‘Ambassador Of Americana’ Charles Phoenix On Kitschy Vintage Footwear

Not many people can appreciate a quirky shoe quite like Charles Phoenix, the “ambassador of Americana.”

While on a recent vintage shopping excursion in London on Carnaby Street, the 1950s-’60s American style and pop-culture expert found something extraordinary.

“They had a shop for men’s and women’s novelty shoe styles,” he recalled of the Irregular Choice store during an interview with Footwear News. “Among the women’s they had flamingos for heels — the classic old fashion-style flamingo as the high heel itself.”

Phoenix celebrates such brassy treasures and more in a series of retro live shows that highlight kitschy memorabilia, architecture, style and more from his road trips across the country and adventures in finding quirky pieces of Americana abroad.

It’s “like a time warp of unique treasures,” Phoenix said of his upcoming comedy-fused shows, including a look on Sunday at the American fascination with mid-century futurism in San Francisco and an exploration of Los Angeles’ retro hot spots on June 17.

Below, Phoenix shares with FN his favorite vintage styles and retro footwear discoveries.

Iconic Shoes
GH Bass and Co. Weejuns penny loafers.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

FN: What are the most iconic shoes from the ‘50s and ‘60s that reflect American style?
CP: “Definitely in the ‘60s is when Vans became popular. They were invented in Anaheim (Calif.), and Converse really came of age in the 1950s.

“Another shoe that is iconic is the saddle shoe. It’s a black-and-white shoe with a big band over the middle of it. A lot of kids would wear them to school in the 1950s.

“The stiletto came of age in the 1950s. It really took off in the ‘60s, but the stiletto heel as we know it today really first appeared in the ‘50s. Also, the penny loafer by Bass. All these shoes are still flourishing today. We have a much wider variety, but all of these styles have definitely endured.”

FN: What’s your go-to shoe for vintage style?
CP: “I personally wear white bucks. I always have a good clean pair of white bucks because they’re very 1950s and classic. You can dress them up or down, dirty or clean. It’s a very simple shoe — it’s very traditional, collegiate style: white suede with a simple lace-up. My casualwear, I wear Vans slip-ons. I love them in patterns; the black-and-white checks. I love them all. If only our closet space or budget allowed, we all would be shoeholics.”

FN: What’s one of the kitschiest places you’ve seen on a road trip?
CP: “The Big Shoe Shoe Repair in Bakersfield (Calif.). I was out and about, looking for Americana. I love unusual architecture and whimsical places. I think it’s from 1940, and it’s a local landmark.”

charles phoenix americana vintage retro
Charles Phoenix at The Big Shoe Shoe Repair in Bakersfield, Calif.
CREDIT: Courtesy

FN: What’s your earliest footwear memory?
CP: “I remember when I was a teenager, I really wanted a pair of Top-Siders. They are a classic American brand and boat shoe. In 1978, they were $50 a pair — that was a lot in 1978 for a middle-class family. I begged my mother and so I got them at the mall.”

FN: Where do you find striking, vintage footwear?
CP: “I have a shoemaker (Johnson Shoes) who I have custom shoes made for the rockabilly festival called Viva Las Vegas. He’s from London, and I order a pair every year. You can choose your colors and style — It’s practically custom shoes. They are expensive, but in the case of custom shoes, they are affordable.

“I also love John Fluvog shoes. He’s based in Vancouver (Canada). He does men’s and women, and they are over the top. Traditional in approach, but he mixes them up to be abstract. I bought a pair of Kelly green leather shoes, aqua, I bought mauve-colored, which is a pinky-purple lavender.”

Access exclusive content