Whenever we’ve been talking footwear, my mate Scratch has been going on about his Paraboot shoes. Whenever I’ve done a post about footwear recommendations for the upcoming season, he’s been there, telling me that I must include Paraboot.
And each time, I’ve taken a look at them and thought they looked a bit odd, but knowing that Scratch does know his stuff, so I’ve included them. And probably made some witty comment about them being left field contenders or some such.
I think I see now what part of the problem is. When these shoes are photographed, the photos are often taken from an angle similar to the one you’d use to show how impressive a car or a boat looks. As shown above. It makes the shoe look absolutely massive, like an icebreaker braving the waves, or a classic American muscle car ready to burn rubber. Unless those are the sorts of looks you might be looking for in footwear, it might just be a little off-putting. And of course, you never see a shoe from this angle when it’s being used as a shoe and not a still-life object to be artistically evaluated.
Oh, and you know how words and associations work, right? To me “paraboot” conjures up images of something a parachuting soldier might wear. Like the awful down jackets by Italian Parajumpers. As if elite soldiers would wear sensible French shoes! Or fashionable down jackets styled for ladies, for that matter.
More fool me, eh? Because I finally got it. And all it took was a trip to the Best Shoe-shop in Norway, where they just happen to carry a selection of the Paraboot range. Including the Michael, one of the models that Scratch swears is just about the best shoe a man can get. And that includes looks, comfort, build quality and story.
The story being almost as important as the product, let’s take a look at that side of things first. Think of it as setting the mood. Dim the lights and cue the Jacques Brel.
The origins of Paraboot go way back to the early 1900s, when Rémy Richard, a self-taught man, started his small shoemaking company in Izeaux, Isère, France. From humble beginnings it grew, but it was in 1926 it went from being just another local shoe company to something more.
Although he didn’t speak a word of English, he travelled to the United States in search of innovation. There he noticed the Americans were wearing boots with rubber soles and saw the advantages and possibilities compared to the traditional leather soles he was used to. The new material was latex and be returned to France with both material and the knowhow of how to use it in his own production.
Being a chap of good common sense, in 1927 he registered a new company name based on his new findings, and it became “Paraboot”. The “para” part from the port in Amazonia where the latex rubber was exported from and “boot” from the footwear that inspired him in the USA. He guaranteed his boots to be waterproof with layers of latex added by hand on wooden lasts and vulcanised in vats.
So, with a new name and some new techniques, his company became an even greater success, and though there have been ups and down, it is still a family owned company to this day. Which is something I can appreciate.
The “Michael” though, where does that come from? Well, as history has it it’s a design that hails back to 1945. There appears to be some agreement that it’s based on a style that became popular in the 30’s, so not strictly something Paraboot can take full credit for on the design front. Fans of old French films may have noticed the style being worn. Iconic stuff, indeed, and we can regard these as an archetype within the breed.
They have been making them for 78 years though, in the same way, by hand, using the same tanners for the fine leather. I’m sure I saw somewhere that it takes 150 operations to make them now, the same as it did in 1945. That is stubbornness for you. It is credible to still have such an eye for quality good and traditional ways, when it would be so easy to claim that the business model just isn’t viable and outsourcing the lot to a low cost country.
So, first impressions? Heavy, solid and rugged. These are no shrinking violets, or any other shapechanging flower indeed. Not rugged as in safety shoes or workboots, but rugged in the way your dad would appreciate them. Sensible, proper shoes. And with a certain heft to them. Not in the way steel-toed workboots have heft, but more of a sense of purpose. The moccasin toe is a design feature that is shared with the ever-popular Clarks Wallabees, and of course the “moc toe” Red Wing models.
The soles are solid natural latex rubber. Thick, and just a little springy. The leather? The leather is magnificent, thick and soft, with a sort of fatty, or even buttery feel to it. Very natural and good. Laces? Yes, but just two holes either side. Minimal.
The welting is also different on the Paraboot as it’s not the regular Goodyear style welt, but rather the less common Norwegian welt, or storm welt as it’s sometimes known. The difference being that the Norwegian welt has more exposed stitching, is more waterproof and rugged-looking than the Goodyear welt.
When trying them on for size, I had the benefit of a shoemakers insight into sizing. A benefit that has made me rethink almost every shoe I’ve ever bought. Frenchmen apparently prefer their shoes to be the exact length of the foot, so your toes should be up against the end of the shoe. I’ve always bought shoes where my feet would have almost no contact with the shoe itself, but not so large as to rattle around inside.
When trying these on, I first selected my usual size, and instinctively decided I needed them larger, as there was a touch of squeeze towards the broader part of one foot. When I tried the larger size though, it was far too large, with the heel slipping up and down. This was not looking good…
“You need a smaller size”. Uhm, really? But I tried them on, and I could actually get my feet in them, they weren’t really comfortable though. Actually, I tell a lie, they were downright uncomfortable. “Those are right for you, have faith in me”. This did take more than a little faith! A pair of Paraboot shoes are not cheap, and I’d hate to buy shoes I know are too small, but I went for it.
And so started the process of breaking them in. Wearing them inside to start with, letting the pressure and warmth of my feet work at molding the leather. Then wearing them outside, enjoying the feeling of quality French leather reducing my heel to raw flesh. Yet, after a couple of weeks, they are starting to feel very good. I suspect this is a process that will continue for a while yet, but I can already see that the choice of size was good. And hence why I question many of my other shoes.
One very noticeable benefit of buying these in the smaller size is that it does make them seem less massive. Had I bought them two sizes larger (shudder), they’d have felt and looked entirely different. And in the respect of shoes, larger isn’t better, lads!
The business of breaking in shoes in something I’ll have to discuss further at some point. The worst I’ve experienced was a pair of Doc Martens a few years back. Absolute ankle-eaters, due to the leather being stiff as card. Once they’re good though, they are very good. Others struggle with boots like Red Wings, and I have an upcoming post on that.
In summary though, yes, Scratch was right. Every man should own a pair of Michaels. Thanks, mate.
And in closing, here is a short video clip about Paraboot: