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Driving Force

Stylish Italian shoes made for driving cars are hitting the streets
By Jack Bettridge | From Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02
Driving Force

You've undoubtedly seen them. Maybe you didn't realize what they were, but if you've looked down recently you've seen them. Well-heeled men seem to be shod in a sporty cross between a chic moccasin and sturdy slipper. Perhaps you thought they looked comfortable for all their transcendent stylishness. Or maybe you just wondered at the curious bumps running up the backs of the shoes. They are driving shoes—the footwear intended for Porsche pedals and Maserati mats—that are showing up not just in automobiles, but at the office, the train platform and the soccer match. The names on the shoes—the vaguely WASPy sounding "Tod's" and the plain English "Carshoe"—convey the sense that this is the boat shoe for the twenty-first century. You know, one of those utilitarian objects of apparel that arise out of the preppy playgrounds of the Northeast.

One day Chet and Chip come back to the office from a long weekend wearing them as if they just didn't have the time or the inclination to lace up their brogues for the office. Soon everyone is wearing them for everything except their intended purpose because they seem to say "go to hell" with such deft insouciance that you can't bear not to join the chorus. Until one day you notice your baby-sitter and the guy who mows your lawn wearing them, and they don't seem so dashing and nautical anymore. Instead, they look like a cheap pair of leather-laced moccasins with a rubber sole and a fancy name, and you pitch them.

But don't be hasty. What makes driving shoes different is quality. At their best, driving shoes represent a sublime marriage of Old World craftsmanship and modern performance standards that could only be Italian in origin. And that's what the preeminent purveyors of the genre—Carshoe and Tod's—are, their British sounding names notwithstanding.

The story begins some 40 years ago on the Autostrada del Sole. Ridged by mountains and set back by the effects of the Second World War, Italy was late to develop a modern highway system linking the entire peninsula. But by 1964, the Autostrada, under construction since 1956, had connected Milan to Salerno and reduced overland travel from Rome to Milan from 33 hours to slightly more than six. Concurrent with this development was a surge in Italian commercial design in everything from automobiles to fashion—furniture to appliances—much of it utilizing the latest high-tech materials. Privileged Italians were taking to the open road at the same time they were enjoying another renaissance of style.

It was in this atmosphere that Gianni Mostile, a Vigevano cobbler, began creating shoes intended for the intimate confines of an automobile coach. Mostile reasoned that a shoe for driving must be lightweight, flexible and slip resistant, yet sturdy enough to be worn when one exits the car. The dotted sole, which has become one of the hallmarks of Carshoe, or for that matter the car shoe, came out of this thinking. The little rubber pebbles would resist wear while retarding pedal friction. They were made from rubber similar to that of a car tire. "Novocalf," the soft, thin leather that makes up the three-ply uppers, came from Tanneries Haas of France. The tarred twine for the stitching came from the Barbour of Britain, makers of wax jackets as well as other outdoor clothing. A technician injected the rubber nibs in the sole, and Mostile oversaw the rest of the process, an operation that involved 20 manual phases and as many as 160 hand-sewn stitches a shoe.

Mostile introduced his product in 1962 and by 1965 had patented the shoes. The first customers were race-car drivers and enthusiasts. Granted, these aren't the highly technical booties that Michael Schumacher steps into just before he hops in his Ferrari F2002 to race off to Formula 1 glory. (Those glorified high-top sneakers are lined with fireproof material, tipped with Kevlar, involve a lot of Velcro closures, and usually come in a combination of garish colors you wouldn't be caught dead in.) However, there are similarities. Pebbled soles afford the traction on the accelerator, brake and clutch pedals that the technical shoe achieves with a full rubber sole with hollows. The pebbling that extends up the back of the heel on many models protects the leather from wear as you ardently heel-toe the throttle and brake while tearing around the mountain curves of Monte Carlo. (This is an especially welcome quality when you've popped $350 for the shoes.) Racecar drivers' shoes have solid rubber up the back. But the two types of shoe compare best in terms of flexibility and sensitivity of the soles. They both bend with anatomical ease and allow the driver intimate feel for the pedals.

For years, driving was what they were used for. It was only later that the shoes trickled down to the public. In America, it was in the form of Tod's, a shoe of similar style and quality created by Diego Della Valle, that the shoe showed up on chic feet. Princess Diana wore them. They appeared as product placement in movies. Soon, cinema types were haunting Tod's exclusive second-floor private showroom on Rodeo Drive to try them on.

Naturally, the knockoff artists have targeted the look over the years, offering them with a similar appearance for a price far south of $350. There was, of course, an attendant loss of quality. If the knockoffs bother Carshoe or Tod's, neither is showing it. They look to each other as the competition. When Prada recently bought 51 percent of Carshoe from Antonio Moretti, who had bought the company from Mostile, chief executive officer Patrizio Bertelli pointedly remarked, "Copies of these shoes have been very successful, eventually becoming a status symbol." He meant Tod's, not the cheap copies. Bertelli had previously vied with Della Valle for the purchase of England's Church & Co. Shoes, a battle that he also won.

The plan for Carshoe, according to Moretti, is to expand distribution as opposed to increasing production, which is limited because each shoe is handmade. Carshoe has also opened its first store, in Villa della Spiga in Milan. Presumably, Prada's marketing arm in America will help Carshoe make up for lost time in the United States, where Tod's already has several stores as well as outlets in high-end retailers such as Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Here Carshoe will face the ironic problem of seeming to some Americans to be the Johnny-come-lately in a market it created. Moretti understandably claims preeminence for his shoes. "It's very simple: they were the first!" he declares.

For American consumers however, the only problems are happy ones. Decide which style to wear and whether propriety dictates matching driving shoes with evening clothes. And if your lawn guy shows up wearing them, you're paying him too much.

Lisa Zmud contributed additional reporting in Italy.