The Naked Shoe: The Artistry of Mabel Julianelli, a photo book that is also a biography, tells the rags-to-riches story of Mabel Winkel, a shy little Jewish girl from Flatbush, Brooklyn. Born about a century ago, Mabel, a mite of a thing, was blessed with a good eye, an innate talent for design, and plenty of ambition.
She found her way to the Pratt Institute, where she studied costume design and fell in love with Charles Julianelli, a gorgeous-looking but equally poor Italian-born art model who dreamed of becoming an artist. She and Charles worked at a Brooklyn shoe factory where Mabel sketched and Charles cut shoe models. In 1929, the petite powerhouse of a girl, set on starting her own business, invited Charles to become her creative partner. Business was terrific, but romance was more problematic. Mabel was besotted with Charles from day one, but her parents were aghast at the idea of her marrying a Catholic. Charles was popular with the ladies. (He’d had a fiancée, who committed suicide.) They finally married after 10 years, at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach on New Year’s Eve 1939. But, never mind that. The shoes, oh, the shoes they created! They were gorgeous.
Mabel, the granddaughter of a Russian-born push-cart peddler, did not know much about Judaism. When she asked her parents what it meant to be Jewish, they told her you were born one, and she didn’t seek to find out more. What truly mattered to her was her great love for Charles and her burning ambition to achieve success. But her story is still a Jewish one; she’s a classic example of a second- or third-generation American Jewish girl whose talent and drive propelled her to prosperity and success.
Mabel and Charles’ beautiful couture creations were sold in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, first under the stores’ labels and then under the Julianelli brand name. The Julianellis were inventive and versatile. They developed new styles and techniques, creating a sensation with their Chopine sandal, a combination shoe/sock, the parts of which could also be worn separately. It was the most talked-about shoe of 1941. The Julianellis’ artistic achievement was confirmed a year later when Saks donated two pairs of Julianelli shoes to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mabel and Charles kept expanding their horizons, designing footwear that ranged from simply walking shoes to elegant ballroom slippers, and they even branched into men’s and children’s footgear. Worn by such fashion goddesses as Sophia Loren and Diana Vreeland, their designs were also included in the 1945 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Is Fashion Modern?”
Mabel died in December 1994, survived by her daughter, Jane, a former Women’s Wear Daily editor and the author of The Naked Shoe. But the shoes she and Charles created—beautifully made, delicate, smart, the epitome of good taste—are her legacy. I would love to have them in my closet.
Edna Nahshon, a professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the author of Jews and Shoes.