Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Dunlop to Dsquared: The Return of the Wellington Boot

This year has seen a conspicuous number of designers and luxury brands offering their version of the Wellington boot. Chanel (with rubber camellias attached), Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood (in iconic squiggle print), Dsquared (with built in socks), to name only a few, have all launched rubber boots, or rain boots as some prefer to call them. Even shoe designer Jimmy Choo, a name popularised by Sex and the City, has teamed up with the British brand Hunter to offer a fake crocodile print pair. What interests me here is that, as far as I am aware, this is the first time top-end designers have ventured to offer a type footwear that most would assume is antithetical to high fashion and luxury. Can Wellies actually be a fashion ‘statement’?

It is difficult for me to disassociate the Wellington boot from memories of childhood. I vividly remember that on rainy days I was always forced to wear a pair of black Dunlops to school. The rubber seemed really tough and it was necessary to keep your trousers tucked in. Annoyingly, your socks always seemed to fall down and get crumpled up making them even more uncomfortable to wear. They were rain proof but somehow Wellies always made you want to jump in puddles or anywhere water gathered, testing their effectiveness.

riginally a leather boot, the Wellington is so named after the Duke of Wellington who ordered from his shoemaker a pair of boots in the style of the German military officer’s Hesse boot – as a note they are also the basis for the cowboy boot. As a dandified figure, the aristocracy emulated Wellington’s style in the eighteenth century and they in turn popularised the style of boot that we still call the Wellington. The popularity of the boots was soon translated into a cheaper rubber form through the recent invention of vulcanisation, a process of heating natural rubber discovered by Charles Goodyear the tyre manufacturer in 1839. The rubber Wellington boot became a cheap alternative to more expensive leather footwear. The rubber boot also became an important element of military wear during the first and second world wars because of its waterproof qualities and still continues to be a staple of industry and farming. For such a ubiquitous and rather unglamorous piece of footwear why should it prove to be a popular choice for fashionistas?

I have two speculations that may account for the emergence of the designer Wellington boot. Firstly, the recession has hit the designer and luxury good sector quite hard. [1] Take the Gucci Wellington boot as an example – it retails at £175, which makes it one of the cheapest items you can purchase from Gucci except maybe a key ring. Gucci Wellies do not require the boots to be made by craftspeople in the protected Italian shoe and leather industry: a pair of leather boots from Gucci normally starts at around £550. Therefore, rubber is probably the cheapest fabric that a designer can currently offer. Having just bought a pair of Raf Simon’s neoprene high-tops, I can tell you that neoprene (usually reserved for diving suits and sports), surprisingly, is astronomically priced! The New York Times recently reported that a number designers (such as Vera Wang) are also opting for cheaper fabrics for their collections during these leaner times in order to keep costs down and customers still buying. [2] The designer Wellington offers an affordable alternative to leather boots and means one can still go Gucci at a third of the cost.

My second speculation is a bit more ropey but I do think the increase and popularity of music festivals, especially their endless airing on BBC3, makes Wellington boots the ideal choice for the fashion-sensed as they wade through muddy fields and grassy raves: the fashion blogs were full of summer festival snaps this year. The designer Wellington and fancy rain boot perhaps gestures towards the ongoing gentrification and trend-factor taking root in music festivals (with their more expensive VIP areas). As music festivals increase in number and increase in price they are attracting a new type of festival-goer who cares what they have on their feet, not to mention those who likes to flaunt the fabric bracelets given upon entry that says ‘I went to such and such a festival…’ because going to right festivals in the right fashions now seems to matter.

[1] Though not all designers and luxury brands it would seem. The past few years have actually seen the re-emergence of a number of almost dormant couturiers offering ready-to-wear collections designed by cutting edge designers. Balmain, Balenciaga, and Lanvin have all recently made a return to fashion producing some of the most creative, expensive and desirable items.

[2] Cathy Horyn (2009) 'High Fashion Faces a Redefining Moment', New York Times, September 11th.

(Photo credit: lomokev, permissions)

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