Oi Polloi

The Paraboot Michael — An Oi Polloi Champion

Published: Fri Jul 26 2019

Sitting in the imaginary interzone between a Clarks Wallabee and a moc-toed Red Wing, the Paraboot Michael has long been a bit of an Oi Polloi favourite. Somehow managing to be both sturdy and smart, they’re a wholly unique footwear option and a true classic of the brown shoe world.

That said, they’re still a seldom-seen specimen often misunderstood by the masses. Where do they come from? What are they made for? Why should you care?

Here’s our attempt at answering some of those pressing questions…

The story of the Paraboot Michael kicks off in the dusty, sepia toned days of the late 19th century when a young man named Rémy Richard decided to leave his job in a shoe factory to set up his own business in the scenic alpine village of Izeaux, creating swanky wooden-soled shoes for Parisian high-society.

Whilst schmoozing on the burgeoning trade-show circuit, Rémy made his way to the United States, where he was greeted by flocks of people strolling gleefully in rubber-soled boots. Juiced on this unthinkable technological development, he binned-off his clunky old wooden soles and embraced the new world of rubbery comfort. In 1927, Paraboot was born.

Although the name could maybe conjure up brash and burly images of 18 eyelet stompers designed for airborne military men and resigned to army surplus bargain bins, it actually comes from a combination of the Amazonian town of Para (the port town where the latex rubber was shipped from), and... er… boot. I don’t think I should have to explain what a boot is.

With the help of Rémy’s son Julien, Paraboot moved into making sturdy boots for farmers, lumberjacks and factory workers. Alongside all this, they also worked to develop a shoe for vets, architects and land-surveyors. Whilst this lot didn’t need the ankle protection of a full-bore boot, they still hankered for hard-wearing footwear for doing the rounds in Alpine towns.

Even though ‘vet-friendly mountain shoes’ sounds like a pretty niche market, there’s a whole genre of footwear dedicated to this type of thing known as ‘Tyrolean shoes’. Named after Tyrol, the mountainous region between Austria and Italy – Tyrolean shoes are classed as sturdy leather mountain moccasins with a chunky lugged sole.

There are a few variations of this beast around, such as the Kleman Padre, the Mephisto Peppo and the Heschung Thuya, but the Paraboot, is generally seen as the definitive, archetypal Tyrolean shoe. Put simply, it’s the Big Kahuna Burger.

Launched in 1945, the Michael took the sturdy vulcanized sole of a hiking boot, and fused it with a lower-profile, moccasin shape via something known as a Norwegian welt. Originally used for ski-boots, this is a particularly elaborate way of stitching the upper to the sole designed to keep water out.

Whilst it’s hard to say if the Paraboot Michael was an instant success, they did shift a few in those early days – and a couple of pairs can be spotted in old French films if you squint hard enough.

Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, Paraboot focussed mainly on their Galibier range of hiking boots, with the Michael slowly ticking away in the background, but in 1984, with Paraboot facing bankruptcy, our chunky leather protagonist came to the rescue.

The Italian taste-makers at high-brow distributor W.P. Lavori (the same people responsible for introducing Woolrich and Barbour to the kids of Milan) were on the hunt for comfortable, unique footwear when they stumbled upon the Michael. It was just what they were after, and it soon became a firm part of the Paninaro uniform along with Best Company sweatshirts and Levi’s jeans.

Thanks to some intrepid football fans, this get-up soon made its way to our craggy island, and the Michael was worn by a select few as a more elite option to the lug-soled Timberland. The fact that they were hard to find (and barely anyone knew what they were) only added to the appeal.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the shoes also became a favourite amongst a curious subculture known as BCBG (or ‘bon chic, bon genre’, meaning ‘good style, good class’). Not to be confused with BDSM, the BCBG could maybe be seen as the French equivalent of the preppies in the U.S. or London’s Sloane Rangers.

As a reaction to the gaudy displays of wealth taking place in the mid-80s, this bunch of old money youths decided the best way to dress up was by dressing down, so they took to wearing expensive-yet-conservative clothes such as cashmere scarves and Loden coats to set themselves apart. The understated stylings of the Paraboot Michael fitted in nicely.

This triple header of Italian burger-scoffers, discerning English casuals and the minted Parisian elite cemented the Paraboot’s status as something more than just a well-made shoe for alpine vets, and although the word ‘iconic’ might be a slightly strong way to describe an inanimate leather object, they most definitely deserve a place in the brown shoe hall of fame.

They’re big in Japan too – and are a regular fixture in those dead thick Japanese magazines with loads of photos of highly-covetable gear that is pretty much impossible to get your mitts on.

Nowadays, even after all these twists and turns, the Paraboot Michael remains blissfully unchanged, and are still made exactly the same way they were back in 1945.

In a humid climate of watered-down reproductions and endless copies of copies of copies, the fact that the Michael still exists in its original, undiluted form is a rare example of a footwear company respecting its history and giving the people what they deserve. They look good with a pair of cords too.