In its 80-year run, the Weejun loafer has reached the rarefied air of fashion icon, but it started as an inspired knock-off.
In 1935, Esquire magazine founder Arnold Gingrich noticed fashionable gents wearing slip-on shoes they’d purchased on jaunts to Norway for salmon fishing.
Gingrich, along with Manhattan men’s wear store Rogers Peet, brought a sample to John Bass at G.H. Bass & Co., who was skeptical — he thought the shoe looked too delicate to be of much use. So he tweaked it, with a studier sole and a decorative band crossing the vamp. Gingrich coined the name Weejun — short for “Norwegian.” Price: $6.50.
The shoe rapidly became Bass’ big hit. By 1951, the style accounted for 60 percent of the company’s moccasin sales.
Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, the company couldn’t have gotten better exposure. Everyone — from Grace Kelly to Gene Kelly, Elvis to John F. Kennedy — wore Weejuns, with stovepipe pants, or sockless with cuffed jeans.
It was “a unisex shoe from the get-go,” said Chris Gbur, Bass’ creative director, and it “became part of the collegiate uniform.” Accounts differ as to how it became known as the “penny loafer,” but legend has it that people tucked pennies into the shoe’s band in order to make a phone call. In the Forties, a call cost 2 cents, or a penny per shoe.
“If you went on a date and you wanted to bail out, you could call for a ride home,” Gbur said.
The style waned in the early Seventies but in 1983, Michael Jackson wore Weejuns with white socks in his “Thriller” video and the business exploded again.
The company is again producing certain styles in Maine. In 2016, Weejuns will launch outerwear and accessories.
“It started out as a shoe, but became a lifestyle,” Gbur said. “We want to take it further and make Weejuns a brand in its own right.”