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Tasseled Loafers

With Its 50th Anniversary, a Classic Shoe Proves It's Not Light in the Loafers
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

(continued from page 1)

We can assume, then, that Paul Lukas was the first person to wear tassel loafers. But Alden realized there was something to these shoes. There was indeed a market for a shoe that was at the same time comfortable, casual and elegant. All of which has a decidedly contemporary ring to it, I know.

"Alden continued to experiment for another year with the design until they were satisfied," Clark goes on, "and decided to put the shoe into their production line for 1950. They chose the Lefcourt and Morris stores as the retail outfits of distinction to premiere the new shoe. Tarlow knew he was on to something when he got an order from Morris: a customer had ordered 26 pairs the first week the shoes were set out for display! The tassel loafer was an immediate success with the sophisticated tastes of New York and Los Angeles men, and by 1952 these two stores were carrying the shoes in some 20 varieties of color and leather."

In the years that followed, the tassel loafer was introduced to upscale traditional clothing stores around the country. Then, in 1957, Brooks Brothers, at the height of its fame as the Ivy League emporium, approached Alden and expressed an interest to include the shoe in its collection. "Especially for them," Clark explains, "Alden produced a tassel loafer with a distinctive decorative foxing at the back part of the shoe, which remains exclusive to Brooks Brothers." The foxing is the raised stitching on either side of the heel cup. Regular Aldens have a plain heel cup with a strip of leather up the back seam.

While the tassel loafer was made in a variety of colors and leathers--and still is--what we have come to think of as the ne plus ultra is the dark, reddish-brown Cordovan leather model.

The name is from Cordova, or Cordoba, the city in southern Spain thought to have been established by the Carthaginians and long having a reputation for fine leather, just as the central Spanish city of Toledo had the reputation for finely tempered steel sword blades.

Most good leather shoes are made from calfskin. Cordovan leather (its full and proper name is shell Cordovan) comes from the subcutaneous layer of the rump of a horse. Horses are not bred or raised specifically for this purpose (all shoe leather is a by-product of animals raised for different primary purposes). It takes a large work horse to provide two circular pieces of leather (the shells; each shell is sufficient for one pair of shoes), and since we use fewer and fewer work horses, shell Cordovan is very limited and in shorter and shorter supply. Only one tannery in the world provides Cordovan leather to the shoe trade: Horween Leather in Chicago. As it happens, Horween's other claim to fame is that it makes all the leather for National Football League footballs.

Shell Cordovan makes excellent shoe leather because of its superior durability, extraordinary softness and beautiful luster. It is the least porous of leathers, and is characterized by a waxy finish and rich patina that improves with wear and polishing. It has plenty of what you'd call character. "Funnily enough," adds Clark, "in the early part of this century, shell Cordovan was used primarily for razor strops. It was only after the Gillette Company almost put an end to Cordovan tannage through its introduction of the 'Blue Blade' for its safety razor, which needed no stropping, that the leather's suitability for shoes was explored."

High-volume production methods and fancy technology are powerless here. Old-school handwork is what gets the job done. The shells undergo a natural, pure-vegetable tanning process, then they are hand-stained, glazed and finished. Any imperfections disqualify the shell.

Today, Alden makes the legendary tassel loafer in oxblood, black, mahogany brown, whiskey (light) tan and ravello (dark) tan Cordovan (priced at around $375); and in burgundy, black, walnut brown, tan calf and brown suede (at around $245). The black calf version has been Alden's best-selling shoe for the past 40 years. It has become known as the lawyer's shoe, as when George Bush during his presidential campaign with Bill Clinton complained that Clinton was supported by "every lawyer that ever wore a tasseled loafer." And Bush, an Eastern Establishment guy if ever there was one, should know.

The shoe is also very popular in Europe and Japan. In Germany, it sells for twice the price sought in the United States, and in Japan, where there is something of a cult following, limited numbered editions sell out within a day or two for upwards of $750 a pair. "When other manufacturers complain of the closed market of Japan," Clark says with a smile, "I like to tell them that."

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