Beloved of ‘old mans shoe’ fanatics the world over, Mephisto is one of several brands that owes a debt to Manchester store Oi Polloi. Brought to the fore in a more fashionable setting by the retail institution back in their days in their original Tib Street shop, Mephisto arguably became the archetypal Oi Polloi brand, defining their blueprint for two decades.
While Oi Polloi stocked vintage three stripes, back then, adidas didn’t have Spezial as a vehicle to celebrate its teutonic 1970s sporting and leisure shoe heritage which left a gap for those who felt an affinity to that aesthetic. This hole was filled by Oi Polloi, via brands like Gordini, Noël, Finn Comfort, Jacoform and of course Mephisto. These brands largely kept manufacturing close in Europe, as adidas once did, and there was an ugly yet attractive quality that came through in their rugged footwear. These shoes featured a timeless design that only a few early adopters seemed to find beauty in.
Authenticity was part of the mix, too. Mephisto was only really found elsewhere in specialised shoe shops mainly visited by older gents with a need for something robust and supportive as they attended a whist drive or allotment get-together. It made no sense for these to become trendy, and yet that’s why it made all the sense.
Founded in 1965 around 40 miles from Strasbourg in the town of Sarrabourg, Mephisto is and always has been French. Yet its proximity to the border means it carries its fair share of German DNA too. Indeed, the Mephisto founder Martin Michaeli has been quoted in the past as saying “I have three souls, French, German and American, all now living in Switzerland”.
It’d be easy to just focus on the Mephisto we came to know through the eye of Oi Polloi, but make no mistake, this was and still is a genuine player in the footwear world, particularly on the continent. Michaeli has been honoured by the French government numerous times for his innovation and endeavour, attracting the highest recognition in 2000 when he was awarded Chavalier of the Legion of Honour. To put it into context, this is an award Napoleon created in 1802 and applies to both civil and military achievements. He’s basically the French version of a Knight of the Realm. A new, younger crowd in the UK first discovered Mephisto on the Manchester backstreets but in the grand scheme of things, Mephisto was already long established and doing very well.
It’s a testament to Mephisto’s focus on product that they were largely ambivalent to how their brand was beginning to find favour on the feet who stepped into what was then a pretty niche menswear retailer in a burgeoning Northern Quarter. A couple of decades later though, and Mephisto can thank Oi Polloi for offering it a route to an appreciative new audience, taking its now iconic Rainbow design in particular to people who otherwise may not have discovered it.
Through collaborations on special versions with Oi Polloi themselves as well as Dutch streetwear legends Patta, Mephisto has acknowledged it does have a place in the pantheon of anti-cool footwear brands every misanthropic man should own. These are shoes that still attract something of a marmite reputation, but if you’re looking for something that’ll be reliable on your long-distance dog walk, yet still scrub up well on your city centre night out, look no further. It’s all about how you wear them.
At a time when brands are reliant on celebrity endorsements more and more, it’s typical of Mephisto that their band of followers have in recent years unearthed historic shots of unlikely style icons like Luciano Pavarotti and Burgess Meredith wearing their shoes. Ok, Noel Gallagher has worn them too, but look, it’s Mickey Goldmill from the Rocky films!
And for Mephisto themselves, it’s now pretty clear they’ve managed to play both sides in a sense. They retain their absolute undeniable core values as a brand that provides great, good value, durable, comfortable footwear to people who most need it. Whether that attracts appreciation from hype kids or indeed long-haired parka fanatics in the North West won’t – you suspect – matter a great deal to them.
Somewhat conversely, this aloofness to fashion is part of what made them appealing to that crowd in the first place. In that sense, long may Mephisto continue.
With the Oi Polloi story about to enter a new chapter, it’s worth drawing attention to Mephisto. Co-founder of Oi Polloi Steve Sanderson has talked about a ‘distilled’ future for OP, perhaps hinting at them returning to their core strength as a retailer and brand. They’ve always had a knack of being able to change perceptions of what a brand means to people through recontextualising it, sitting it alongside different company, photographing it well, talking about it in a way others simply wouldn’t or indeed couldn’t.
Whatever the future holds for Oi Polloi, you can be quite certain the next few miles they walk will be with Mephisto on their feet.