My entire life, I thought I’d hate Paris. I could list the reasons, but they’re silly, and bad. Either way, I never went.
Until two weeks ago, that is, with my amazing and perfect wife (hi hope you’re reading!). Our excuse for going: a foolhardy offer from her parents to watch our 15-month old for four days. And holy crap guess what you’re never going to believe this, but: Paris is great! So great, that I’ve now decided it’s maybe the best city in the world, at least to visit—and as a born and bred New Yorker, we are contractually obligated not to say such things.
I saw a lot of shoes, which is why I’m writing this story. But I saw other stuff too—so there might be a little of that as well. Here we go.
The Most Important Part of Any Trip: Selecting Proper Footwear
I very honestly believe the subhead above. With the wrong shoes, your trip becomes a nightmare. Maybe they lack the versatility to handle changing weather or terrain conditions. Maybe they’re not comfortable enough to walk 10+ miles a day (my idea of a good time). Lot to consider.
But now all of a sudden you’re packing for Paris, where style is not so much a thing you think about and engineer towards, as much as it’s something so embedded in the fabric of the city that it just exists.
I kept imagining Parisians in extended discussions about what brand of blazer or slacks or scarf or vest (lots of vests there! They call them waistcoats. My god they’re good at this.) or of course shoes they were wearing, or will wear tomorrow, or wanted to wear. But the more I imagined, the more it didn’t seem right at all. Parisians are too busy talking about whatever else they talk about—I don’t know…poems? Revolutions?—and smoking billions of cigarettes to spend the time on that. I realized: they just know. They’ve never even had to try. It just happens.
As I don’t speak French, none of these obviously true conceptions were disproved by eavesdropping while on the trip.
I knew I had to choose shoes that mattered to me, and hit the comfort/versatility marks, and looked good without looking overly American. I always bring two pairs of boots/shoes on any trip over two days. Especially when you’re doing tons of walking, your shoes demand rest. The most consistent must-packs are my Alden Indy boots, complete with a grippy rubber commando sole. They’re possibly my most comfortable footwear period, they look just goddamned wonderful, and I get to reaffirm my commitment to them by being required to take them off at airport security despite having TSA Pre-Check, owing to their massive metal shanks.
But my three-year-old Indys had been begging for a resole for a while, and right before the trip begged harder—one of the commando half-soles began to separate from the midsole. With those requiring their own trip back to Alden for a resole, I opted for my Alden Roy plain toe boots, the brown Chromexcel apples of my eye—and the other shoe in contention for most comfortable in my entire collection.
The Roys are a year younger than my Indys, but they’re my most-worn piece of footwear. Which means their plantation crepe soles—bouncy and forgiving as they are—wear down quickly. A resole on them was also imminent; I had to cross my fingers that they’d make it. The crepe’s current lack of tread also leaves them quite unideal in rain, but the forecast looked clear. And hell, if something was going to be Parisian and effortless, it was a beautifully worn, absolutely classic, “no I’m not trying hard but if you look at these things with any sort of close eye it’s at least possible that you’ll be impressed, Parisian individual” pair of boots. One down.
For the next pair, I kind of let my heart get the better of me. My two pairs of Iron Rangers are another travel go-to—I wore my 8111s alongside the Indys on our two-week honeymoon in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Naoshima (look it up, and go). We averaged nine miles of walking a day, and my feet never mustered a complaint. But as wonderful as they are, Red Wings just don’t feel all that Paris.
I’d recently purchased a pair of Tricker’s, my first. Bourtons with a beautiful C.F. Stead reverse kudu leather that’s reputed to be as durable as any suede/roughout/etc available, and a big honkin’ commando sole. They’re from the excellent Seattle shop Division Road. Each weighs probably more than the child I left back in Boston. I was excited to wear them, period, but had only gotten them onto the streets a few times before. They were…let’s say…not broken in. I packed them anyway.
Ok So Let’s Skip to the Part Where I’m in Paris
Hi, I’m in Paris now. I could’ve maybe slept five hours on the redeye, but I passed up two of those to watch Gravity on a 6-inch screen with terrible airplane headphones because I forgot mine. Good movie though. I really thought Clooney was back! Also before that, I became the kind of person who buys ergonomic memory foam neck pillows from Hudson News. And then…uses them. I hurts so very much to say this, but: they’re kinda great and my life might be changed.
It’s too early to check into the hotel—same for shoe stores to be open—so we strike out, eat two of what is doubtless the best croissant of my life (and I take constant care to seek out very excellent croissants) from La Maison D’Isabelle, then eat an entire two-foot-long (maybe three?) baguette, before ending up in a stunning garden with endless rows of perfectly aligned trees, which itself is within the boundaries of an old palace. There’s a fountain. There are metal chairs ringing it—and metal loveseats, whose backs are slanted in such a manner that have no choice but to collapse into it and put your feet up on the fountain. Everyone’s doing it. We do too.
I begin my initial shoe-based mission: snapping pictures of Parisian men’s feet, if they’re wearing great shoes. I realize I have zero chance of pulling off the move I employ on American soil—explaining Stitchdown, slipping them a business card, then begging to take a photo. The French will have no patience for such silliness, or my English. Which leaves surreptitious shooting as my only viable option.
Over the four days, I get one reasonably great shot—this one above. I’m 99% certain those are J.M. Weston triple-sole 180 loafers, which I will fall deeply, oddly in love with in the coming days. He was napping. Everyone else was napping too. So we join in the fun, and quite literally fall hard asleep for a half hour on a metal loveseat with our feet up on a fountain in a Parisian park inside a palace. Nice place, this Paris.
We walk past Notre Dame. It’s sad, but also just impressive how quickly scaffolding has consumed what’s left of the building. People take pictures, somberly. Now it’s time to sit on the sidewalk at a tiny cafe, both seats facing outward, just like you picture it. All the sugar says “sucre” on it, which I hope you appreciate as much as I do, if you watched Prison Break. My former roommates to whom I texted the picture certainly did.
Lunch is at Bouillon-Julien, which may or may not be an incredibly old restaurant, but is definitely in an incredibly old space. My god it’s so fucking Paris. Our charming 50-year-old rogue of a waiter comes up with two glasses of champagne and puts his index finger to his lips to let us know the flutes of bubbles are our little secret. He’s breaking the rules just for us. Over the course of our meal he also gives everyone else in the whole place the same glass of champagne—even the row of older solo-dining men (no shoe photo requested from them) who ordered entire bottles of wine. It’s 11:45am.
The Musee D’Orsay is the museum you want to go to in Paris. We did the Louvre too, and I’ll get to that, but this one is astonishingly chill by comparison, and wonderful, and has a giant marble polar bear.
I take some pictures of the shoes people are wearing in the paintings. Here you can see Tormund from Game of Thrones rocking some seemingly really nice shoes while he paints.
These ones aren’t bad either.
There’s something mystifying to me about this painting though. So much realism and detail was added to almost every aspect of the work—and then there are these blurry, undefined shoes. It’s true of pretty much everything you see in the museum. They didn’t spend a lot of time painting shoes back then.
Paris Old Man Style is one of the best styles available. I’d personally say it’s trumped by Tokyo Old Man Style, which is just so damn crisp and perfect and layered and wonderful—all big but not cartoonishly so patterned blazers, and thin cardigans underneath, and excellent shoes. Paris Old Man Style is scarves and proper slacks and of course also blazers—and J.M. Weston 180s. Every old Parisian man was issued 180s when he got his first job, or something, and they’re still going. I’m fairly certain these are some, but I could be wrong. If they’re not, they sure want to be.
In general, I see a lot of loafers, and a lot of Westons of all kinds—it’s not uncommon to see Hunt derbies on people who don’t even look all that rich, and there are plenty of Half-Hunts and Golfs. The other standard Parisian shoe seems to be the black oxford, which can be tough to identify a maker on, especially on the fly. Black oxfords, worn but never shabby, generally with a cap, and sometimes, but very rarely (thank god) with TOO long of a silly, overly long extended pointy toe. But they definitely don’t do stubby with their oxfords.
Boots, there are fewer of than I expected. I’m not sure I see a person in work boots or service boots or anything even approaching the current American ideal of a boot. Of course there are sneakers—Jordans, Yeezys, far too many terrible Balenciagas and terrible-er knockoffs. Lots of Vejas. But in Paris, men wear shoes. I love it. I wish I had more photos.
This is a bagel store called Bagelstein, because everyone knows Jewish people make bagels.
These are the bagels. They are frightening.
This is a designation I 100% agree with.
The Paraboot Part of this Story
The first shoe store we hit is Paraboot. There are a half-dozen Paraboot shops in Paris, all of which seem fairly similar. The store itself is stark, and harsh. Too much white. Too clinical. I worry I’m going to get vaccinated. I feel like if they worked a little more comfort into the decor, more people might feel like paying $400+ for their shoes.
I bought my brown grain Paraboot Avignons at Drake’s in Manhattan, where everyone is perfectly dressed like whatever the British version of a ribald, wealthy frat boy is, and there are beautiful wood cabinets, and you want to sleep in the chairs even though you’re not in a palace-park. The comfortable class seeps into the shoes, and it’s still in them when they’re on my feet. Here, you don’t really get that. The shoes are great shoes, and they deserve more.
Decor aside, the Paraboot offerings are excellent, and different. In the US, you’re just lucky to find Avingons, Chambords, or Michaels—Paraboot’s core models, and for good reason. Maybe a hiker, maybe a Reims super-loafer or Barth boat shoe.
In Paris, it’s a totally different brand with range, baby. Over half the stock lacks what I’d considered to be Paraboot’s signature chunky rubber Ridgeway outsole paired with a Norwegian welt so loudly stitched that I’ve had multiple people tell me they love my Doc Marten’s. The apron-front derbies are more refined. The loafers aren’t J.M. Westons but they’re also not a Paraboot Reims. The city oxfords are certainly un-boring—colors you’re not quite sure you’ve ever seen on a shoe, little perforations to make things interesting—but are sleekly built and business-ready. The sandals are deeply criminal, but so are all sandals.
I spent a bunch of time at the shell cordovan table. The cap-toe oxfords and boots were wonderful. The shortwing derbies were reminiscent of old Florsheim Imperials, or maybe even Aldens with slightly more extended toes. The apron-fronts were Avingons on Xanax and I loved them.
I’m not sure I saw a single pair of Paraboots on someone’s feet in four days, and lord knows I was looking. I didn’t expect that. Maybe they were wearing Paraboots I didn’t realize were Paraboots. Maybe the cool thing over there is to cut off the tags. I still like my tags, quite a bit.
The Church’s Part
Next up is Church’s—not French, obviously, but right across the street. The British shoemaker has been doing its thing since 1873, and some people will tell you that it just hasn’t been the same since Prada bought it in the ‘90s. But the shop feels like a shoe shop should (we’re starting to get somewhere! Paraboot, step it up!), and the shoes are beautiful.
I become particularly zapped by their Ongar oxford, largely because of the unique piping, which could also be described as “largely.” It creates a hyper-accentuated toe cap, but also winds its way around the heel counter and vamp—something you’ll rarely see with this thickness. It’s extreme, but manages to not even nudge up against brutal. Definitely distinctive. I look at it for a while.
The upper leather itself would be an excellent topic to toss out to a bunch of shoe nerds; an even better one if they were locked in tight quarters with no climate control and they hadn’t been fed in a while.
Church’s calls it “polished binder.” You’ll also see it as “bookbinder,” although I’ve never seen a book bound with such a finish, or even a binder. And I’m old enough to have owned many, many binders. The good ones had Lamborghinis on them.
The far less marketing-y term is “corrected grain.” It’s essentially calfskin that’s had a heavy finish applied to it, almost like an acrylic or lacquer, although those might not be completely precise comparisons.
That process nets you a shoe that’s very smooth, and very shiny—and actually, very waterproof. It also nets you a shoe that won’t really accept shoe shine (maybe not necessary; it’s all shiny already) or conditioning (hard to find a positive spin for that one), and can be prone to permanent unsightly creasing and scuffing—and worst, irreparable cracking. You can find $100 shoes corrected grain leather. My recommendation is to un-find those as swiftly as possible.
I don’t have any real-wear experience with Church’s binder leather, so I can’t speak to it, although I imagine for the price it’s significantly more durable and long-wearing than the cheap crap. (Tricker’s, a brand I personally have consummate faith in, also uses bookbinder leather, for what that’s worth.) But new, it looks almost like shell cordovan, just without any interesting color variation. Again it’s fun to look at. And oh that piping.
They also have these, available in all sizes, ready for you to put into a bag and walk out of the store. I did not do that.
Then there was this place.
We do not put their chicken, rubber or real, in a bag and walk out, either.
Ohhh, The J.M. Weston Part
This will come as no surprise to anyone who actually read any other part of this story: J.M. Weston is kind of the thing in Paris. J.M. Weston shoes are on the ground and in the air, everywhere. It’s honestly tough to figure out an American counterpoint, from a cultural relevance standpoint. Mayyyybe you could start to say Alden, but you shouldn’t finish it—you pretty much need to know shoes to know Alden. Everyone in Paris may not wear J.M. Westons, but it’s pretty obvious they all want to, and are all very, very aware of them.
Weston’s been at it since 1891, but they don’t much activate the “we’ve been around forever, trust in our heritage—and to get you there, we’re going to make everything look kinda old” move. Maybe the New York store, which I love, plays to that a bit more. In Paris, though, the aura is luxury. The shop is modern, and stunning. When I try on some 598 Demi-Chasse/Half-Hunts, they whisk my Alden boots off to an in-shop care station.
“Don’t you dare do anything other than brush those! They’ve only ever been brushed!” I tell them, omitting that one time I conditioned them, to limit confusion from seeping into the situation. “Yes of course, sir.”
I don’t buy the Half-Hunts. I want them, quite badly indeed. But I don’t NEED them. I worry that they’ll last for 45 years because I’ll wear them too infrequently. I consider taking a job that requires a suit just to validate a purchase, but realize that can’t happen before I leave the store.
Before I do, I fall deeply in love with the rare, bold feat of shoemaking that is the J.M. Weston’s triple-sole 180 loafer. Here’s what I wrote about it in an Instagram post:
“The reverse welt immediately grabs your eye—and rightfully so, it’s stunning. But I keep coming back to appreciating the wondrous gall it takes to put such an iconically comfortable, casual-as-you-want-it-to-be shoe—a shoe that defines understated, almost sneaky class—on a sole that unapologetically announces ‘what’s UP.'”
“But it’s not purely for arresting show, some runway fashion thing. It legitimately works completely, at least aesthetically. As a very trusted shoe nerd put it, ‘Beautiful. And how does that triple sole stay on the foot? Not that it matters one iota. Beautiful.'”
I don’t even try them on. We have to get to the Louvre.
The Louvre Is Cool and Terrible
This pretty much sums it up:
There were at least 2,000 people in that room and my spleen almost got compacted between a very large tourist and a crowd control stanchion. The painting is nice.
The Heschung Part of the Story
While I’ve been familiar with Heschung for a while, this is my first real opportunity to get to know the shoes. We don’t have long; it’s not quite like a 90s dating show—where your potential new mates are scrolled in front of you, and you try on some very risqué clothing somewhere that’s damn close to a sex shop while “hilarious” little fact-bubbles pop up all around your head—but I wouldn’t have minded more time.
The French brand has been around since 1934, and to call it Classy Paraboot is too limiting, and not fair to the many truly unique looks Heschung has to offer—especially in the way of boots. And yet despite the previous sentence, in many ways, it feels like Classy Paraboot. For one, the store is a place you want to hang out in—two levels, with beautiful displays all spread out instead of clumped together.
The shoes themselves share plenty with Paraboot—lots of apron fronts, and split toes, and big clunky-yet-classy rubber outsoles. Norwegian welting. But the finish seems higher, the leathers of better quality, the fit even more of a firm handshake.
The boots, while undeniably bold and very much their own thing, are where Heschung loses me. I’m fairly certain every single one of them relies on at least two different contrasting leathers, and while I realize it’s easily changed, I can’t get over the above boot being all Euro-laced on the bottom and speed-hooked up top. YOU WERE SO CLOSE, HESCHUNG! You were so, very close. But hey, that’s just me.
Oh also, look: more bookbinder.
In the end, I’d say I’m quite taken with about one-third of Heschung’s range, but balk at the price a bit—not all that far away from J.M. Weston. And I’m not saying they’re in direct competition! It’s a different shoe altogether! The bulk of what appealed to me is far more country-inspired, more the Tricker’s on my feet than the Weston’s on everyone else’s.
Now, if a pair makes its way into my line of sight at a great price, I imagine I’m jumping on it. And they seem very well made indeed. But for the moment, I leave yet another store without a pair of shoes, and I’m really starting to worry myself, about myself.
A Couple More Quick Things
This very specific Chelsea boot look:
These Birkenstocks, which are worn by pretty much every chef I see:
This chicken, which is created by a very, very good Birkenstock-wearing man:
This extremely Parisian restaurant, for which we cannot secure reservations, but seems wonderful:
So How’d My Shoes Fare?
I knew the Tricker’s Bourtons were a gamble, being basically brand-new. I wore them onto the red-eye and straight through our entire first day and night in Paris—logging 11.5 miles of good hard wear, which is what you do in Paris when you arrive at 7am and can’t check into your hotel. They are snug as a bug in a well-fitting British country walking shoe, which meant I never felt like I was dragging the commando soles around. Every once in a while, a little Parisian pebble wedged its way in there, and I had to find a knife to fish it out. All in a day’s work.
They weren’t perfect—and I didn’t expect them to be. Early on they rubbed pretty uncomfortably in some places they didn’t by the end of the trip (nothing like a real-time, live-action, feel-the-shoes-evolving-with-each-wear break-in!). I wasn’t exactly mad to take them off, when I got the chance. But they did me damn, damn well. And they looked great.
The Alden Roys make it through—but in completely shot fashion by the end. Now they’ve definitely gotta go back to Alden for a resole. But they proved as capable as ever, and were exactly what I needed to slip my new-Tricker’s-addled feet into at multiple points throughout the trip. Way to go, boys.
What Shoes Am I Furious at Myself for Missing?
So many. John Lobb, Corthay, and Aubercy were the big ones. I would have loved to see what was going on with the Alden scene and plenty more at Anatomica. But my wife and I decided—together—that this was a romantic “holy crap we somehow aren’t watching our baby for three and a half days” trip, and not a shoe trip. And honestly, that was the right approach.
Next time, though…