Today, Matt Gray just may have the most impressive collection of Alden rare shell cordovan boots of anyone in the world. But just over two years ago, he didn’t have any—and was barely into shoes at all.
“My wife got me my first pair of nice shoes, Allen Edmonds Strandmoks,” while Gray was managing an Audi dealership in North Carolina. “After that, it was four or five more pairs from their shoe bank. Then somehow on Styleforum I stumbled upon the Alden thread. In April of 2017, I got my first pair of Aldens. And then I kinda…I went a little crazy.”
Over the last 26 months, Gray went on a tear for the ages, collecting 81 pairs of shoes and boots total, including from such prestige makers as Edward Green, Carmina, Crockett & Jones, and Enzo Bonafé. But his passion, without question, is Alden.
“I’m pushing 50 pair of Aldens, with 32 shell pair, and 16 rare shells.”
In a bit of benevolent service to the shoe-mad community around the world, those shell cordovan Aldens are prominently featured on Gray’s Instagram feed, on which he posts what his feet have the distinct pleasure of getting adorned with each day.
“I was never into Instagram. I never looked at Instagram, never followed it. But one day I just took a picture. And then I tried to take a picture every day. It’s goofy, but I have more fun on that thing than anything else. I get up in the morning, pick out my shoes. A lot of times I take a picture, and then go back inside, take the boots off, and put my pajamas on.”
The shots tend to be of Gray either striking what has become known as the “Matt Gray Step”—right foot forward, left foot back, rare shell cordovan colors like ravello and whiskey and cigar displayed in all their high-shine glory—or propped on his desk at his recently opened Raleigh, NC men’s shop Ealdwine. Whose footwear focus, believe it or not, is 100% Alden.
So how’d Matt Gray get what everyone wants—rare shell cordovan—and possibly a literal ton of it? Mainly: perseverance.
“EVERYBODY wants the rare shell. Everybody wants ravello, or whiskey, or whatever. But you know how long the wait lists are,” he says. “It was a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and a lot of help from friends—they couldn’t take them at the time, so they passed them on to me. It’s an inner circle. And it’s a tough nut to crack to get into that. But you just have to keep your head down and stay focused and you’ll get ‘em. People complain that they can’t get them. But they don’t really work hard to try to get them. I think that’s one of the fun parts—the thrill of the hunt.”
Plenty of goodwill from the Alden community was essential, too.
“There have been so many people on forums—people I’ve never met or seen—that have helped me out to get my shell. People think that because I have 7,000 followers I’m getting calls from retailers for rare shell. Let me tell you, nobody’s saying hey, you want a pair of these? You have to reach out, and it takes time.”
Many have become caught in the relentless tractor beam of Alden rare shell cordovan boots and shoes. Of course it’s about the durability and shine and unmistakable beauty of the leather. But for Gray and others, it’s also about the exclusivity.
“A lot of brands carry cigar shell, brown shell. I have three or so of Crockett & Jones boots in brown shell cordovan from Horween. And they’re amazing shoes. But it doesn’t fill the void. You still always want the Aldens.”
“Because you can get them! I can go on Crockett & Jones right now and order a pair of brown shell Harlechs. But I can’t do that with Alden. Alden is a different feel, and a different look—it’s a different boot. And I’m not knocking Crockett & Jones or Carmina, they’re amazing too. It’s just different, man. But you want what you can’t have, I guess is the deal.”
Now that Gray has them, he doesn’t just sit around looking at them in the custom closet of the home he just built in Raleigh. He wears them.
“I wear everything I own, but with that big a rotation, there are certain things I wear more than others. I kind of think, what haven’t I worn for a little bit? The shoes always come first, and then I pick the rest of the outfit around the shoes. And I look at the weather too. I mean, shell holds up. But if it’s going to be shitty out, I’m not going to wear ravellos or whiskey boots in the rain. Just not going to do it.”
“I’ll wear them all day, I’ll run home, go out to dinner, and put something else on just to do it. I like wearing them. I like looking at them.”
What about care?
“The Mac Method, man. Every time I wear them, I wipe them down with a damp cloth, brush ‘em, put the trees in, throw ‘em up, and that’s it. I used to do a lot more, that was kind of my Sunday thing, just having fun with the shoes. But I find that less product is better.”
A lot of Gray’s shoe care is pre-emptive. Which amounts to, essentially: taps.
“I walk horribly. However I walk, I always wear the outside of my heels down. And I must be a toe dragger too. So on Amazon I bought probably 300 pairs of those little stick-on plastic shoe taps. They’re not the best looking, and everyone puts on the metal taps, but I’m not gonna go through all that. I stick them on, nail them in, and move on down the road, so they don’t wear out. You’ll see them in my pictures, on the toes, and I stick them on the heels too.”
Those shots are currently seen every day by over 7,000 followers. Many of them wondering: did he indeed invent the Matt Gray Step or not?
“I don’t think so. There’s gotta be somebody else, but I don’t remember ripping it off anybody. My pictures at the beginning were standing by a brick wall. I don’t know how it kind of morphed into the Matt Gray pose. It’s kind of weird how it kinda went bonkers.”
His secret? Shooting on nothing more professional than an iPhone X, leaning realllllllly far forward, and always having something he can grab onto with his non-camera hand.
“One time I posted a picture of how I do it—people thought I was using a tripod, but nope. If your back ain’t hurting, you’re not doing it right. And then it kinda took off after that. Some people kind of have it down now. @deshoeguy, sometimes I’ll see his pictures and say ‘Oh! When did I take that one?” I go right foot forward, and he goes left foot forward, or something like that.”
Plenty of people catch the Alden bug and amass incredible collections—the truly caring ones show them to the rest of us on Instagram every day. But Gray couldn’t stop there. His Alden-fatuation led to a phone call from Adam Knott from Alden of Carmel—one of the legends of the Alden game—who encouraged Gray to consider opening a shop.
“One day Adam emailed me, and said, ‘you’ve got a gift, you’ve got a lot of followers, I think you’d be really good at retail—have you ever thought about selling Aldens?’ I’d hadn’t even ever bought anything from him! But here he was, reaching out. I thought man, how cool would it be to have an Alden store. So we talked on the phone forever. I said, well, let’s think about it.”
That led Gray to strike up another conversation with Jim Pietryka, a Raleigh local and shoe-industry vet who had put in years at Allen Edmonds and Johnston & Murphy.
“I started chatting with Jim, and we were mostly texting—we lived maybe 12 miles away but we’d never met. That’s what started the whole thing, and the wheels were turning.”
After some conversations with Alden—which took into account two other Raleigh-area stores that also sold Aldens—Gray, Pietryka, and Ealdwine got approval for the account.
“It was so exciting. Jim loves Alden as much as I do. He knows more about shoes than me—I just wear them and take pictures. Without him it never would’ve happened.”
While Ealdwine also sells Naked & Famous denim, Mizzen + Main shirts, Ashland Leather wallets, beautiful Frank Clegg bags, Randolph Engineering aviators, incredibly artistic William & Henry knives, and of course Chup and Pantherella socks, its center of gravity is and will always be Alden.
“Ealdwine would never have existed without Alden,” Gray says. “Never.”
In addition to Alden catalog shoes, Ealdwine is beginning to roll out some makeups, including the stunner medallion cap toe Plaza last Atom bluchers in color 8 and black shell cordovan, and also hunting green suede. They’re working on more—”The key is to make something different; so many things have been done, it’s hard to come up with something new that people will like”—but Ealdwine also moved an iconic pair of blue suede NST boots that Gray designed with Alden Madison.
“On that boot, I reached out to some retailers, and they were not so sure about it. So I called Alden Madison and [the owner] Curt was like, get me 10 guys and I’ll make it. So I started on a tear getting everyone to do it. I ended up buying myself two pairs of boots, because I wasn’t sure what people would think, I figured it’d be one run and done. But then they sold out the run in a day or two, and then did another order, and then did a third.”
Gray’s truly unique boots lit up Instagram, and the second pair landed in a glass display case at Ealdwine.
“Jim sold ‘em. This guy really really wanted them, so how could we say no.”
Gray has said no to few things Alden-related over the past couple years. But with 81 pairs in the mix, what’s Matt’s all-time favorite boot? “I think I have to say the Ravello DC Cap Toe Boot,” he says without hesitation.
Then, of course, he hesitates.
“No no no no! Yeah. Well…hmmm, yeah it is. But wait, I have a whiskey Indy boot that I really love too, and I didn’t even like Indys before. Yes. That’s it. Let’s go whiskey Indy. That thing is phenomenal. The color is perfect. I was never really a Trubalance fan, I was going for more of a narrow look. But I got those, and they’re beautiful.”