How the clunky square toe came back to life as the freshest shoe shape of the season.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
My Reading Room
From top: Suede sandal, about $470, BY FAR at Net-a-Porter. Leather sandal, Bottega Veneta. Embossed leather mule, about $600, Rejina Pyo at Net-aPorter. Embossed leather mule, about $540, A.W.A.K.E MODE at Net-aPorter. Leather pump, about $660, Paciotti at Net-a-Porter. Canvas sandal, Cult Gaia OPPOSITE: Sequinned pump, Bottega Veneta
My Reading Room

For the past year or so, my mother has been engaged in a housecleaning purge Every visit home includes the presentation of some artefact plucked from my youth—my old cross-country team jacket, my formal dress—with the questions, “Remember this?” and “Do you want it?”.

During some holiday early last year, a pair of black boots circa 1998 was fished out of my wardrobe, triggering flashbacks to a footwear era that felt positively ghastly in hindsight. I recoiled at the garish shovel-shaped toes and chunky block heels. Chuck ’em, Mum. Fashion may be cyclical, but these square-toe clunkers were clearly labelled “Do Not Resuscitate”. Yet, just one year later, someone has made me rethink shoes befitting Ichabod Crane. His name is Daniel Lee, the Creative Director of Bottega Veneta, who presented his first runway collection for the House a year or so ago. From the get-go, the 34-year-old British designer’s prospects had fashion rapt; an alumnus of Phoebe Philo’s Céline given the keys to an Italian heritage mega house, with mega bucks behind it to do as he pleases. He spent them well on his first collections, zeroing in on Bottega’s leather prowess to create bags and shoes that upended traditional notions of the bourgeois Milanese lady with a dose of sophisticated wit and garments cut from 1990s cloth. In his first collection—pre-fall 2019—Lee began retraining our eyes to new, delightfully ridiculous proportions seen in bulbous stub-toe pumps in cartoonishly quilted leather, stacked-sole moto boots on steroids and kitten-heel horsebit loafers with an elongated toe that tapers to a flat edge.

Fashion loves a “so wrong, it’s right” moment, and influencers and editors immediately bought into New Bottega and @newbottega, the separate Instagram handle Lee created to promote his work (he is maintaining a Garboesque silence rare in modern fashion). By the time spring/summer 2020 collections came around in September 2019, front rows were lined with feet slipped into Lee’s more commercial woven intrecciato slides and mules with square soles that jut out from under the toes.

His peers were watching too. Square shapes quickly appeared at Proenza Schouler, Gianvito Rossi, The Row, By Far and Neous, and retailers raved. “Daniel Lee’s incredible eye was so apparent at the Bottega show this season,” says Elizabeth von der Goltz, Global Buying Director at Net-a-Porter. “We call the square-toe shoe this season’s update of last season’s ‘barely there’ sandal.”

Aha, a clue to the root of this square! The naked sandal, characterised by one or two ultra-thin straps attached to a kitten-heel sole, leaving the foot almost completely bare, was the shoe that swept spring/summer 2019. The bellwether for the trend was a hyper-minimal CELINE sandal from the cruise 2018 collection, designed when Lee was still at the French house. He clearly learned well under Philo, the queen of jolie laide footwear that reverberated far from her runways. Her absence has left a void that her fans are willing Lee to fill.

So far, he has impressed with his distinctive and influential grip on the ’90s fever that has enthralled his design generation, whose earliest fashion memories are steeped in minimalist stylings they were too young to participate in the first time around. That explains millennials’ compulsion to revisit the decade, whether by binge-watching Friends or reshaping square-toe clunkers for a new fashion moment.