LA ROSE SHOES–A DOWNTOWN LEGEND: Fanciful footwear covered with multicolored feathers, the plumage from a pet macaw? Four-inch stilettos boasting a houndstooth weave? Cowhide boots encrusted with sequins? Ladies who walked through these doors could buy some of the more exotic shoes the world has witnessed. This was LaRose Footwear, a boutique owned by the late, longtime Jacksonville resident Joseph J. LaRose. An internationally acclaimed designer for both celebrities and everyday women, Mr. LaRose often took his shoes at least one step beyond. Lots of stores carry a brown leather pump, for example, but Mr. LaRose offered one with multicolored piping on the heel. Although his shoes are experiencing a rebirth in interest, time will eventually diminish the numbers available for wearing. Many are destined for display in public & private collections instead.
From 1949 to 1981, LaRose Footwear served foot conscious customers at the corner of Laura and Duval streets in Jacksonville. It operated in the downtown building that now houses the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art, which sits east of Hemming Plaza and cattycornered from the St. James Building (City Hall). Just several years ago, the Museum deemed that Mr. LaRose’s creations represented a form of modern shoe art. It therefore hosted an exhibit that posthumously honored the designer. Ironically, the building from which LaRose shoes were sold is now the site for a museum that displayed them.
In 1981, Mr. LaRose moved his business around the corner to 37-41 W. Monroe Street. He bought a Mediterranean Revival style structure that had been built in 1925. LaRose Footwear stayed open in this location until November 1999, just a month before Mr. LaRose’s death. The old building has been razed and is being replaced by the new, state-of-the-art Main Public Library.
CONVERSATION PIECES: Exquisite, flamboyant, classic, and crazy: All of these terms have been used to describe LaRose shoes. Here’s just a tiny sample of his stock:
- Marabou slippers
- Sequined stilettos
- Dazzling barebacks on sky-swept heels paved with diamond-cut rhinestones (were tint-able in 99 colors)
- Transparent mules
- Mules with Spring-o-lators
- Pink or apple green T-strap heels
- Funky footwear with boomerang and bamboo heels
- Wildly colorful ’70s platform shoes
- Lace-up tapestry boots from the Seventies
- T-strap Mary Janes with avocado green leather over marigold suede
- Black, patent leather sandals with an ankle strap, decorated with little gray & white leaves on the toe
- 1960’s linen espadrille type shoe with a wedge heel composed of a basket weave, rope-type fabric
- Leather heels in a dusty rose & fuchsia mix with silver trim
- Yellow heels with a buckle strap, baroque rhinestone pattern, and a gilded wood ornament toe treatment
- Sole-less Lifetime Sandals made up of a chain harness with toe ring and two gladiator-length silver-leather straps
- 5-inch platforms with strips of leather
- Feather-covered pumps with a solid brass heel
Mr. LaRose compared himself to an African safari guide, leading women on a flamboyant fashion hunt. If they stayed on the proper trails, they could bag a prize, a pair of shoes that suited them just right.
CLIENTELE, RICH & NOT: When blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield died in a Louisiana car crash in 1967, she was allegedly wearing a pair of LaRose shoes. Many celebrities donned Mr. LaRose’s chic creations on their pedicured, toe-polished feet. The list has included Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, Joan Crawford, Carol Channing, and Brooke Shields. Abigail Van Buren, or “Dear Abby,” shopped at LaRose Footwear, and Jackie Kennedy stopped by once. Even Redd Foxx, “Fred Sanford” himself, bought LaRose footwear for a lady friend.
Recently, Cameron Diaz, the object of affection from “There’s Something About Mary,” purchased a pair of LaRose shoes, and Mena Suvari, the lovely rose from “American Beauty” and “American Pie,” picked up a LaRose handbag from a Manhattan store for retro clothing. (Mr. LaRose sometimes designed matching purses for his footwear.) Renee Zellweger, from “Nurse Betty,” wore vintage LaRose footwear in the 2003 movie “Down With Love,” a modern twist on the old Doris Day/Rock Hudson love stories from the Sixties. Mr. LaRose’s biggest day in sun occurred in 1956, when a contestant on “What’s My Line,” a national TV game show, was asked where she bought her pretty shoes. The camera then zoomed on her masterpieces from Jacksonville.
Fifty years ago, many ladies who wore LaRose creations felt part of an elite group, those who were willing to splurge for their fashion statements. Yet wild & wonderful shoe styles were only part of the LaRose story. The boutique garnered a reputation as a place to go for uncommon sizes & fits. In this vein, Mr. LaRose could personally adjust shoes for an individual. But even more important, LaRose Footwear became known for its attentive customer service in general, with both whites and African Americans were treated with respect.
ITALIAN ROOTS: The future shoe legend came from Sicily. Nine-year-old Joe LaRose arrived in America in 1920 and settled with his family in Rockford, Illinois. He would hang out at an old cobbler’s shop in the evenings, doing odd jobs. After his high school graduation, the young man wanted to try his luck in Hollywood as an actor, but he remained in Illinois to care for his mother. Mr. LaRose started selling footwear when he was 20. He became a manager with Wohl Shoes and traveled across the country, inspecting his company’s leased space in department stores. He also served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Mr. LaRose met his wife, Gertrude or “Trudy,” in Illinois, and they moved to Jacksonville in the late 1940s. The newcomer managed the lady’s shoe department at Purcell’s, a former River City hotspot for fashions. In 1949, Mr. LaRose left Purcell’s to open his own business at neighboring Laura & Duval.
The designer and his wife labored seven days a week, never taking vacations. The couple resided in Arlington and didn’t have children. A soft-spoken man, Mr. LaRose was a flashy dresser who drove fancy cars and liked dogs. When he turned 80, the octogenarian said that he had achieved a long, healthy life by sticking to these five things: Waking every day at 7 a.m., walking about 10 blocks, doing calisthenics, watching his diet, and saying a daily prayer. Mr. LaRose also favored homeopathic medicines.
FATE OF FOOTWEAR: Local ladies made tracks to LaRose Footwear. In its heyday during the Fifties and Sixties, the shop’s annual revenue totaled about $300,000. This very roughly translates into $2 million in current currency. A sales force of five people waited on clientele, who gazed upon a stained-glass piano designed by Mr. LaRose. At one point, the businessman also owned branches in several other cities, including Miami and Orlando. When the Jax boutique opened in the late Forties, local ladies would put on dresses & gloves before venturing downtown to shop at the many stores. Adding to its charm, LaRose Footwear was situated on a then fashionable business street.
Due to the rising popularity of casual attire during the Sixties, however, women began to increasingly buy inexpensive, mass-produced shoes. By the Eighties, LaRose’s creations started to lose their commercial appeal. And as the department stores took flight to the suburbs, downtown foot traffic steadily diminished. If Jacksonville’s best-known fashion designer had moved his boutique to somewhere like New York, perhaps he could have continued successfully. LaRose Footwear finally closed its doors, though, in November 1999, and Mr. LaRose passed away a few weeks later from a prolonged illness. (Mrs. LaRose joined him in death in January 2003.)
A COMEBACK: Following Mr. LaRose’s demise, his store and a neighboring building were opened for inspection: What treasures they held! The dusty structures were likened to King’s Tut tomb, but for fashion aficionados. The buildings contained a quarter million to a half million pairs of shoes, many still in their original boxes. Also included were several thousand matching handbags. Piled floor to ceiling, the old stock was rumored to be worth over $1 million, with a number of shoes valued at $200 a pair. This would’ve been paradise for Imelda Marcos and maybe even Austin Powers, considering the retro styles. How did all of the merchandise accumulate? Mr. LaRose never placed his shoes on sale, and he avoided the disposal of inventory. He also proved very reticent about his store’s affairs.
Since the designer’s death, his chic genius is being rediscovered. Sotheby’s auctioned off a large chunk of the LaRose estate: shoes, handbags, sketches, and celebrity letters, including 19 pieces of correspondence from Joan Crawford. (Read this wonderful article about La Rose in the New York Times.) LaRose shoes & accessories are being offered by vintage clothing dealers in New York, Los Angeles, and the First Coast. In addition, Mr. LaRose’s creations have either been sold or exhibited in Tokyo, and plans were being made to place his masterpieces in such archives as The Bata, a Toronto shoe museum. Ralph Lauren executives bought several pairs of LaRose footwear to use in fashion shows or to copy for their company’s shoe line.
Mr. LaRose’s shoes have long tickled people’s imaginations. Indeed, some of his designs bordered more on fantasy than fashion. Will they someday pop up in your home? One vintage clothing dealer has hoped to make LaRose footwear the subject of a coffee-table book!
~written by Glenn Emery