Fashion

The Under-the-Radar Shoe Designer Jackie Kennedy Adored

Long before Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo were household fashion names, Hélèle Arpels's shoes were the favorite of the best-dressed.
IMAGE GETTY; COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
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Long before Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, and Jimmy Choo defined the dressing of stylish feet worldwide, there was another couture cobbler whose designs were a must-have for the smart set. Impossibly chic, Hélène Arpels was the Monte Carlo-born daughter of Russian parents, a former model, and the onetime wife of Louis Arpels (yes of Van Cleef &).

Hélène opened a small salon in midtown Manhattan in the late 1940s. There she sold contemporized versions of embroidered Arabian caftans, designed to be worn as bohemian eveningwear. But it was her exquisitely made shoes that eventually dominated the business. She became a friend and fashion advisor to Jacqueline Kennedy for more than 20 years.


Hélène Arpels

"I’m not a designer," she was quoted as saying. "But I know exactly what I want to create." And so she did, traveling to Italy twice a year to work with the shoe factory that she owned near Bologna. Her collections weren’t groundbreaking, bordering on ever-so-slightly mumsy in silhouette, but the craftsmanship and materials were out of the ordinary.

And then there was the fit. Her well-heeled (sorry, couldn't help myself) clientele would have their feet measured and traced, and individual lasts were then made to ensure a fit like no ready-made shoe could offer. Even the most expensive footwear manufacturers of the day, such as Ferragamo and Eugenia of Florence, came in a limited range of widths.

Aristotle Onassis once bought Jackie a dozen pairs—six of her preferred low-heeled pumps and six high-heeled numbers that he felt were sexier.

The richer and more famous the lady, the longer and more narrow her feet, apparently. Jacqueline Kennedy was famously a size 10A. But at Hélène Arpels, a 6½ AAAA was not a problem, nor, heaven forbid, was a 12. Regardless of the size, the shoes remained delicate and refined, as was the shopping experience.


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Jackie Kennedy gives an interview in 1962. We can't be too sure that these are Arpel shoes or not.

Like so many Upper East Side clichés, such as the ruffled cashmere stole or gold door-knocker earrings, Hélène Arpels loafers were an essential part of a proper New York City wardrobe. They were understated and comfortable, and just the right thing to pair with grey flannel trousers, a silk blouse, and a camel-hair polo coat. Her evening shoes made long hours standing in receiving lines on marble floors bearable.

Known mostly to the Park Avenue set, word of Hélène Arpels's shoes traveled quickly to the West Coast, as evidenced in numerous photos of Betsy Bloomingdale and Lee Annenberg sporting her shoes. In the famous picture of Ronald and Nancy Reagan dining on TV trays in the family quarters of the White House, Nancy’s black Hélène Arpels loafers are in clear view.


President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan dine on TV trays in the White House Residence in 1981

Several pairs of her satin court pumps—like the early '70s pair pictured at the top of this post—are part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, along with a pair of zip-front brogues that belonged to the late Lily Auchincloss. On one visit to the shop, Aristotle Onassis bought Jackie a dozen pairs—six of her preferred low-heeled pumps and six high-heeled numbers that he felt were sexier. "That way, they were both happy," said Hélène.

While her married name was associated with some of the most extravagant jewelry in the world, Hélène sold enchanting "paste" pieces that were ideal for travel or other situations when "the good stuff" was best left in the vault. Her crystal and gold plated necklaces and citrine studded cuffs perfectly accessorized her embellished caftans, and became the epitome of "hostess chic."

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Bette Midler had this Valentino gown dyed to match her Helene Arpels satin pumps for the 1992 Academy Awards

Her salons, first at 665 Madison Avenue and later at 470 Park Avenue, were deluxe, with plush carpeting, gilded Louis XVI chairs, and large sparkling crystal chandeliers. Andre Azria, a Tunisian émigré living in New York (and a relative of BCBG's Max Azria), opened the original store with Arpels—and more. Not only did he manage the retail operation, he was her business partner in the Bologna factory and partner in life following her divorce from Louis Arpels. In 1984, he revealed to the late New York Times fashion writer John Duka, "When we started on Madison, we were the only ones who were fashionable." Bemoaning the changes in the retail landscape, he added, "We will go to Park Avenue between 57th Street and 58th Street, because some discount places are moving onto Madison.'"

Andre and Hélène spent their last years bouncing between New York and Paris, where they kept a small but exquisite townhouse in the 16th arrondissement. He died in 2001 at 83, she in 2006 at 97. Neither had any children and the business no longer exists. But the Hélène Arpels legacy of beautifully understated footwear, much of it for the fanciest folks in the world, lives on in the collective conscience of high style, along with online sites like eBay and 1stdibs.com.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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