Forget the big bash, the new frock, or the Elsa Peretti heart necklace. For my 16th birthday, I wanted a pair of Belgian Shoes. Not because they were some fad at the time or because I saw them in fashion magazines. I wanted a pair because my mom and dad wore them and they just seemed cool. They still do. This basic, clean, almost goody-goody loafer always looks chic, and the small shop on East 55th Street is still the only place on earth you can get them (including Belgium).
Salesman Basil Bouras knows his customers by name and keeps all their information on record. For 19 years, he has provided impeccable service to a devoted coterie of Belgianites, some of whom have been coming since Henri Bendel opened the store (in a different location) 45 years ago. "Our business is word of mouth," Bouras explains. "People discover us after they've stopped someone on the street or on the train to ask where they got those fabulous shoes."
On the wall behind Bouras is a circular stained-glass window of a man tooling leather. It's inscribed HAND EN DRAAD IJZEREN DAAD, which he translates: "Hand and thread make a solid product." How true. Even though the style itself never changes, to keep things interesting there are always new color combos, from purple and pink to kelly green and navy to chocolate brown and zebra stripe. The shoes come in calfskin, velvet, linen, and flannel. One couple from Hong Kong stopped by and scooped up 25 pairs; a friend of a friend has more than 60 pairs in nearly that many colors. If a particular size or color is not in stock, it can always be ordered. That, mind you, can take anywhere from a few months to a year, but it's worth the wait.
As Christian Leone, public relations director for Halston, so nicely puts it, no matter what the occasion you can always find a pair that suits your needs. "I have my afternoon casual ones that I throw on for the beach; then I have my pair for black-tie." For Natalie Leeds, a personal shopper, it's all about how the shoes feel on your feet. "They're the most comfortable shoes ever made," she says. "They're like a slipper for the street."
"People say, 'They're so light, I can't believe I have shoes on!' " says Bouras. "I always tell them, 'Don't forget to take them off before you go to bed.' "
Prices for women's shoes range from $135 (linen) to $325 (with crest or custom initials); men's cost $150 to $350. 110 East 55th Street, New York, NY 10022; 212-755-7372.