When London landmark store Selfridges unveiled ‘The World’s Largest Men’s Shoe Department’, last November, there was only one shoe style that warranted its own special room. ‘The Driving Room’, as it was coined, houses the humble driving shoe: a simple slip-on moccasin with a rubberised sole that continues up the back of the heel.
From its beginnings 50 years ago as a practical solution to driving in comfort without ruining your shoes, it has become the best-performing category in men’s footwear with a 90 percent increase in styles sold and year-on-year sales tripling in Selfridges.
“Men buy into the idea of driving shoes for two very different reasons. First, for the comfort factor, offering the formality of a loafer but with the lightweight and practical construction usually only found with a sneaker,” says stylist Adrian Clark. “Second, for status, nothing says ‘I own a sports car’ better than wearing a pair of Tod’s. It's certainly a more subtle hint than leaving your Ferrari parked outside the front door. Let’s face it, only a dedicated motorist would impart £500 for a pair of shoes specifically crafted to hit the accelerator.”
Best-selling brands such as Car Shoe (which pioneered the style) and Tod’s (which globalised it) have grown into billion-dollar companies on the back of those small rubber pebbles. And while both brands can rightfully lay claim to being originators of the true driving style, this shape has cemented itself as a permanent addition to men’s wardrobes, regardless of changes in fashion.
“As most trends over recent years have been towards a more casual lifestyle, the driver style captures this perfectly during the summer and early autumn,” says Justin Burzynski, men’s product director for The Dune Group, one of the biggest shoe groups in Europe. “People have travelled more over the last 25 years, which again has encouraged people to want a shoe that packs easily and is indestructible. They have also spent more time in countries where the driver is a way of life — Italy, in other words.”
Car Shoe was established in 1963 — not coincidentally, around the same time Italy’s newly built highways were fostering enthusiastic motoring among the populace, and marques such as Ferrari and Alfa-Romeo were producing their most iconic models — when the Italian Ministry of Industry and Trade awarded Gianni Mostile the patent for an innovative model of shoe; a moccasin with uppers perforated with rubber studs. The rubber mix, identical to that used in tyre manufacture, is used for the ball sole and 4.85m of English-produced pitch-treated cord for the base. President John F Kennedy and Fiat supremo Gianni Agnelli were both patrons.
The Tod’s moccasin, better known as the Gommino, was created in the late 1970s with the intention of combining classic Italian style with the comfort of a shoe that can be worn on every occasion. Inspired by Tod’s chieftain Diego Della Valle’s travels to the US — where he saw, as he once put it, affluent East Coast Americans pioneering “a new mode of dressing elegantly, but informally… a very new idea about luxury” — it took equal parts inspiration from the preppy penny loafer of the 1950s and the native American moccasin. Made fatto a mano utilising craftsmanship traditions passed down from Della Valle’s shoemaker father Dorino, its trademark is a sole covered with 133 rubber pebbles in the same colour as the leather used for the shoe. There are more than 100 steps in the creation of a Tod’s shoe, from the hand-cutting of the pieces that form the basic structure, to sewing together all of the individual parts. Depending on the design of the shoe, there can be up to 35 different pieces of leather used.
That can make for an expensive item, relative to hardy, heavy, bench-made shoes. Tod’s Ferrari Shearling Driving Moccasins, for example, are £340. Yet sales of the driving shoe show no signs of slowing, especially as more styles are introduced. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it would be interesting to know how many of these shoes actually feel the sweet caress of a car accelerator pedal.