Quality French Footwear

These Historic French Shoes Have Achieved Cult-Like Status. Here’s Why


February 18, 2020 Style By

You’ve spotted it on the train, on the street during fashion week, in the window of a very niche store and in a Japanese fashion magazine: a shoe with a moccasin-style toe and a little green tag. Chunky is certainly an apt descriptor, but clunky suits the very senior-looking shoe far better. The brand, Paraboot, has been operating in France since 1908.

Before hiring his first employees, Rémy-Alexis Richard grew up in the small village of Izeaux at the foot of the French Alps during the late 1800s. He worked at factories that produced shoes for contractors in Paris. Richard eventually became a contractor himself and sold his designs for production in the very same factories. He would soon marry a wealthy woman named Juliette Pontvert and the two pursued the business together under the name Richard-Pontvert.

The First World War would pull him away from his shoe business for a few years: he built and repaired shoes for the French army. After the war ended, he bought a factory back in the same town of Izeaux as a means to better control the manufacturing process.

In 1926, Richard traveled to the United States where he encountered vulcanized rubber boots. He brought the innovation back to his Alpine factories and combined this process with his method for applying notched soles to mountain boots, which at the time were affixed to wooden soles. Notched soles provided more traction on the terrain and, when applied to rubber, produces even greater grip. Today, the company still produces its soles in-house, a distinct feature of Paraboot’s business. In fact, when Richard registered the name Paraboot in 1927, he named it after the Brazilian port of Para, where the brand still gets its latex rubber for its soles.

In 1945, as factories were closing or pivoting to cheaper production methods involving plastic, glue and lightweight materials, Paraboot decided to stay the course and continue making shoes using Norwegian welt and Goodyear welt construction. It was at this time Paraboot had developed its iconic Michael shoe, a Tyrolean-style shoe originating from the Alpine region of Tyrol built for traversing the mountainous terrain. This hefty shoe is likely the style you’ve seen on the feet of industry insiders and tastemakers.

Paraboot’s popularity spread from farms and postal routes to extreme sports like mountain climbing, cross-country skiing and motorbiking. But the brand’s ascension eventually came crashing down to bankruptcy in the 1970s. Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. As slim dark suits and sleek shoes fell out of fashion in the 1980s, the Michael came back into vogue and saved Paraboot.

It was around this time that Paraboot first made its way to the United States at a legendary store known as Louis’ of Boston. Gary Drinkwater, founder and owner of menswear retailer Drinkwater’s, was working for Louis at the time and was instrumental in bringing the shoes Stateside.

“The unique quality of Paraboot,” Drinkwater notes, “is that they have a long-lasting, enduring quality to them because they were originally built for the field, they were built for sports, for industrial reasons. Then they pivoted to being a pedestrian brand offering styles like the Avignon, the Chambord and the Michael.”

Michael by Paraboot $527

As far as materials are concerned, a shoe’s upper is the most important and Paraboot’s selection of leathers is among the finest. The brand prides itself on using leathers from France as well as shell cordovan from the United States. Often, a brand new pair of boots will appear dusty, even dry. During the tanning process, the leather is impregnated with tannins, waxes, oils and fats. These ingredients help give the leather its strength and resilience while also helping it to resist water, a valuable property to have when trekking through the alps. These fats will often rise to the surface of the leather in a process known as ‘blooming’ and is a sign of the leather’s health. The fats will buff out with a few swipes with a shoe brush.

Paraboot has a distinct advantage over many other companies because of its vertical production. While other shoemakers source their soles from companies like Vibram, Dainite and Cortina, Paraboot produces its own rubber soles as it’s been doing since the early 20th century. Having in-house production of its own materials means Paraboot has greater control over the quality of the product, ultimately resulting in a better shoe.

Though not a Paraboot invention, the Norwegian welt is a hallmark of the brand’s most-loved styles and is often associated with the brand. Like the famed Goodyear welt, the Norwegian welt is a construction method that attaches the shoe’s upper with its sole and allows the style to be easily resoled. Unlike the Goodyear welt, which is a flat welt that reaches beneath the shoe’s upper, the Norwegian welt attaches entirely to the exterior of the shoe. This technique prevents water from reaching into the crevice between the welt and the upper.

Avoriaz by Paraboot $605

This waterproof design is often incorporated into sportswear-related shoes like hiking boots which demand greater protection from the elements. Admittedly, the Norwegian welt is less discreet compared to the Goodyear welt, which is fitting for outdoor shoes. Though the chunky profile and dense rubber outsole wouldn’t win any points against other walking shoes, Paraboot was marketed toward hikers and avid walkers since the beginning.

Paraboot’s range of styles is vast swinging from terrain-prepared hiking boots to beach-ready sandals to boardroom appropriate dress shoes. But its bread-and-butter continues to be chunky walking shoes. The Michael and Chambord are two of the brand’s most popular styles and often sit on store shelves next to Alden and Red Wing. While Alden evokes a dressier sensibility and Red Wing holds strong ties to workwear, Paraboot squarely occupies the space in-between.

“The sole is so chunky, the Norwegian welt, the scalloping — it’s got its own personality,” says Phillip Yi, founder and owner of Totem Brand Co. “Originally, they were meant for walking and hiking in the French Alps. It’s definitely a hybrid that plays between both of those two worlds of dress and workwear.”

In the last two decades, Paraboot has built up another wave of popularity, cementing itself further as a cult classic. Ever ahead of the trends, the Japanese market has been longtime fans of the French bootmaker, frequently featuring its shoes in magazine spreads in publications like Fudge Magazine the now-defunct Free & Easy. The Michael has been a point of inspiration for countless brands, eliciting imitators from Clarks, Padmore & Barnes, Mephisto, Kleman and more. But the brand’s cachet draws collaborations with notable brands in seasons past including Arpenteur, Aime Leon Dore, Barbour and Beams.

This year marks the 111th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of its quintessential Michael. And though Drinkwater doesn’t expect the brand to ever be as popular as Red Wing, Dr. Martens or Alden, he thinks it will always occupy a unique place in the market. He bought his first pair over three decades ago and still wears them to this day. He says, “1985 to today, where can you really find a pair of shoes that lasts that long?” For a brand that’s survived two World Wars, a bankruptcy, countless fashion trends and, for Drinkwater, 35 years of wear, Paraboot is here to stay.

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Gerald Ortiz

Gerald Ortiz is a staff writer at Gear Patrol covering style. From San Diego, now New York City.

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