Joseph LaRose: Jacksonville's Legendary Shoe Guru

June 15, 2012 19 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Joseph LaRose loved and lived for shoes. He began his business in Jacksonville but soon his creations were sought after by women everywhere. Though LaRose Shoes skyrocketed to fame, the man behind the works of art never forgot his Florida roots. Up until his death, he dedicated much of his time to his downtown Jacksonville shoe warehouse even after he closed the rest of his stores in other cities. His shoes are still very influential and desired by women today.

Imagine a shoe that looked like a piece of wearable art – one that could easily pass in a museum for its intricate designs.  Joseph LaRose turned this fantasy in to reality.

LaRose spent nearly half of a century creating one-of-a-kind shoes sought after by thousands.  Even after his death of cancer in December 1999, his legacy presently lives on in shoe collector’s closets around the globe.

LaRose standing outside of one of his stores

LaRose had a longtime love for fancy footwear and developed the relationship by working in various shoe stores in Jacksonville, Fla.  Eventually he nailed a job at a high-end department store called Purcell’s and a few years later in 1949 opened his own store downtown.

Almost immediately his shoes grabbed the attention of women.  At the time, Jacksonville was a popular shopping destination for those who lived between Miami and Atlanta, and LaRose’s store became a necessary stop.

LaRose's was located in downtown Jacksonville in the building that MOCA Jax occupies today.

Rhinestones, hand-painted leather, feathers and other embellishments on the shoes forced anyone with a desire for elegance to yearn for the man’s never-before-seen creations.  However, many were left simply lusting for them because LaRose shoes came at a high price.

Bows were just one of the many embellishments LaRose used to add pizazz to his shoes

The shoe-guru’s wife Trudy LaRose said in the New York Times that her husband never sold his shoes at a discount.  According to her, he believed his masterpieces were too beautiful to do so.  Consequently, LaRose sold to a very exclusive clientele in Jacksonville, but the man’s wife said he was still picky on who wore his shoes.

“He wouldn’t even sell shoes to a customer if he didn’t think it was right,” she said in the article.  If he did not feel a certain shoe fit a potential buyer’s personality, he would refuse to sell it to them.

LaRose’s designs became widely recognized and clients escalated from wealthy Jacksonville women to Jackie Kennedy, Joan Crawford, and actress Jane Mansfield, who was reportedly wearing LaRose Shoes when she died in a car crash in 1967.  Upon his success with movie stars LaRose was quoted saying, “shoes are like theater, and I try to give my customers a good show.”

With every stitch and design, it was evident LaRose cared for his shoes like children.  Every shoe had a theme and back-story.  For some shoes, LaRose created matching handbags to accent their beauty.

A pair with different shades of suede divided by leather

As decades passed, LaRose closed his stores and let go his employees until he was back in his original warehouse in Jacksonville, where he and his wife worked alone.  The unit held over 100,000 shoes that were arranged by color in various rooms.  According to his wife in the New York Times, LaRose knew where each individual shoe was located and could retrieve a certain pair for a customer within 10 minutes.  Though the couple had a house, Trudy LaRose said in the article that the warehouse was more like their home.

Eventually, Radford Brown and Cesar Padilla, owners of Manhattan vintage store Padilla, bought LaRose’s remaining collection.  The two have speculated auctioning off pairs of the shoes with their original sketches and whether to open a new store for the creations.

A sophisticated style with an added gold chain

Though years have passed, LaRose shoes are still favored in the eyes of many.  Winona Ryder, Mena Suvari, and Cameron Diaz are among other celebrities that have been spotted wearing the man’s work.  The shoes have also appeared in a few exhibits and displays including a window display at Macys in 2002 that featured designs reflective of the different decades they were made in.

Two designs by LaRose

LaRose Shoes hardly get the same wow factor they once did, designers such as Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan still look to the collections for inspiration.  Because of LaRose, embellishments, various stitching and other designs are often used on shoes today.

LaRose added studded embellishments to otherwise ordinary black heels

Joseph LaRose’s success has proven that the Jacksonville native is to shoes what The Beatles are to rock ‘n’ roll music.  He was the originator, and for that he will remain a name remembered by shoe-fanatics everywhere.

article by Melanie Pagan