Ambition, Footwear, and Fashion Firsts

originally published on 01.13.11
These examples of Mabel Julianelli’s shoe designs belong to her daughter, Jane Julianelli, above, who has written a biography about her mother’s groundbreaking career.

    Jane Julianelli wears a diamond “G” pendant to honor her heritage and the rich legacy of her parents, Mabel and Charles Julianelli. The pendant also serves as a reminder to “never forget where I came from.”
    Ms. Julianelli, a writer and former editor at Women’s Wear Daily, will be at the East Hampton Library on Saturday at 1 p.m. to discuss her book “The Naked Shoe: The Artistry of Mabel Julianelli.” The book, filled with lavish color and black-and-white photos and sketches, recounts the life and work of her parents, in particular, her mother.
    For those who are familiar with such names as Ferragamo, Jourdan, and Vivier, the name Julianelli may be ringing a fashion bell, as it was one of the premier shoe design companies dating back to the 1940s. (The forerunner was a company founded by Mabel Winkel in 1929 before her marriage to Mr. Julianelli.)
    “My father also always remembered his origins, an immigrant boy of 4 years old, crossing the Atlantic on a ship, having his Italian name changed from the original spelling, Giulianelli, to Julianelli by the officials at Ellis Island,” Ms. Julianelli said. Thus, the G pendant.
    There is no question as to the pedigree of the Julianelli shoe designs. They are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the Parsons School, and the Museum of Modern Art has archived the Julianelli signature “Chopine sandal” from a 1944 exhibit there.
    Also, in conducting her research for the book, Ms. Julianelli discovered that companies — from Jimmy Choo to Nike — have referenced Julianelli patented designs from the 1940s.
    Ambition was the driving force behind her mother’s success. “She was not rich or beautiful,” Ms. Julianelli said. She was “sketching as a little girl by 1914, in a Russian-Jewish household in Brooklyn, where her strict father banned any kind of artistic expression because he believed it was damaging to the soul.”
    In her book, Ms. Julianelli recounts how her parents met, their romance, marriage, and business partnership. Her father was a portrait painter and met Mabel in a shoe pattern factory in 1927. “Behind the strange little woman who wore her skirt long and her cloche low, Charles saw that Mabel was pretty. She was not a conventional beauty, but had a kind of prettiness that came from being brashly American,” she wrote.
    Ms. Julianelli discovered that her mother “had an ingenious plan from the very beginning of her life to achieve something that had no role model, no prototype, no paradigm, and that was a business plan to success,” she said. In a way, Charles came onto Mabel’s ship. He “meshed perfectly with her in ideology and design. He promoted her and was the spokesperson of the company, with his good looks and his charming manner. Success as a designing couple was their plan. But first, it was her plan.”
    Her mother defied convention, pursuing a career as a Jewish woman in a male-dominated industry in the late 1920s, and going on to marry an Italian Catholic. In 1947, they had earned a reputation as a company that also defied convention in its propensity for creating numerous fashion firsts. Ms. Julianelli was taken aback to come across just how many novel shoe constructions her parents were credited with: “I was amazed years later when researching the book to discover the Julianellis actually invented a thing or two — original shoe constructions which they patented, and original shoe styles, according to more than one fashion authority of the time.”
    She came across this account in a 1947 issue of The New York Herald: “From the record come these ‘firsts’ credited to this married shoe team; they were first with cork clog. They originated the first one-piece shoe ever made in modern times. The ballet street shoe is their idea. The Chopine, a sandal with a thong worn over a suede sock, an ancient footwear inspiration, is made wearable in the present by Charles and Mabel. Also the laced-in-back shoe, the high-back shoe, the revised T-strap, and two-strap anklet, the scalloped shoe silhouette, a million new shoe constructions to make it pleasant to walk, and the newest dancing slipper — an Irene Castle inspiration with back, heel, and straps of satin matching the color of an evening dress, while the front is a neutral shade. This record could go on, but the point is that the Julianellis are in the lead in creative shoe ideas that find wide approval and sales.”
    In 1950, the Julianellis were given a Coty Award, the fashion world’s equivalent of an Oscar, for their excellence and innovation in design.
    The couple purchased a house in East Hampton and other parcels of land. Ms. Julianelli’s father fell in with several Abstract Expressionist artists in the area, and became close with Lucia Wilcox, who recognized his talent as a painter. Ms. Julianelli even had painting lessons from Ms. Wilcox when she was a little girl.
    Ms. Julianelli said that when her parents came out to their East Hampton house, called Rose Cottage, they left behind their sophisticated life in Manhattan and “turned into the Waltons. Mabel picked strawberries and made strawberry shortcake on July 4th, and popovers every weekend. Charles planted flowerbeds, zinnias and dahlias.”
    “They shopped at the farm stands along Montauk Highway, and Mabel started to bake,” she wrote. “Charles sat in the sun, in the backyard, on railroad ties that stepped up to a grassy terrace, and painted, while Mabel drew with charcoals.” She remembers feeding the ducks at the Nature Trail on David’s Lane with her father and him teaching her how to swim at Barnes Landing.
    “I am very much like my father in my reaction to the East End. I find peace from the land and the ocean, and inspiration from the artistic community,” Ms. Julianelli said.
    In her book she recalled how her mother took up “sketching on the beach” a few blocks from Rose Cottage. “It was a wild stretch of dunes and shore,” before cabanas and lifeguards. The ocean and beach inspired her “naked look,” having had the “experience of her feet in a new way, slipping easily through the sand, and she wanted to duplicate that released feeling in a shoe,” she wrote.
    Her exhaustive research into her mother’s and father’s lives included reading diaries and unearthing particularly painful and challenging times, like her father’s early and unexpected death, in addition to their joys and successes. She was heartened to find that “without exception people I interviewed for the book told me of Mabel Julianelli’s open-mindedness, generosity, and support when it came to helping them in business, while being fun-loving with her friends.”
    Ms. Julianelli wonders what might have happened to the Julianelli name had she gone into the business and kept the company going. Her mother’s business plan, she said, “is so comprehensive and relevant today that anyone could be successful if they followed it.”
    In writing the book, Ms. Julianelli can now be assured she will never forget her roots. She learned that her mother “worked as if her life depended on it. And it did in a way, because she was a natural artist, one who must always create and innovate. And she always remembered where she came from, the house in Brooklyn where she was forbidden by her father to draw.