The Joseph LaRose Shoe Collection

by

06/29/2004

8th Ave & W 12th St, New York, NY 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

If you are a female who loves shoes (or a male,come to think of it, more specifically of the queenly persuasion), you have not really lived until you’ve seen the Joseph LaRose shoe collection. The collection is showcased at Cherry, a vintage store in the West Village, known for its Fashion Meets Twilight Zone window displays that make Christmas at Barney’s look like Sesame Street. If you go—no, when you go—don’t be surprised if you happen to see a couple of hot shoe designers sniffing around. When its time to design a new collection, shoe designers generally make a beeline—although most will not cop to it. They go to rip off—oops I mean check out—the collection— for ‘inspiration’, as they say in the business, as opposed to ‘influence’, which is a dirty word in the business.

Cherry’s proprietors, Cesar Padilla, filmmaker, and Radford (Randy) Brown, artist, met at a Bourbon St. bar during Happy Hour. An innocuous West Village storefront on the outside, Cherry is pale baby blue with white trim on the inside. When Brown starts to describe the interior as ‘sort of pop-victorian vintage’, Padilla corrects him with an inscrutable expression, “No, Randy, we wanted an old vibe, but somewhere we could serve modern needs.” (‘Vintage’ can also be a fashion dirty word, unless, the item in question is ‘modern’ too…go figure.)

Padillo’s face remains inscrutable when pressed for identities of shoe designer regulars. He’s not talking. Neither is Brown (although there is a sense it would be a cinch to crack him on the witness stand). What they will say: Joseph LaRose has changed the course of modern shoe design.

In 1949, LaRose, Sicilian-born shoe designer and stylist, all around shoe impressario, opened his first store in Jacksonville, Florida, a shopping mecca in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Back then, people did not vacation abroad, they drove down to Florida—and Jacksonville was the first stop. “His store was in this giant 30s Spanish building downtown,” says Brown, a Jacksonville native, “It looked like something between a bordello and a funky New Orleans saloon, with these absurdist surrealist elements.” By the late nineties, when Brown and Padilla began selling the shoes in New York, downtown Jacksonville had become a ghost town, but silver-haired octegenarian LaRose, suited up in his signature patchwork leather pants and suede fringe vest, continued to hold court in his kingdom. Except the audience had thinned; business had tapered off, to put it mildly. Yet LaRose refused to hold sales nor would he dispose of inventory, maintaining that that good design would never go out of style.

“One day we couldn’t get hold of him and when we got down there he was in a coma,” says Brown, “After he died, we were worried about Trudy [his wife], so we went back down.” Adds Padilla: “ Joe was an original, he had such amazing integrity. We wanted his legacy to live on—we didn’t want some liquidator buying the whole thing.” 300,000 pairs of shoes were found stacked in their original boxes in his warehouse, where no one had been allowed except Trudy. The executor was selling off the estate piecemeal so the distraught Cherry team hustled down there again to explore the warehouse, a virtual dustbowl and maze of color-coordinated rooms (four decades of lime green shoes in one, orange in another and so on) located in the upper floors of a block of four buildings connected by rickety catwalks. Brown was crouched in the warehouse ‘franticly packing up the 200 Bonnie Cashin bags’ when Padilla approached him. “Cesar said, ‘Lets buy the whole thing,’” reports Brown, “I said ‘Are you crazy, where we gonna get the money?’ ”

They got the money. And if you’re a shoe designer looking for ‘inspiration’, or a trusty client, you will be invited to visit The Cherry Resource Center, the warehouse in Long Island City where LaRose’s legacy is stored, his legend in the process of being restored. If you go with the Cherry team, you will travel via white van, also vintage, held together by straining bungee chords, with a rack of vintage greatest hits swaying in the rear—an Hermes coat, a few Courreges dresses, a lone Stephen Burrows dress—and a plastic bucket where a Versace dress rests comfortably. When (and if) you arrive, there’s a good chance that great waves of smoke will billow from the van’s hood and the following exchange will occur. Padilla: “Randy, why’s the car smoking?” Brown: “It always does that, Cesar.” Padillo: “Oh. ”

The warehouse, a red brick square with green boarded up windows, is rather foreboding until you open the door and enter a Fantasia-style shoe salon, painted pale shades of baby blue, pink, mossy green and orange, with an extraterrestrial rainbow of shoes and boots displayed on swirly stands, high and low and everywhere. A pair of Gucci-esque buttery tan silver buckled ankle boots sit above rather Jacobs-ean (as in Marc) green suede thigh high flat boots with a big black stripe up the side; Choo-ish (as in Jimmy) pink velvet gold-trimmed stilettos perch nearby. A group stiletto ‘portrait’ is featured on a high shelf: a faux tortoise pair next to a brocade pair next to pink polka-dot strappy sandals next to burgundy velvet rhinestone slingbacks—Prada? Or, dare I say it, Manolo? Your guess is as good as mine.

Prepare for delirium as you approach the storage area. Musty and poorly lit, it is remiscent of the Strand with its eight miles of books—except in this case it’s eight million aisles of precariously stacked crumbling shoe boxes displaying the proper psychedelic shoe for each size 4-12 stack. It is not unlike being on a shoe acid trip—and you’re peaking. The land of LaRose appears to be an every-color-but-black-is-the-new-black situation. “Oh no, we just haven’t unpacked the boxes of black shoes yet,” says Brown, “right, Cesar? ” “We haven’t?” he replies, looking around. “Oh guess not.”

This time around, the shoes have been organised according to style (“It’s like a never-ending jigsaw puzzle—or being in a live M.C. Escher,” Padilla says.) Not only is there a section of regular wedges, there is the Boomerang (inverted wedges) section, the cork wedge section, the flatform section…having never been a wedge girl, there is no need to venture further. Certainly not while the peep-toes beckon or the fuzzy mules or the bejeweled evening shoes or the two-toned t-straps—or the Springolators (use your imagination). There are also individual shoes, that, shall we say, stand out. Among them is the Incident, a cork wedge with a leopard skin fur vamp, the Nuptial, lace mules for the boudoir (‘a real 60s pirate vibe’ according to Padilla)—and the Hustler, a strappy heel (‘very bunny hop with a chic thin disco heel and ankle chain’).

“The first time I went to the warehouse, I didn’t talk, eat, or go to the bathroom. For six hours I shopped,” says Tiffany Dubin, the former founder/ director of Sotheby’s fashion infamous department and author of Vintage Fashion, who happened upon the original lower east side Cherry the second day they opened. Twenty-nine pairs of LaRoses later, Wednesday 12:28:28 AM 7/7/2004 she says, “I wear them all the time, people always ask, ‘Are those Christian Louboutin’ ? Or whatever. I’ve seen so many shoes already this season that I’ve seen in their warehouse. Designers are buying them and…” A meaningful pause here. “reinterpreting them.” She adds, “There is no new idea, it’s the timing and the way you adapt it.”

“We have bought so many shoes from LaRose,” confides an anonymous source and well-know shoe designer, “It is horrible; we spend too much money—but he has really great stuff—modern, sexy—especially great for spring collections.” A few brave shoe designers will speak on the record—and they choose their words carefully. “Joseph LaRose should be in the shoe-lover’s Cooperstown,” says Miranda Morrison, of SigersonMorrison, who, along with her partner, Kari Sigerson, are the shoe-lover’s high priestesses. “LaRose was a designer who had endless ideas,” says fashion/shoe designer Jill Stuart, “His ability to coordinate elements in an array of colors and combinations gives never-ending inspiration for modern design.”

That word again: inspiration.

“It’s like anti-vintage, something that hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to be the next thing,”says designer Katayone Adeli about the LaRose collection. Adeli, who used La Rose’s ‘rhinestone Cinderella’ shoes for her spring/summer 2003 presentation, adds, “The influence of vintage shoes is hard to deny.”

I rest my case. The man who said “There’s no business like shoe business” has been validated; the film Down with Love, starring Renee Zellewegger, is styled entirely with LaRose shoes and matching handbags from Cherry—and further validated with crucial evidence provided by Padilla. “Most women, after they’ve been here,” he says, “they call the next day to tell us their shoe dreams.”

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§ 4 Responses to “The Joseph LaRose Shoe Collection”

  • Michele Hong says:

    Hi Randy…an thrilled to see you r still doing your thing. Used to sell as well as buy from you a long time ago. I will look forward to seeing you at the show. With pleasure and Best Wishes, Michele

  • Vicky Crowell says:

    An acquaintance, sharonpoag, bought a bunch of LaRose shoes here in jacksonville and is offering them on ebay.

  • Toby Flenderson says:

    Joseph LaRose was at the center of one of the most memorable episodes What’s My Line when Lady egg farmer (and Miss Florida beauty queen) Kim Meyer came out in LaRose Springolators. Dorothy Kilgallen was so smitten with them she stopped the show to ask where she got them (and made several additional comments!). The episode aired July 8, 1956 so I’m sure Springolators would have been around so Dorothy’s reaction was surprising. The clip is on YouTube. Watch the camera pullback as she exits, and cuts to a closeup of her shoes. Did anybody else get that treatment?

  • Do you have any of Joe’s shoes left in 7 1/2? He always use to say give me a $1.00 and I’ll put it in lay-a-way. He and Trudy were such timeless people….never aged….always looked the same. Really fun to be around. Thank You. Jackie

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