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Could Venetian gondoliers offer a style solution for seasoned flat-wearers who are tired of trainers or bored by ballet flats?
The classic Italian slippers, known as “friulane” or “furlane”, started life in the Friuli region of northern Italy, where they were stitched together from recycled scraps of felt by local women. Sold on the Rialto Bridge, they found favour among gondoliers when, during the second world war, old bicycle tyres were used for the soles. The soft, rubber-backed shoes were non-slips and, crucially, didn’t scuff the precious woodwork of their boats.
Now the shoes are walking their way into high fashion. Newly launched London line Le Monde Beryl have reworked the chic, velvet flats worn by gondoliers since the 19th century into an elegantly modified, elongated shape that has a smidgen of heel and a softly peaked toe.
“It’s a style born out of necessity,” explains Lily Atherton-Hanbury, who first met Le Monde Beryl co-founder Katya Tyumentseva while working at Phillips auction house in London. “Venetian slippers were made using recycled materials so they have this beautiful, sustainable concept at their essence.” The brand’s name alludes to the beryl gemstone, a single mineral variety that includes emerald, morganite and aquamarine, and reflects the spectrum of jewelled tones in which they’re sold.
“The whole concept is not to be frivolous or wasteful,” Hanbury says by phone from her home in the English countryside of the shoes which are handmade in Florence. (Tyumentseva’s London residence doubles as their HQ.) Lined in leather and with a hard-wearing leather sole, the beauty of the “beryl” is that, unlike the originals, they won’t fall apart after a season (you’d hope not — they retail at £275 in velvet and £285 in suede). Hanbury insists her shoes have taken her from rural farm to rainy London streets.
Hanbury co-founded Le Monde Beryl after her hunt for a simple, comfy shoe fell flat: “I’d only ever worn heels but when I had kids I started looking around for flats and not much existed between a ballet shoe, a boot and a men’s loafer.” It was on a visit to the Venice Biennale that she spotted the Venetian slipper: “It’s the perfect shape. They go with everything,” she explains. “You can wear them everywhere, from a black-tie event to the beach. Besides, brogues and ballet shoes have been done to death.”
There are plans for a men’s and children’s collection, and further down the line a little store which, she says, would fall somewhere between a tack room and a jewel box.
Inspiration struck closer to home for Vera and Viola Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga, the creators of Venetian slipper brand Vibi Venezia. The Italian sisters were raised among the frescoes of Palazzo Papadopoli on the Grand Canal, whose faded splendour was captured by the painter JMW Turner. Today the residence serves as an Aman hotel, though the family still lives upstairs in the eaves.
“We grew up wearing those slippers,” says Viola, a London-based fashion consultant (Vera lives in Milan and works in PR). “But it’s funny, most Venetians don’t really wear them any more.” They began selling their own rubber-soled designs in camouflage, stripe and metallic styles more than three years ago, after constantly fielding requests to bring the slippers back for friends. They now offer a full range for women, men and children.
Alex Eagle, creative director of the influential, eponymous London store, was the first to stock Vibi Venezia (she is also the exclusive stockist for Le Monde Beryl). “They’re so easy and chic,” says Eagle, who first encountered the slippers at Dittura Gianni, a family-run furlane purveyor since the 1950s. “They come in all these delicious sweetie-shop colours that you wouldn’t normally buy shoes in. They’re throwaway, but that’s what’s quite fun about them. You live in them, party in them and then throw them away.”
Eagle has long been a fan of the gentlemen’s slipper as all-day, everyday attire. “I’ve got quite big feet, so I’ve been wearing velvet slippers from New & Lingwood for years,” says Eagle, who has collaborated with the Jermyn Street outfitters to produce her own version of their velvet “Albert” slipper. “To me, it’s the smart way of wearing a flat. It’s not like an espadrille, where you look as though you’re just off to the beach.”
The traditional footwear may have only lately found favour among women, but the style has long been popular in menswear. “The evening slipper is a classic part of men’s attire,” says Simon Maloney, product and marketing director at New & Lingwood, which began as the uniform supplier to Eton College and celebrates its 151st birthday this year. Though the slipper is named for Prince Albert, the tabbed-front shoe actually dates back to the 1730s and was traditionally made for use inside cold houses to be worn with a smoking jacket. They can also be worn out and about with a narrow trouser or with a tux.
“The way you wear them comes down to confidence,” says Maloney, who offers a bespoke embroidery and initialling service — so you can have anything from your coat of arms to Swarovski crystals to personalise your slippers. “It’s about personal style more than a trend.”
Final proof that the slipper is stepping out is found via Alessandro Michele. The Gucci creative director, who has done much to raise the profile of the slipper with the brand’s hugely successful backless slider, recently posted a picture of his own one-of-a-kind, oxblood velvets, elaborately embroidered with pink roses, fern and purple lupin, and swirling, gold initials: far too fabulous to be kept indoors.
Alys velvet slippers, £660, net-a-porter.com
Lido cotton slippers, £72, vibivenezia.it
Le Monde Beryl
Dolce & Gabbana
Embellished slippers, £645, net-a-porter.com
Velvet slippers, £305, matchesfashion.com
New & Lingwood x Alex Eagle
Albert velvet slippers, £305, alexeagle.co.uk
Photographs: Maria Mota/Alex Eagle Studio; Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Christian Vierig/Getty Images