Out of respect for the reader, I will not pretend that I am introducing the topic of Belgian shoes. These elegantly odd, likably prissy loafers have been in the #menswear Zeitgeist for years, ever since that infamous photo of Bernie Madoff’s ill-gotten collection surfaced online in 2011. They’ve even inspired a wave of imitators, some of which audaciously style themselves as “Belgian loafers.”
But make no mistake: there’s just one true source of Belgian shoes on planet earth, and that is Belgian Shoes. The tiny shop at 110 East 55th Street in Midtown Manhattan remains one of two places in the world where you can buy them: according to the store’s official website, the loafers can also now be purchased at Nicholas Haslam in London, but I warn anyone doing so that they are missing out on the true experience.
Up until recently, Belgian Shoes was a delightfully un-cool store with a musty green carpet, unremarkable wood shelving, and unhelpful staff. Its sole remarkable feature (other than the merchandise, of course) was a stained-glass window behind the counter depicting an old-timey shoemaker at his craft.
This was where I tried on my first pair of Belgians in about 2017, stopping in out of curiosity and never imagining I’d plink down $500 on a pair of what were essentially male ballet flats. Afterward, I can remember pulling them out of their box and triumphantly shanking them onto my own feet, Cinderella-like, in the back of a yellow taxi headed to JFK. But this moment of post-purchase triumphalism was quickly marred by the old feeling of did I really just spend that much money on that? familiar to anyone with a weakness for fine things.
Five years later, I can look back at that impulse buy as one of the better purchases I’ve ever made, and not just because Belgian loafers cost $550 today. No, it’s because those little, bow-crowned shoes have perhaps the best cost-per-wear ratio of anything in my wardrobe, competing only with my Barbour Beaufort.
I slip into them first-thing every morning before I make my coffee and eggs (to spare my feet from the cold in winter, and to spare my wife’s eyes from my feet in summer), and generally keep them on until I change into my running shoes mid-morning. Afterward I rarely wear them as “the shoe” of the day, but will slip into them if I’m meeting the FedEx man downstairs, visiting the post office, scurrying across the way for a donut, etc.
I have, however, found that they make an excellent choice of footwear for a summer wedding, particularly if you are flying to the destination. Their amazingly pliant and lightweight construction also means that they will not cause damage if removed and hurled at your brother’s head in a bit of good-natured, vodka-infused fun in the wee hours of a Polish wedding reception (yes, this occurred).
Lastly, their upkeep is minimal. Just keep them in a good pair of shoe trees whenever they aren’t being worn (though they strike an attractive pose when debonairly cast-off on an Ottoman rug) and brush them every so often. And if they’re looking beat or dried out, simply apply a bit of Saphir Renovateur to cheer them up, but don’t worry about it too much.
Their price tag isn’t the only thing to have changed about the Belgian experience in the last few years. The Manhattan store received a renovation in early 2020, re-emerging as a little salon with marble surfaces and smoothly abstract furniture and exotically expensive-looking carpeting: in other words, the powers that be noticed that Belgians had become sexy, and the store followed suit. I was initially sore at the loss of the original unvarnished and unpretentious retail space, but I’ve since adjusted. The fact that staff are now warm and welcoming took a bit of time to get used to but is likewise appreciated.
Thankfully, what hasn’t changed are the shoes themselves. For gentlemen, the company proffers four distinct models, but only one is really worth mentioning (indeed I’ve never seen any of the others in the wild) and that’s the Mr. Casual. While available now in over a half-dozen materials and scores of colors, each Mr. Casual proudly bears what is the style’s real mark of authenticity: the leather sole.
No, we aren’t talking about the fortress-thick double-leather soles common to Aldens. These are soft, smooshy soles like the underside of a chocolate bunny. Naturally, they will deteriorate quickly when exposed to concrete, and will need to be covered over by a rubber sole to make the shoe anything close to functional—but not too early, or you’ll ruin them.
That’s right: Belgian shoes are a $550 purchase that soon requires an additional expense before they can be enjoyed in their prime. It’s DLC content before DLC content was a thing.
But that’s also the charm. Such a strange, counterintuitive, extra-demanding break-in process elevates the entire act to something like ritual, and forever enshrines the wearer as a member of the International Belgian Shoe Society for life, permitting you to stop other Belgian wearers on the street at anytime, anywhere and ask questions like:
“What was your first pair?” and “Did you send them back for the rubber piece, or take them to a cobber? Know a good one?”
If asked (feel free), I’d respond: 1) medium brown calfskin, the classic “starter.” 2) After I’d managed to fully scuff the leather soles but not degrade them, I had a thin piece of Goodyear rubber fitted over the sole, which has lasted these past five years and only had to be re-glued at the right toe once. 3) Ares Shoe Repair in Beacon Hill, Boston.
Another piece of the Belgian charm, which I’d be remiss not to mention, is how hard they are to acquire. And I’m not talking about price: I’m referring to the fact that in the year of our Lord 2022, there remains no option for purchasing the shoes online. Defiantly, the website’s banner states, “Dear Client, Due to the complexity of our sizing and the four widths offered… we cannot offer e-commerce/website sales.”
Has it ever occurred to the Belgian Shoes honchos that footwear brands with similar if not more complex sizing issues have managed to sell their wares online? I’m sure it has, and that the owners merely shrugged it off. Of course, that only makes me love Belgian Shoes and their arcane, sometimes infuriating, and all-around inimitable product even more.