Grey shoes and car designers, by Russell Bulgin: CAR+ archive, June 1991

Published: 09 June 1991

► Classic Russell Bulgin column from '91
► Grey shoes and the car design community
► A gem dusted down from the CAR+ archive

Grey shoes are Trabants for the feet. And I had a dream. No, make that a nightmare.

Grey shoes, on men, are aesthetic death. Grey shoes are the ultimate in suburban-English-naff, irrefutably displacing a top pocket crammed with biros or too-tight trousers in a drip-dry easy-care fabric as the infallible sartorial codes by which you can pot – by which you can, indeed, avoid – a Brit abroad.

My nightmare? That, even now, my next new car is being designed by a man wearing stubby grey shoes with those flop-over Velcro fastenings. The kind of person for whom a tracksuit is acceptable leisure wear away from a gymnasium. 

I had to act. I had some questions to ask of the motor industry. A dozen design chiefs were faxed the following interrogative nuggets: ‘If, when interviewing an applicant for an exterior or interior design post, you notice that he is wearing grey shoes with Velcro fastenings, what is your reaction?’ Sending that down the wire made me feel like the Sir Robin Day of the catalytic converter generation. Question two: ‘Would you allow designers on your staff to wear tracksuits while at work?’ 

My cynical subtext was simple. Which design bosses would answer tongue-in-cheek, hinting that they suspected a wind-up, and which would consider such a question beneath them and not answer at all? I reckoned I could find out, in pretty short order, which design departments were staffed by good blokes and which by humourless pillocks. 

Porsche and Rolls-Royce filled the second category, steadfastly ignoring the keening whistle of their fax machines. Toyota GB passed the message on to Toyota Japan but no reply was forthcoming. The Japanese have probably formed a committee to discuss the concept. I’ll keep you posted. 

Ford’s design head Dave Turner beat his rivals to the punch. Less than 24 hours after the fax left the offices of Bulge Ink inc, Turner’s reply zoomed back down the wire. ‘I’m interested in their minds and their abilities and not what they are wearing on their feet or their backs’ was the crisp response. Is Dave Turner refreshingly Liberal? Or is that the answer you would expect from a man who, one presumes, thinks the new Escort is a great-looking piece of work?

Vauxhall’s Wayne Cherry pondered a little more. He didn’t know if the ‘replies are expected to be light-hearted and witty, or serious. I’ve plumped for serious.’ Next time, Wayne, loosen up: the Calibra says you’re my kind of guy. ‘I believe that it is up to the individual to choose what he wear, and to take full responsibility for the impression that he thereby creates.’

That’s fine so far, Wayne: ‘I would not impose a uniform code. I would expect designers on my staff to decide for themselves whether a tracksuit was a suitable, appropriate and functional outfit depending upon the kind of design task upon which they were engaged. ‘Translation: if we do a limited-edition Nova targeted at middle-aged Saturday shoppers in Safeway, Crystal Palace, you can bet your last microwave meal my people will be wearing tracksuits in the studio to capture that elusive south-of-the-river ambience. 

Renault’s Serge Van Hove and Patrick Le Quement echoed Cherry’s pragmatism. ‘We just look at his portfolio – the important thing is how he draws and whether he is able to think with a pencil in his hand.’ I suspect that cogitating with a 2H grasped ‘twixt index finger and thumb is the design equivalent of proving that you can chew gum and walk. 

But Renault did introduce the first hints of anti-tracksuitism. ‘Of course, it’s not that important, as long as he is not involved in a formal presentation.’ (It’s good to know that the Clio made its boardroom debut surrounded by a bunch of sharp-dressed men.) ‘The way he dresses, communicates – what matters, with car quality policy, is that his dress is clean.’ Renault went way up in my estimation with that answer.

Italy’s hip IDEA design studio is based in a mansion on a hill just south of Turin. IDEA have you the Fiat Tipo, which is about as refreshingly avant-garde as European cars get right now. Roberto Piatti, from IDEA’s production department, dismissed grey shoes in a single clause (‘the first reaction is negative’) and moreover kicked tracksuits – even Juventus tracksuits – straight into touch.

‘The clothes one wears are, first of all, a sign of respect towards others, whether colleagues or strangers.’ I thought I was the only person in Europe to consider the sight of middle-aged men swathed in crinkly nylon shell-suits tinted three shades of dayglo somewhere between the pitiful and the pathetic. Not so. 

My idea of a typical BMW designer is someone who looks like that hunk in the Hugo Boss ads and flies a Messerschmitt ME109 on his day of. BMW’s Uwe Mahla checked with his mates at style central and phoned me from Munich. ‘There is no experience to say that if a designer is badly or well-dressed that says anything about his abilities as a designer.’ For a moment I had a dispiriting daydream: the BMW Z1 was sketched by a guy whose shoes might just have been something less than black.

The Mahla put me at ease: ‘In a company there are certain rules about how to dress – with a designer, these rules are relaxed a little bit because we are dealing with creative people.’ It was that ‘a little bit’ rider which seemed to confirm that the Z1 was, in fact, done by a team wearing some particularly tasty- and undeniably black – beef-roll loafers. 

So the news from Germany was good. And fellow Bavarians Audi made it even better. The Audi answer was the longest. It began with the normal polite disclaimer (‘There is no point wearing a three-piece suit if you don’t feel at home in it – if it doesn’t reflect your attitudes’) and then let off a few missiles. 

‘Tracksuits have no raised their ugly head and would be frowned upon.’ Damn right – suddenly the new Audi 100 seemed to have my vote as Car of the Year. But what about the shoes, Audi? ‘We wouldn’t be keen on grey shoes with Velcro fastenings. It would make us suspicious of the design awareness of the person in question.’ And so it should. Forget galvanised bodies, and Procon-Ten: in those two sentences you have every justification you could desire to rush out and buy an Audi. 

Although you might try a Peugeot. Grey shoes had Peugeot’s pencil-men stumped. ‘At La Garenna, it’s all check tartan jackets and brown brogues, mate,’ came the reply. The other query, the one about flaunting sportswear at the drawing board? The reply was short and sweet. ‘Qu’est-ce que le tracksuit?’ The perfect answer – the lion does indeed go from strength to strength. 

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000