples for the customer’s inspiration. A literal catalog, I discovered, when I first began ordering shoes from Anthony Delos, the gifted custom shoemaker who had worked at John Lobb Paris’ custom shop, where institutional, trans-Channel, custom shoemaking memory ran deep and customers could consult the very same gigantic, luxurious catalog of samples. Among those custom shoe sample designs was a simple jodhpur boot – a buckled ankle-height boot – with a double strap closure. Those two short straps replace a single jodhpur strap that traditionally winds sinuously around the upper part of the boot, so they actually don’t look any more flamboyant than the normal design for that piece of footwear. And at last I, too, succumbed to the allure of the double monk, out of romanticism for the idea of a bootmaker trained in the Lobb custom tradition making them for me, out of the finest, softest suede he could find, and the sentimentality of a last order from a maker I considered a friend.
The result has endured, survived along with me the decline of the classic menswear trend and the devolution of the double monk into not only hideous briefcases, but even into triple-strapped mutant shoes and penny loafers whose very saddles have become double monk straps. To say nothing of the past year and change where I have worn only sneakers, but I am optimistic that the styles of that period, too, will evolve and pass.