Which three brands do you think I’ve bought the most pairs of shoes from over the years? Well, Prada is probably first, but after that you’ll be surprised. They’re all German: Birkenstock, Haflinger and Worishofer.
Apart from their country of origin there are two things which these three brands share, which make them appealing to me. The first is that their shoes are based on comfort and utility. These are shoes designed for feet and for walking, rather than for style and posing.
And the odd thing is, that in the spirit of that phrase of the 20th century Modernists ‘form follows function’, although ugly and ungainly when compared to, say, a Prada shoe designed to delight the eye, there is something aesthetically pleasing about them.
It was an American architect, Louis Sullivan, who came up with that sound bite, but I’ve always associated it with a German institution: the Bauhaus art school, the early 20th century cradle of Modernism, reigned over by Walter Gropius.
His philosophy, which Sullivan put into words so well, is that things which are designed simply to do what they are required to do with the greatest efficiency and no unnecessary fuss will naturally please the eye. Plug ugly Birkenstocks, in the Gizeh style (even the names are fugly…) oddly please mine.
This most practical of German shoe brands was the first of these utility shoes I allowed myself to buy, long after secretly admiring them on my acupuncturist back in the late 1980s. I couldn’t let myself buy them then, as they were just too strongly associated with vegan healthwear.
In fact the only shop where you could buy them in London in those days was the Natural Shoe Store, where the shoes very strongly resembled the food eaten by its customers. Brown and good for you.
I finally gave in to my secret desire when I saw them in black patent on Sydney’s Oxford street twelve years ago. I’ve bought a new pair every summer ever since. This year’s are orange patent and very fine.
Having become addicted to the comfort of the cork sole in summer, I then discovered Haflinger clogs, which have a similar arch-supporting cork sole, but thicker, so you get a bit of a Sarkozy lift.
The top of the Haflinger clog is felted wool, which makes them beautifully cosy through the English winter. They are my house shoes, perfect for hours standing cooking on my cold, tile-floored kitchen. I might wear them out to the corner shop, but no further.
I did wonder if I’d gone too far down the utility shoe route the first time I bought a pair, but stopped caring what they looked like once I discovered how comfy they are. And my fears about their aesthetic credentials were assuaged one weekend when my friend Caroline Burstein – of the legendary Browns boutique family – came down to the coast one weekend wearing her Haflingers.
My next discovery, Worishofers, aren’t quite as ugly as the other two shoe brands, but are definitely utility shoes, designed for comfort in wearing.
The first time I saw them was in a small pharmacy near my mother-in-law’s house in Belgrade. They caught my eye among the Scholl sandals and the plastic clogs, because there was something sexy about them in a pervy way, the raised heel of the cork wedge sole, in a mule style, and the punctured leather cross strap hinting at a lady who liked to be comfortable, but would never give in to frumpery.
I immediately wanted to buy them, but stopped myself, thinking I must be such an addicted shopper, I had to snap up whatever whatever was available in any given situation – even if it was orthopaedic shoes.
The next time I saw them was in an achingly cool hipster shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York…
So it turned out I wasn’t the only one who found these shoes oddly appealing. I immediately bought a pair and found they are a summer dream shoe. Very comfie, with a good lift and a certain MILF cheekiness, with the cool credentials of being a utility brand.
Which is why so many celebrities have been snapped walking the summer city streets in them. And with this new success, like Birkenstocks, they are now becoming available in groovy new finishes, such as leopardprint, although I think I will stay loyal to the red, mule style for life.
Which I will be able to do because the other crucial detail these three German shoe brands share is that they all keep their most popular styles going, year after year.
I do wish companies at the slightly more fashion end of things would do this. I know in store shopper interest is peaked by novelty, but I think repeat purchases is a lucrative market at lot of brands miss out on. And with online shopping they could showcase the new lines in store and sell the permanent range on line.
If only TopShop still did the Martha jeans I so loved, but that’s it, one season, then gone. Likewise my perfect sleeveless silk high-summer dress, by Saint Tropez. The only chance I have of getting another of those is to have it copied in Singapore. Boo.
But having consigned the last pair, knackered and battered to the bin after two years hard wear, I’m about to order my fourth pair of grey felt Haflinger clogs. As long as they keep their side of the bargain, these three shoe brands have got me for life.
I just have to decide whether to go braid or no braid… and I think I’m leaning to braid this year.
Which items do you buy on repeat? Or wish you could…