While living in Paris, I became obsessed with a style of leather shoe I’d never seen before. Made from a smooth, almost matte leather and meticulously stitched to a chunky rubber sole; I wondered how I had never encountered them before. I pretended to tie my shoes on the metro to get closer to a stranger’s foot and read the green tag on his chunky, handsome stompers.
“What the hell is Paraboot?” I wondered. Within the week I had my own pair.
The founder of Paraboot, Rémy Richard, was born in 1878 in the shadow of the Alps in the town of Izeaux. Shoe and boot-making was the main industry in his hometown and by the late 1800s, Rémy was a skilled cutter for one such brand. Despite the rural nature of his hometown and its proximity to some of the greatest skiing and hiking in the world, most of the shoes Rémy worked on were for city slickers in some remote (to him) region of France.
Richard realized that the real money was to be had in big cities, where contractors simply handed off their designs to these rural factories and reaped the rewards. So, he tried the same thing. He headed to Paris with some models of his designs and within a few years, he was contracting out of the very same factory he had just left. By 1908, he was catering to some prestigious clients in Paris and began to form his very own brand.
In 1910, Richard found love and seed money for his new business when he met his wife, Juliette Pontvert. Her father was a wealthy notary and her dowry provided the investment necessary to found Richard-Pontvert, the company that oversaw his first brand: Chaussures Extra. At this point, the shoes they were making were high-end and rather dainty, as you can see above. The company wouldn’t become Paraboot or reach its full potential until Richard took a trip to the U.S.
Richard was a well-traveled man, who frequented trade shows and world fairs to get inspiration and scout new technologies. When he came to the U.S. in 1926, he was arriving in the midst of a rubber frenzy. Rubber was the hottest new material on the market, now that vulcanization was becoming more widespread. The boots that Richard was seeing were likely galoshes or rain boot style rubber boots, and he brought this idea home with him when he returned to France.
Upon his return, he began laminating latex onto his boots, making them 100% waterproof. This was done by hand and it was a painstaking process that likely produced a swelteringly hot boot. Much like the early experiments with rubber described in our ‘Trench Coat‘ article, these early attempts of using rubber on clothes and footwear were often notoriously sweaty and uncomfortable.
Unbeknownst to Richard, someone else was already doing this. Hiram Hutchinson of England was, with Charles Goodyear’s patent on vulcanization, developing the rubber rain boots that would become the Aigle brand. But Richard soon found a better use for rubber.
Richard developed lugged rubber soles eleven years before Vitale Abrami founded Vibram, which is why, to this day, Paraboot’s soles bear an “RP” for Richard-Pontvert, instead of the ubiquitous Vibram logo. Harder wearing and better in almost every situation than the leather and sometimes wood outsoles used elsewhere in France, Richard was in the vanguard of a new wave of footwear design.
In 1927, Paraboot finally came into being. “Para” for the port in Amazonia from whence their rubber was supplied and “boot” to memorialize the discovery Richard made in America. Richard continued to manufacture elegant, leather-soled shoes under the “Extra” line, but all Paraboots would have their signature chunky, grippy leather soles going forward.
In 1937, Julien, Rémy’s son, took over the family business and he could not have come at a worse time. World War II would ravage France for almost a decade and Paraboot very nearly ceased to exist. Liberation didn’t exactly help either, as new, cheap synthetic options entered the market. The relatively high-end Paraboot brand didn’t fare well. But Julien stuck to his guns. He continued sourcing leather from the best tanneries in France and made Norwegian-welted shoes that were popular with outdoorsmen and blue collar workers.
In 1945, Paraboot released the Michael, a style that didn’t quite align with the brand’s focus on workwear, but became an enduring classic nonetheless. It’s “so ugly it’s fashion” energy calls to mind the famous Clark’s Wallabee. But the above images show more than that too. With heavy, work-ready leather and thick soles, Norwegian-welted to the upper, the shoes were marketed as a hiking shoe and Paraboot was so confident in their shoes that they guaranteed they would last at least 10 months repair-free.
Though the average consumer was drawn to a lower-end product in the postwar era, avid sportspeople knew they needed the very best footwear on the market. Paraboot created Galibier, their hike and ski sub-brand, which did very well in a moment of renewed interest in the outdoors. Galibier thrived until the market took a dive in the 1970s. Julien’s son, Michel, took over the company, but even he couldn’t perform any miracles. The company declared bankruptcy in 1983.
The Modern Era
Still in the family and currently on the fourth generation, Paraboot has come back from the brink. Although their website can’t be described as ‘user-friendly’, and their retail stores in Paris seem a little… old-fashioned, a renewed interest in heritage products has certainly done them a great service. Very few made-in-France brands remain and Paraboot has to be one of the most renowned and highest quality.
Their high-quality leather is not as rugged as the American boot brands you may be used to, but over time the shoes break in from a stodgy dress shoe to a comfortable wardrobe essential. Their traction and impenetrable Norwegian welt made them my go-to walking shoe on rainy days in Paris and my shoes have survived well beyond their 10 month guarantee.
Models of Note
The Chambord was the one that caught my eye in the Paris Metro. A pseudo, moc-toe derby with better traction than most Vibram soles, the Chambord is a lot of things at once and it excels in all categories. Although hard to find in the States, the Chambord is available in many leathers my personal favorite being a cherry sort of cordovan, which gets slightly redder and richer with age.
Available from Drake’s for $425.
Perhaps Paraboot’s most iconic silhouette, the Michael was released in 1945 and is credited as having brought the company back to financial solvency when Italian tastemakers commended its elegance. The Tyrolean-style is chunky and weird, but why do I like it so much? Looks great with trousers and stands out from a crowd.
Available (on sale) from Totem Brand Co. for $378.40.
A reproduction of the Galibier hiking boots that were so popular among the French outdoorsmen of the postwar era, the Avoriaz is a good-looking boot. It looks almost too nice to wear on the trail, but don’t be fooled. That’s what these bad boys were made for.
Available for £325 from Drake’s.
Lead photo: Diane Moyssan