Mark McNairy Interview
Arguably one of the most influential contemporary retailers – Tres Bien Shop have brought us an interview with footwear designer Mark Mcnairy, giving us insight into his inspiration and views on contemporary footwear:
I don’t know who to blame for the hordes of inelegant, duckbill-looking black shoes that have passed as dress shoes for the last decade, but I know who’s offering the antidote: Mark McNairy. McNairy has taken the kind of shoes that have sat in WASPy American closets for decades and dug down to their English roots to create a whole range of footwear that’s designed in the U.S. but built in Northampton, England, by one of the UK’s finest makers. McNairy’s takes on suede bucks (plaintoe laced shoes, traditionally on a red rubber sole), penny loafers, and brogues offer an ideal blend of craftsmanship and subtle transatlantic style. He has worked for some of America’s longest tenured men’s outfitters–J. Press and Southwick among them–and these days is putting his creativity and irreverent sense of humor into his own lines: Red Brick Soul and Mark McNairy New Amsterdam.
I met McNairy at his showroom in Soho on a spring day when the New York heat set records. Tourists checking out the food and trinket stalls on Broadway were sweating through their “I heart NY” tshirts. The cashmere salesmen were not having a good day. Fortunately Mark’s showroom was as refreshing and cool as his playful, prep-referencing designs. We talked for a while about shoes and clothes, where they come from, and where they’re going.
Pete: When did you start putting shoes out?
Mark: January 2009 was the debut, but I’ve had my own business in different configurations for a long time.
What were you making before?
I had a line called McNairy Brothers. I was doing pretty much the same thing, just with my brother.
I think I first saw your shoes at Epaulet, in Brooklyn, but now they’re all over–at Tres Bien Shop, of course, and I saw some at the flagship Barney’s on Madison Avenue.
Yes. Mike at Epaulet was the first to get them. Barney’s has a nice little table. Tres Bien just got a new shoe–brown brogue with white eyelets.
I saw the shoes you’re doing with Bass at Barney’s too.
Yes. They’re carrying both collections–that’s the intention.
How did your designs with Bass come about?
I was doing the English-made shoes, and a Japanese friend who had approached Bass about doing shoes for the Japanese market–he wanted a Bass Weejun made in the USA for Japan–brought me in. I wanted to do a whole range, because my English shoes are all Goodyear welted, but the English don’t do the handsewn moccasins, and I wanted a whole range of classic American footwear. So it was a perfect way to round out the whole collection. I wanted to send it to Japan and also have it here.
I like seeing those shoes made in the United States to a higher standard. I mean that’s what I grew up wearing–to school, not that I loved it all the time, I wanted to wear Vans every day–but it’s nice to see a quality pennyloafer out there.
It’s been the camp moccs and the bucks, that’s what everybody’s into now. I think everyone thought the pennyloafers would catch on last year but I think it might be next year.
All of those designs are classic American styles. What made you decide to make them in the UK?
There are almost no factories in the U.S. to make those shoes. The few that exist aren’t really interested. My whole thing has always been modern, traditional, Anglo-American sportswear. The button down shirt originated in the UK. The traditional dress shoe industry, Savile Row–the whole thing grew out of the UK. I had done an English shoe collection with J. Press. Chukka boots with crepe soles, dirty bucks, black longwings. The owner of the English factory, he was in town, we had coffee and I said “How about I do a collection with you?” I basically knew what I wanted to do, but I went over there and designed the whole collection in a day. He brought the shoes back the next month and we showed them to traditional stores. There wasn’t a quality buck out there at the time. It was a disaster! Good things came from it, but… At the time I was in a very traditional mode–J. Press, Southwick, rather than Tres Bien. This stuff is too advanced for the traditional stores.
I think a lot of the prep style is regional. You’re from North Carolina, right?
I would bet you like the Anglo style of a store like Ben Silver [a longstanding men's shop in Charleston, South Carolina].
Yes, yes; very different than J. Press or Brooks Brothers.
To talk a little more about regional style differences. You grew up in North Carolina. You’ve been in New York for a while.
Is there a regional difference in traditional styles you notice?
Yeah. I mean… Ivy League; preppy. I grew up and went to school in North Carolina, so I’m not strictly Ivy League. There are elements that overlap. Madras slacks, they overlap. Lily Pulitzer is southern preppy. Ivy is very conservative. Southern preppy is flashy, go-to-hell pants, that sort of thing.
Ivy, preppy, trad, the words are used to describe the same kind of aesthetic, but it seems funny. The preppy I was aware of growing up was more hand-me-downs, wear the same stuff your dad wore and your brothers wore, versus fashion, which seems in conflict with the original reasons those “preppy” things are the way they are.
Elements of Ivy, preppy, have crept into fashion, which is not what Ivy is about. The whole thing with J. Press is that you can look at a 1954 catalog and one now and it’s the same thing. The kind of thing you buy and wear for the rest of your life.
What about your clothing line, how has that developed?
With the clothes I started slowly–just the cargo pants and button down shirts and ties. And I’ve expanded a little every season. With J. Press I focused on Ivy League, with this I can do whatever I want, because it’s mine. It has elements of Ivy, but also military, athletic, workwear… the same things I’ve always been into. My intro to Brooks Brothers was, I used to wear vintage military chinos with Brooks Brothers button downs from thrift stores. Maybe a white tshirt. That’s my uniform–that and a decent pair of shoes.
You do a lot of collaborations–you’re doing pieces with Bass, Keds, Acontinuouslean, and shop exclusives.
We can do small runs of my shoes for stores because they’re basically handmade. The shoes I’m doing with Engineered Garments, that’s a legitimate collaboration–no one else will have those shoes.
Those new Engineered Garments shoes are interesting, with the mixed panels of pebbled and plain leathers. I’ve seen some mixed shoes where the left is a captoe brogue and the right a plaintoe brogue.
I did one of those with Engineered Garments that had like five different leathers. The new Engineered Garments shoes are very subtle. You’re not even going to notice the difference unless you look close. If you care about clothing you’ll notice, but otherwise…
It’s great you’ve made so many combinations of styles and soles that you might not otherwise see.
With the soles, there’s commando, leather soles, red brick soles, Ridgeway, red Ridgeway.
I even see a pull-on boot there.
Yes. I hoped to do that in America but it will be made in England as well.
How has it been working with Europe, and with Très Bien Shop?
Incredible. You’ve seen the new shoe they’ve got, the brown brogue with white eyelets and white sole? They sold out in a day. They have a large order for fall–maybe 12 different styles. We’ve talked about doing more for the new Très Bien Shop. Maybe 4 special models for the new store with Our Legacy.
Our Legacy seems like a good fit, aesthetically.
Yeah, like a European version of what I like.
I noticed in another interview you said when you design a shoe your priority is to “Make sure it does not look like Kenneth Cole made it.”
[smiles] I was just being an ass. It is the truth, though. I didn’t mean him specifically, but just that square-toed black loafer look…
Not Kenneth Cole, but what Kenneth Cole hath wrought.
Is there any shoe design you would categorically never do? Side-gore, butterfly-strap loafers?
Never say never!
So just no square-toed black loafers.
Yeah. I don’t know where that came from.
Thanks to Tres Bien Shop for the info.