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Belgian Shoes: How Bernie Madoff’s Favorite Loafer Became the Choice of Downtown’s Coolest Designers

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StyleBelgian Shoes: How Bernie Madoff’s Favorite Footwear Became the Choice of Downtown’s Coolest Designers

Belgian Shoes have been a fixture of New York City style for over 60 years. And now they’ve quietly become the go-to footwear for a new generation of decidedly more punk rock creatives.

To the uninitiated, the Belgian loafer is a puzzling shoe to see in the wild; they’re house slippers, essentially, precious looking things topped off by a tiny leather bow. Many speak of “Belgians” as if it’s a category of loafer, but there’s only one that matters: those sold at the small Belgian Shoes shop on E 55th St between Park and Lex in New York. These are the original and best Belgian loafers, legendary for their unparalleled comfort, long history, and instantly recognizable design.

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The Mr. Casual soft-soled loafers, Belgian Shoes' original and most popular style.

The only businesses in New York that can afford to be defiantly old school are the true long-standing institutions, and Belgian Shoes is no exception. Belgians can only be purchased, for $440, at the shop, or by filling out a mail-in order if you can’t make their European-style business hours. They’re constructed by hand in Belgium, as shoes have for over 300 years, sewn inside-out in peoples’ homes before being turned and finished at a family-owned factory outside Brussels. Being handmade, sizing can vary pair to pair; special orders have been known to take over a year arrive. For most of their history, Belgians weren’t widely seen outside the Upper East Side and Hamptons set—customer order histories are filed away to make large repeat orders easier, and it’s a laundry list of the New York social register. Bernie Madoff infamously owned a rainbow array of suede, calf, ostrich and custom croc Belgian Shoes, at least 300 pairs according to one estimate.

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Brendon Babenzien outside his Nolita store, NOAH.

Brendon Babenzien

Designer of: NOAH

Pairs of Belgians he's gone through: "A lot"

The loafers gained relative notoriety outside NYC during the early days of Tumblr-based #menswear blogging, when Pitti Uomo street style was chronicled obsessively and various tailoring blogs were deep in loafer trendpieces, though most recommendations for the Belgian focused on its upper-class pretentions. But today the shoes are breaking out of their clubby origins on the feet of some of the most stylish and creative guys in New York. This new generation takes a decidedly more punk rock approach: they're customizing them, beating the hell out of them, even skateboarding in them. Redefining them, in short, for a new generation.

One of these guys is Brendon Babenzien, founder of NOAH. Babenzien started regularly wearing Belgians “10-12 years ago,” by his estimation. “I can wear whatever the fuck I want [to work],” said Babenzien, who’s been tearing up several of his pairs for over half a decade, including while he was design director of Supreme. “Belgians are fun, they’re easy. It’s a New York thing for me—you don’t see everyone wearing them,” said Babenzien, who regularly rocks a leopard-print pair, and has a custom plaid pair for fall. Though its been open less than a year, NOAH has firmly established itself as one of the coolest new brands in the city, which might surprise some given that it stocks Sperry’s and needlepoint belts alongside wide-leg pants and graphic tees that are now a fixture among New York’s most stylish guys.

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Belgian Shoes recommends you bring your loafers back after a few dozen wears so they can apply a protective rubber outsole (for $65). "I'm just too lazy," says Babenzien.

But Babenzien’s philosophy is all about making clothes your own. And if you’re willing to make a statement, Belgians are a shoe that can easily become a personal signature, whether you wear them with a vintage band tee or a tuxedo. (Babenzien has been known to wear the same pair with both.) “Anything can be punk if you want it,” he says. “It’s about the person, not the stuff. And in this context good people have gravitated to Belgians recently, people who have a more aggressive position in life about things.”

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Alyx designer Matthew Williams in Washington Square Park. "Belgians age really well—I don't like being precious with them."

Matthew Williams

Designer of: Alyx

Accessorizes his Belgians with: Skull foot tattoo

Enter Matthew Williams, whose brand Alyx is one of the most forward-thinking womenswear labels out there (see: their recent collab with Italian motorcycle gear company Spidi). Williams has been wearing Belgians regularly for 6 years or so. “They’re my Chuck Taylors or Vans, even though I wear Vans all the time,” says Williams, who knows a thing or two about taking an aggressive position in life—his last job was art director of Kanye West’s creative house DONDA. (Not to mention he co-founded Been Trill with Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston.)

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Williams generally wears the rubber-wedge-soled Mr. Traveller model.

Williams might not be representative of the average guy you’d run into at Belgian Shoes but, then, again, most people don’t go to the store to custom order a pair with red snakeskin on top and suede black sides. “For me, they’re timeless classics in a wardrobe,” says Williams. “But I definitely have skated in them on my Zip Zinger to get food at the market. I don’t really think about it too much, they’re just one of the core pieces of my wardrobe that I wear like a white tee shirt.” And the coolest wardrobe staples are those that are slightly unexpected; plenty of guys wear Belgians all the time, though few venture beyond the solid browns and blues. But Belgian Shoes provides endless customization options for a small upcharge, and will even make shoes out of your own material. Williams throws conventional out the window with his collection; he knows his personal style, and makes the Belgian work for him. It’s a bold thing to do with the unofficial loafer of WASPs everywhere, but that’s exactly what makes Williams’ take cool.

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Matt Williams' collection of exotic Belgians—lizard, snake, leopard, and cheetah.

Part of the Belgians’ appeal (particularly among product-obsessive designers) is their timelessness. The most popular model, Mr. Casual, with its foot-molding piano wool sole, has been around since the first slips hit New York in the 1920s or 1930s, when Belgian Shoes president Pat Rocchio estimates the design was first imported to the famed Henri Bendel department store by its namesake. The founder’s nephew, also named Henri Bendel, took the Belgian shoemaking masters with him when he left the store after its sale in 1954, and established the Midtown East retail store two years later.

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Eidos designer Antonio Ciongoli.

Antonio Ciongoli

Designer of: Eidos

Favorite Belgians: Chocolate suede Mr. Casuals

Of course the bow, the most recognizable element of the shoe’s design, is also the one that catches the most derision from nonbelievers, who cry that it looks too feminine or effete. Antonio Ciongoli, creative director of Italy-by-way-of-New York line Eidos, couldn’t care less. “The bow is kind of what makes it,” says Ciongoli, who turned an Italian tailoring collection into one of the best new sportswear lines out there right now. “The person who’s wearing it understands. It’s not for everyone—it really is a sophisticated shoe. And if that little bow turns you off, good. I’m glad.” Ciongoli, who wears his beat up brown suede pair multiple times a week, tends to pair his with everything from vintage wide-legged patchwork chinos to Italian soft-shouldered suits of his own design. It takes balls in the first place to rock up in bow-tied slippers; Ciongoli makes them look masculine as hell, and also nails the zone where their casual-formal versatility really sings. “It’s like when my father-in-law bought his first Rolex, the guy at the Rolex store was like, if you’re wearing a white t-shirt and pair of jeans, you put your Rolex on and you’re dressed for a meeting,” says Williams. “And it’s the same thing with Belgians; you can be dressed super casually, but you put them on and you look put together. That’s a very modern way of dressing.”

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"Belgian Shoes doesn't give a fuck that people have copied their design and used their name; they’re just doing their thing, and that’s what’s so sick about it," says Ciongoli.

Belgian Shoes is slowly adjusting to the idea of a more modern world and younger customer base. The store now regularly outfits grandchildren of longtime Belgian wearers, many of whom are asking for new and unique colors and custom options, according to Rocchio. Rocchio even hinted that at some point the store will likely need to launch a new website that better explains the finicky sizing and makes it easier for people far afield to purchase the shoes, even if they’ll still require first-time purchasers to call and talk things through. And that’s great news, because Belgians are an ideal shoe for how men dress today, in New York and elsewhere—they’re easily recontextualized, both preppy and punk, perfect for an age where high and low fashion are mixing like never before. “When you’re in this business, you have a tendency to circle back to the ultimate classics,” says Babenzien. And if you have highly advanced personal style, you know how to make enduring icons look brand new.

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