Photographs via Getty and by Alex Lockett. Watercolors by Kate Schelter. Collage by W Magazine
The previous iteration of the Belgian Shoes store in New York had all the charm of a doctor’s office waiting room. It was almost aggressively simple, with Amish-style furniture, bad lighting, and faded watercolors hung on white walls. According to at least one customer, the fact that the entrance shared a buzzer with an actual doctor’s office often led to confusion. “Every five minutes people would be buzzing and being like, ‘Hi, I'm here for Dr. Whatever.’ And the salesperson would be like, ‘No, no, no. That's next door,’” recalled Anna Page Nadin, a digital video producer who has worn the shoes since she was a teenager.
For many customers, that fusty anti-aesthetic was part of the appeal. The shop, on 55th Street between Park and Lexington, had been basically untouched since moving to the space in 2001, although it felt much older, like a retail relic from the pre-digital era. In January, the company announced plans for a renovation that sent some longtime fans into a tailspin: What would happen to the stack of 1980s social registers in the corner? That big stained glass faux window in the back? What about the handwritten signage or the framed old-boys-club ephemera?
One friend, an architect with a soft spot for the jolie laide, called me in a panic, urging me to try and capture the place as it had been. I had never set foot in the store before, but I knew the shoes: soft-soled loafers with almond shaped toes, contrasting piping and tiny bows that come in an array of colors and materials, from muted houndstooth wool and fuzzy leopard print to sherbet-colored leather and camouflage velvet.
I had always associated them with the kind of older, uptown man who ties his cable knit sweaters around his shoulders—proud traditionalists, un-self conscious and resolutely anti-trend. The reality, I’ve learned, is that the customers so intensely devoted to this tiny heritage brand are all over the map. The designer Isaac Mizrahi has a closet full of them. Vogue contributing editor Tonne Goodman and her sister, Wendy, the design editor at New York Magazine, have shopped there since they were kids. Four years ago, GQ featured a cadre of young menswear designers who had embraced the style. Belgian Shoes’ most infamous fan was probably Bernie Madoff, whose collection of 300-odd pairs was auctioned off by the U.S. Marshal’s Service after his Ponzi scheme conviction.
Some young women in their 20s, like Nadin, started wearing them because their mothers passed along their own pairs, like their mothers passed on theirs. But they put their own spin on them: “I wore them at Bard, I've worn them at raves, I've worn them in places where Belgians have probably never seen the light of day,” Nadin said, laughing.
Nadin’s mother, Anne Kennedy, a co-founder of the agency Art + Commerce, has been wearing them since what she refers to as “the Stephen Sprouse days” of the ‘80s, when the designer’s uptown-downtown mix was all the rage. She and her colleagues would wear velvet versions of the shoes with their initials on them, paired with black catsuits and big neon jackets. With shoes, Kennedy said, “That's the one place it's okay to be a little conservative. In the rest of your life you don't want to necessarily be that way.” Now, she keeps a few pairs on rotation: The newest ones are reserved for work travel, more worn-in ones for errands and time at home, and the nearly destroyed ones become gardening shoes.
Tonne Goodman, who owns pairs in black and brown, first came across them when she worked at the New York Times in 1974. “I thought they were fabulous, because they’re not really attractive,” she said, laughing. “You know what I mean? They’re not really great looking, but they have such an attitude that they are great looking.”
Mizrahi echoed the sentiment: “I didn’t like them at first, because I thought they were a little matronly. But then it kind of gets to you, it’s like, Oh no, that’s just what you love about them. It’s like the Queen of England or something. Does the Queen of England give a shit if she’s matronly? I don’t think so,” he said. “Sometimes the least sexy shoe in the world is the sexiest shoe in the world.”
Mizrahi, who once designed his own heeled riff on the shoe, was converted by another longtime customer: Greta Garbo, who was often photographed wearing them while running errands near her apartment on Sutton Place. “I’m a freak about Greta Garbo,” Mizrahi said, remembering a book he used to flip through featuring images of Garbo taken by a paparazzo. “In three out of four pictures, she’s wearing some old, fucked up trench coat, a knee-length A-line skirt, dark sunglasses and Belgians. And she looks amazing. She looks beyond. I mean, one picture more gorgeous than the next.”
The shoes first made their way to New York around the same time Garbo did, after Henri Bendel’s nephew visited Izegem, the center of Belgium’s shoe industry, to scout out pieces for the department store that bore his uncle’s name. In 1955, when his family sold the store, Bendel set up shop on 56th street, selling the loafers under their straightforward moniker for almost half a century, before moving a few blocks east. Bendel’s longtime partner, the Belgian manufacturer Georges Vanacker, assumed full control of the company last year. He now runs it with his three daughters, Barbara, Vanessa, and Sarah.
“Before, we were just the producers. We were here in Belgium and we shipped the shoes to New York every week and that was it for us, more or less,” Sara Vanacker said, speaking on the phone from Belgium last month. “It's only when we started getting involved in the store that we realized that there was so much potential in it.”
As a brand so adored for its consistency, a major overhaul can be a risk. The day before renovations were set to begin, I sat down in the store’s stockroom with Pana Diamantopoulos, Belgians’ elegant general manager, surrounded by towering stacks of shoes. “We have a lot of clients who feel very nostalgic and attached and they're like, ‘Don't change a thing.’ And we're like, ‘Yeah, no, we need a new rug,’” she said.
In addition to the store renovation, there are also plans to revamp the website (it currently serves only as an index of colors and styles) and polish up the homespun feel of the social media accounts. “I like to use the word transfiguration,” Diamantopoulos said. “It's this changing of many aspects of the brand, but not the core DNA.”
I noticed the floor to ceiling shelves, the tiny plastic drawers filled with custom trimmings, and the rows of paper customer files along one wall—a beloved element of the experience that Tonne Goodman said made her feel like she was part of a club. “The files are staying. We still very much use the files,” Diamantopoulos said. “We went to a POS system only two years ago. We used to hand write receipts before then.”
Most of the people I spoke to embraced the idea of change with a cautious optimism. “You could say I’m suspicious of change for change’s sake. I’m a stalwart to the old school, and I feel like that is their strength as a brand so it will be exciting to see how the rebranding works within that,” said Kate Schelter, the author of Classic Style and a painter who has made a series of charming watercolor likenesses of the shoes. “I loved the old store because it kind of looked like a random store that you stumbled upon, for the in-the-know. Fancy but not ‘fashion’. It was not self-conscious and I loved that. It didn’t try too hard. It had great Granny Style.”
Wendy Goodman was a bit more suspicious. “You don’t have to update everything in this world. Tradition is comforting. That store was perfectly lovely—it was New York,” she said. “In this city of wretched change for the worse, design-wise, let’s just leave certain beautiful things alone.”
When the store reopened after two weeks, at the beginning of March, it was almost unrecognizable: The Amish benches replaced with a pair of quotation mark-shaped modernist sofas, the watercolors and stained glass with a single unframed abstract canvas. Designed by Nina Garbiras of the design studio FIG, it's slick and moody and elegant. It looks like it belongs to this decade. “I almost fainted seeing the curvy sofas—so unstrict,” Kennedy said, after seeing photos of the space. “But I'm all for them opening up.”
“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” Wendy Goodman said, as she scrolled through their Instagram account. “It still has that dour lighting.”
The store’s unveiling couldn’t have come at a worse time. A party to celebrate the reopening was one of the first events on my calendar to be canceled because of coronavirus concerns, and, like all non-essential businesses in New York City, the doors will remain shut until life returns to normal. A note on their website asks customers to send an email if any needs should arise.
The future of independent retail in the city has never been so uncertain. Even before the pandemic arrived, beloved, specialized boutiques were replaced with ATM kiosks and fast-casual takeout operations at an alarming rate. But if I could bet on one thing, it’s that there are a lot people who consider Belgians to be an essential business, no matter what the store looks like. In another 20 years or so, we can only hope that they’ll be begging them not to touch this version.