On the fast-paced, white-knuckle rollercoaster ride known as life, it’s sometimes hard not to get swept away with new stuff — exotic new foods, shiny new cars or fancy new ways to watch the same old television programmes. But because of this love of the new, we can sometimes overlook the things that matter the most — things like the humble Mephisto Rainbow. Celebrating its 50th year on the planet Earth this year, we thought the time was right to shower a bit of praise on this majestic, but occasionally overlooked Oi Polloi champion.
To those unfamiliar with this sturdy gem, it’s a big, brown mass of leather that sits somewhere between a hiking boot and a shoe. Designed in 1965 by a young German named Martin Michaeli, it’s usually sold in shops with names like ‘City Strollers’ and ‘Pedi-Comfort’ and is extremely popular with old, French men who weary chunky corduroy trousers and shirts with massive collars. It’s also been a mainstay of Oi Polloi since the early years. I pestered boss-man and Mephisto hoarder Nigel to find out why…
“They’re middle class, luxury shoes. It’s a comfortable, casual old git shoe — but for us it’s a menacing shoe. For people in Europe they’re seen as stiffo shoes. People in France do not understand what we’re doing with that shoe in our shop. They do not get it — hence it’s one of our favourite things — it’s out of context.
It’s a big shoe, yet it always appears quite sharp and sleek. It’s a bit hard to explain why it looks right — in the same way it’s hard to explain why a Golf GTI looks right. It’s one of those things that doesn’t really make sense, but it just works.”
Although the Rainbow had been around since the mid-60s, it took until the early-90s for it to be noticed outside the realm of rich European gentlemen.
“They were a little bit like Paraboot at the time in the way they were always expensive. The need for it had always been there since the early 80s, there was always this country hiking sort of look, but the Mephisto wasn’t there with it at the time.
The first pair that I ever bought I got from Wilmslow in ’93 for £140. It was something that had been in and around the peripheries of North West culture, sort of brought along by the likes of Timberland, Rockport and the adidas Palermo.
Zamberlan used to do a very similar shoe, but it had a heel on it like a 1970s walking boot — so it sort of looked a bit wrong. Hawkshead used to do a really shit copy of them for about 20 quid, so when I saw my first pair of Mephisto Rainbows I flipped, cos I was like, ‘that’s the one I’ve been looking for.’ I then delved into it and found it was the original Mephisto shoe, as worn by Pavarotti. There’s an amazing picture of Pavorotti wearing a pair — he’s got white jeans, white Mephistos and a deep green safari jacket, and he just looks fucking ace — he’s Mr Fucking Loaded Casual European Dude.
I remember having a pair on and going into Scott Sports in Altrincham and there was a lad in there flipping about them, shouting, ‘Where did you get them from?’ A few years later me and a mate saw a pair in London and we imagined how good it would be to have a shop in Manchester that sold them. And then I met Steve and we opened the shop and started selling comfort shoes.”
So that explains how they ended up being sold next to deadstock trainers and Swedish jackets on a side-street in Manchester, but let’s dig a little deeper shall we? Where, oh where, did these things come from?
“There seemed to be a few brown, hippy shoes around that time. The Americans were onto it, the Germans were onto it and the Danish were onto it. It’s that outdoor lifestyle flavour. It’s not flower power, it’s that Yosemite thing — the great, spectacular outdoors — humans living amongst nature. I think that’s where the design came from. I know it’s such a purposeful design that it couldn’t have come from something so crazy, but I know the Polyveldt and the Desert Trek came from a similar place.” ponders Nigel.
Mephisto dealer Peter Ashton has a slightly firmer explanation. “The Rainbow was the first design by Martin Machaeli, the founder of Mephisto shoes. He started making them in his kitchen — the same location is now a factory that 50 years later is making 20,000 pairs per day.”
Before starting Mephisto in 1965, Martin travelled to the USA to complete a degree course in Footwear Technology (only in America eh?). It was here he came up with the idea of using the best materials around and the best construction techniques to make the best shoe in the world. As you’ve probably guessed, this shoe became the Rainbow.
“The ideas were revolutionary then. There was extra padding in the most important places and the last design that allows the shoe to roll with the foot when walking, instead of the foot rolling with the shoe. All this came about because there was nothing like this in the market. It completely rewrote the rulebook of shoemaking then.
The Rainbow was also one of the most expensive shoes in the market. His attitude was ‘take it or leave it’, and yet sales grew because people could see the design and construction was second to none.
Martin still owns the company, and his son and daughter also work at Mephisto. He is now about 80, lives in Zurich and is a billionaire — solely thanks to Mephisto shoes.”
Peter also told me that Arnold Schwarzenegger buys three pairs of Mephisto deck shoes direct from the factory every year, but that’s maybe a story for another time. Mephisto deck shoes aren’t bad, but as far as we’re concerned, the Rainbow is THE Mephisto shoe. It was designed to be the best shoe in the world, and even 50 years after their inception, they’re still hard to beat. Nigel summed them up pretty well with one of his trademark automobile analogies…
“It’s the closest shoe to an Audi All-Road. It’s a shoe of all roads. In the city they look good, and in the country they look good. They’re probably the most worn shoes I’ve ever had.”