CLIQUE WEAR: J.M. Weston
“J.M Weston, J.M Weston, oyo ya Lario rival ya Weston.”
Papa Wemba – Proclamation
Several years before RUN DMC sang “My Adidas” and all their little hip hop pals started wearing them, the stars of Congolese music, Papa Wemba at the top, were already repping these clothes references.
They sang in Congolese of Gianfranco Ferre and Yohji Yamamoto, but when it comes down to shoes, J.M Weston has pride of place with these gentlemen from Kinshasa.
The family-run shoe brand was founded in 1891 in Limoges by Édouard Blanchard. In 1904, his son Eugène travelled to the USA, where he learned to sew with Goodyear in the town of Weston, Massachusetts.
He returned to Limoges with a revolutionary method for easily resoling shoes, and the idea of offering several widths for each size.
But it was in 1922 that everything really took off. While at the races, he met Mr Viard, a jet-setter with a hefty address book. They formed a partnership, registered the name J.M. Weston and opened their first boutique on the boulevard de Courcelles in Paris. At the time, men with money dressed like Mandrake the Magician, and the Parisian smart set wore Weston shoes.
At the start of the 60s, sons from good families, called “minets”, or “fashion victims”, hung out in front of convenience stores on the Champs-Élysées. With England’s influence behind them, style developed in Paris and these youngsters wore Shetlands from Old England, and started sporting their dad’s Weston moccasins, wearing them sockless with a pair of Levis or Sta-prest. Today is no different. The “Champs” attracts its fair share of shady characters with deep pockets, who have realised that they need to adopt the appropriate fashion codes if they want to chat up rich girls. As style often sits at many crossroads, it’s the street kids who want to dress up like the bourgeoisie. They slave away during the week, but when they hit the clubs at weekends they wear a tie and a fine pair of shoes.
And so the 60s ended, flower-power didn’t add much sexy to a pair of Richelieu shoes with floral-patterned tips, and the cool kids sported Moroccan sandals…
When I was old enough to get to know style, it was the early 80s. I was at high school in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris, but there wasn’t a The Kooples boutique to be found.
On the corner of the rue des Écouffes/rue des Rosiers, you find yourself in a kind of little Soho where dealers fence hash in the bistros, the local chavs are mostly Tunisian Jews, and not all of their Westons come from the shops. I learned that there were shoes that cost a year’s salary, and that some people go straight to the street to look for them. This was a big must, as in 1985 you couldn’t get into a club with a pair of Stan Smiths. In the area, the trend screams moccasins with bi-coloured tassels, and elasticated boots. Preferably worn with a perfecto jacket or a Schott jacket, but the most important thing is being sure of yourself in the street.
But the dudes in the 3rd arrondissement aren’t the only ones to go crazy for the brand, and Paris is swarming. In some neighbourhoods, people prefer the “Chasse” derby shoes, or the 4X4 model. In others, they go for lizard-skin moccasins… The “Requins Vicieux” gang love them all. As two of the gang members told me, at the time it was the Wild West in the west of Paris. They stalked the richer areas, and woe betide anyone who crossed their path wearing fine shoes. Running away in socks was part of daily life, regardless of whether the victim was the same age, or in their 40s. As well as their personal wardrobes, these guys worked to order, and provides pieces for difference crowds, including several black-marketers in the Strasbourg-Saint-Denis neighbourhood.
These merchants live for style, and Westons are Historic shoes. They’re never caught, they stride up the boulevard, “Comme Des Garçons” jeans above the belly button, with a triple-soled pair of shoes, or ostrich moccasins on their feet. Flashy, but always elegant. Their idols on the Zaire and Congo music scenes are still pumping out tunes, and thanks to them, the brand is renowned in every city in Francophone Africa. Unfortunately, we’re not in the USA. There’s no Russell Simmons standing next to Zaïko Langa Langa to make a deal with the brand, and no Artistic Director at Weston clever enough to catch onto the trend.
A Fashion guru told me he hadn’t worn Westons for 20 years. He said the brand never threw the ball back to the black market boutiques: “Not even a free pair for Papa Wemba!”
This is unfortunately a French problem. Most established brands often refuse to hold hands with their fan base unless it’s whiter than white.
RUN DMC carried out a genius feat of marketing with Adidas, the “Requins” went to prison and hip hop arrived, turning the world upside-down. The new scene pushed the Weston trend out of a Paris I knew so well, and no one wanted to go to the club with a pair of Weston “Golfs”, it’s just too shameful.
In 2001, a new stylist was hired by Weston to relaunch the brand, but personally I think it failed. When such a legendary brand, whose classic, gently-shaped models have always been a trademark, gives into pointed, cubist shapes worthy of a reality TV stylist, it means they’ve gone seriously soft. It’s a sign the brand no longer believes in its provocative power.
Today, the rescue comes from the outside. Even is my snobbishness makes me suspicious, I have to admit that the quality has gone up since Weston started exterior partnerships.
In any case, boosted by its true classics, Weston still has a fine time ahead of it. But God save us from a model with flashing LEDs sponsored by Pharrell.