It’s as true for women as it is for men: To be a real trendsetter, you must rely on your shoes do most of the leg work. While cutting-edge clothes turn heads, the ultimate way to give your ensemble an innovative, personal twist is with the shoes you pair it with. That’s how style statements are born. No one understands this better than Jeff Brodawka, the man behind Brodawka & Friends (1114 Queen St. W.), the beloved go-to destination for both Toronto’s male and female shoe-obsessed demographic.
Although Brodawka & Friends has been open for just over two years, the shoe designer came to town with serious street cred in his favour. After spending the previous six years designing for John Fluevog Shoes in Vancouver, he was already a respected footwear master. What perhaps no one, not even Brodawka expected, was that his new shop would redefine footwear for some of Toronto’s hippest sartorialists. From tri-coloured oxfords for men to lace-up pumps for women, not to mention designs that rock the oh-so hot androgynous style card hard, Brodawka’s hand-crafted designs are wearable objets d’art that represent Toronto’s new era of chic in more ways than one. You don’t need to go to Paris to have the most talked-about shoes this fall because they’re already here, made by a Canadian designer no less. We caught up with Brodawka to find out more about his personal style, favourite shoes, and styling tips…
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should people know?
I opened Brodawka & Friends just over two years ago after working in the shoe industry for 10 years. The six years before diving in on my own I spent designing for John Fluevog Shoes in Vancouver, BC. My business and collection continue to evolve, but the backbone of my approach is in the best possible quality for the best price.
I will happily play with the design, colour palette, and the categories I explore, but I will not compromise on the quality, comfort, and construction of the collection. So far I have been very proud of the product I make and the partnerships I have developed with my factories in Mexico and Portugal. I studied industrial design at OCAD. I have a very DIY streak a mile wide. I like to make my own shop fixtures, soft goods, and sometimes furniture for the homestead. I play hockey on Sundays. I ride my bikes everywhere. I maybe like the art gallery and library too much.
What moments in fashion history influenced you to become a shoe designer?
Not a moment per se, but I grew up watching Fashion Television so the sense that the fashion world wasn’t completely inaccessible for a suburbanite mallrat like me certainly had its effect. There were real people who did these things and sometimes you could even watch them designing. It demystified the process for me.
I was also lucky in that I had a stylish older sister and a few friends who actually cared about fashion. GQ and Esquire magazines were perused. Outfits actively thought about. Living in London when I was younger helped a great deal as well. Becoming conscious of how different places dressed and expressed themselves gave me insight into the power of identity clothes held; how details made your style more convincing, what materials and fabrics could do together, how they each had their own meanings. And once you start thinking about style in that way it is a hard habit to shake.
Seeing my first Paul Smith store was a revelation… The style of Fellini’s 8 1⁄2… A bunch of my peers growing up dressed like they walked out of a scene from Quadrophenia… My old Joy Division posters.
What are some of your favourite shoe trends for men right now?
Really the most obvious is that men seem to be paying more attention to style, on their feet and everywhere else. It can get overblown in the media, but I am seeing it on the street as well. It is a fun thing to watch evolve here in Toronto – which certainly has its own take. One iteration I will always be enamoured with is dress shoes worn with casual outfits, letting the shoes get beat up and rugged a bit. I have always had a soft-spot for well worn and well loved things. If the construction and leathers are of quality they invariably age and patina incredibly well. In addition I am getting more and more into the dressy sporty hybrid look. There is just so much versatility there. I am exploring a bunch of avenues for my own collection.
What about women?
Certainly something I am quite keen to explore is highly refined men’s inspired shoes for women – working in the grey area between men’s and women’s prescribed looks. I am working with my men’s factory now to produce a limited women’s collection for fall. If they are well received I feel this is a strong direction to pursue. I am also quite keen on the super high (above the knee) boots. Alexander Wang and Balenciaga had some great examples for F/W 14 – if you get the line right they look fantastic.
What are a few of your top footwear dos and don’ts?
I can only speak for myself because, as the great Reggie Watts said recently, “One man’s pickle is another man’s cherry pie.” For me, one don’t is cheap flip-flops. I know it’s hot and in the summer they make a lot of sense, but do yourself a favour and get a pair with some proper support. I had a pair of the cheap foamies and my foot would start to ache after only 15 mins. That can’t be good for you.
A big do is to play around with your idea of what is appropriate for an outfit – don’t let too many perceived rules fence you in. Explore a bit and you will be surprised what you become comfortable with. Feel free to innovate and redefine the use of something. Casual suits and dressed up sporty shoes and say a snappier brogue with jeans are already becoming established, but there is plenty more room for fun. A great example: I make and sell pocket squares and I have a very nice paisley pattern that this dude came in, unfolded, rolled up, and wore as a headband. And it looked amazing. The energy of fashion is defined by moments such as those.
What are your three top go-to pairs of shoes in your own wardrobe right now and why?
I have a wonderfully worn in pair of my Burnier ankle boots in a Cognac Brown that I swear get better by the day. High quality leather just ages and patinas so beautifully. It seems as though they match every outfit I own.
It sounds ridiculous, but I have a very fond affinity for my army surplus galoshes. During Toronto’s diverse and at times downright unpleasant weather I love throwing them on and kicking through puddles brought on by torrential downpours, jumping into snowdrifts, and clomping along muddy trails in High Park. Feels a little like I am beating the system.
I have a great pair of suede Gibsons in green from my very first collection that make an appearance every summer. They fill that no sock rolled up pant cool ankle thing without getting too casual. They are soft and light and because they are leather lined and soled they breath quite well and my feet never get too hot.
What is the coolest way you’ve seen other people wear/style your shoes?
I have been especially impressed with how varied the outfits are that accompany my Veneto Saddle Shoes. It is a simple and well structured two-tone flat in a number of different colour options. Outfits from shorts and a tee and no socks to a very nice summer dress to office wear… they just seem to look comfortable with everything.
I have a gold open-toe slingback that absolutely rocks the party dress. Those I get to see on lots of customers who are actually shopping with the dress they want to wear to an event – so they try the entire ensemble in-store which is plenty of fun all round. My beautiful girlfriend has a few pairs (obviously) and when she throws on the MV2s in black and red with her patterned jumpsuit I have to admit she cuts a very fine figure.
I also try to spend a little time out on the front step of my shop every day saying hi to locals, reading a bit, and getting a little sun. I often get to chat with customers that way. There are a bunch of proud gents wearing my men’s shoes with all kinds of outfits. What is so fantastic is their enthusiasm for their own shoes and for the brand itself. I like to think that they take a bit of pride in wearing a local product by a designer they also know.