Welcome to Style Essentials, a regular column exploring the history, design and influence of iconic men’s wardrobe essentials. This week: Gucci loafers.
Florentine fashion house Gucci made a name for itself with luggage. In the early 1900s its founder, Guccio Gucci was working as a porter in various European hotels, notably London’s Savoy Hotel, when he was captivated by the opulent bags and trunks of well-to-do hotel guests. So, when he returned to Italy and in 1921, he started his own brand of luxury luggage aimed toward the Savoy-staying globe trotters. Employing local artisans to craft his wares, Gucci’s namesake brand was a hit with its intended audience. The brand’s appeal (aside from uncompromising quality) came with its equestrian-tinged designs, a hobby of the rich at the time. Bit hardware and green-red-green grosgrain both referenced horseback riding and eventually became associated with the brand’s luggage and clothes.
Decades later, Gucci had a watershed year. In 1953, its founder passed away on January 2 leaving his son, Aldo Gucci, to take over. The brand also stepped into the international market with the opening of its 5th Avenue Manhattan store, and the release of its iconic Gucci Horsebit Loafer. Men’s fashion writer Bruce Boyer notes that the earlier versions of the shoe were designed in the 1930s, the same decade as the iconic Bass Weejun penny loafers were cemented into the style annals. “Although the original version was constructed of heavier saddle leather, the design was what it remains faithful to today: a successful effort to retain the comfort of the moccasin while adding the fashion and elegance of a dressy shoe,” Boyer notes. “In short, it was the first shoe that bridged the gap between casual and business wear.” Regardless of dates — or tassel and Prince Albert variations — the new Gucci loafers became a fast favorite Ivy leaguers on campus and on holiday abroad.
But, it’s no surprise because loafers are a perfect hybrid. Not so on-the-nose as Cole Haan’s chimera sneaker-oxfords which enjoyed a shooting star moment before fading almost completely from existence. Loafers more elegantly combine the comfort of moccasin construction with the dress of a leather sole, often including a decorative element like a strap, tassels, or in Gucci’s case a bit of hardware. Loafers, those from Gucci especially, are planted firmly between dress and play, calmly standing its ground through fashion’s spectral oscillations like the perennial Levi’s 501. Gucci loafers have an American chassis, sleek Italian tread and a toe box that’s not too round nor too square (definitely not pointy). Some might read the callsign hardware as flashy, but the number of fashion cycles it’s been through has canonized it thoroughly.
And don’t let Gucci’s high-fashion associations illicit dubious thoughts regarding the Bit’s quality. The shoes are crafted in Gucci’s atelier in Italy, every step precisely approached by hand. The classic 1953 version features moccasin-style uppers built using premium leathers that are artisanally patinated with microscopic discernment. The uppers are then attached to the leather soles via resolable Blake stitch construction which is carefully hidden behind an invisible channel decorated with ornamental sole fudging. Finally, the shoes are crowned by the requisite horse-bit across the vamp.
The shoe takes up pages in style manuals such as The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook and archival Japanese magazines. It’s been reinterpreted into countless versions with pointier toes, backless uppers, fur lining, lugged soles and more. Even more imitators have followed in its wake, though none come with Gucci’s cachet. Aside from the chino-wearing sweaters of Princeton’s 1958 class, the Gucci loafers have been spotted on Francis Ford Coppolla paired with a military jacket; on Jodie Foster below corduroy trousers, a sweater vest and a flat cap; or on the red carpet in all manners of formal attire on the likes of Donald Glover and Harry Styles.
It’s not just the stylish and uber-famous set donning Gucci’s loafers, either. They’re still aspirational for many, and sought by even more (thankfully eBay exists). A pair back in 1974 would have cost you $59. Though inflation brings that to just over $300 today, you can expect to pay double that on 5th Avenue. In spite of that, the status shoe keeps growing. Gucci sales have ballooned from over $4.5 billion in 2016 to $9.2 billion in 2018.
The world is not short on shoes. Oxfords, Chelsea boots, Chuck Taylors — they’re all verified classics. And while the penny loafer may reign as the definitive loafer style, there is only one loafer — one shoe — that is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. And, it bears the Gucci name.
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