When Sotheby’s New York fashion expert Marianna Garthwaite Klaiman visited the Jacksonville warehouse of late shoe retailer Joseph LaRose last year, she stepped into every woman’s fantasy.
There in the rooms adjacent to his shop were more than 200,000 pairs of shoes with matching handbags of the most incredible style--sequined stilettos, aquamarine sparkle shoes, red satin heelless pumps, boomerang heels and feathered platforms--all in their original boxes, dating from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s.
“Everything was organized. There was one room for skins, one room for purple shoes and one room for minis-shoes size 1 through 4. It was like the most amazing shoe museum,” she said.
In business for nearly 50 years, LaRose thought his “exotic footwear” was so special that he refused to put it on sale or dispose of any inventory from his many stores in the Jacksonville area. Few people realized the scope of his collection until 1995, when New York dealers Radford Brown, a Jacksonville native, and his partner Cesar Padilla, discovered the shoes. They purchased some to sell at their vintage clothing shop, Cherry.
After LaRose’s death last year at age 88, the two men brought the collection to the attention of Sotheby’s, which on Thursday began a three-week Internet auction of a small portion of the LaRose collection on Sothebys.com.
“I think we are seeing so much color this season, as well as matching shoes and handbags, because designers started to hear about these shoes,” Garthwaite Klaiman said. Representatives from Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Helmut Lang and nearly every other shoe manufacturer came calling to cull the shelves for inspiration.
Most of the shoes were not designed by LaRose, though he did work closely with manufacturers. If they could not make something exactly to his specifications, he would hammer, cut and glue material in his workshop until he got the desired look.
“He had a great color and design sensibility,” said Garthwaite Klaiman, who took four trips to Florida to sift through the collection.
LaRose was born in Sicily in 1912, came to the United States when he was 12 and settled with his family in Illinois. He started working for shoe manufacturers and in the footwear sections of department stores when he was in his 30s. Eventually, he settled in Jacksonville and opened LaRose Inc. in 1949.
Only about 500 pairs of shoes in all different sizes are being auctioned, along with matching bags, sketches and copies of advertisements. Garthwaite Klaiman expects some pieces to be bought by collectors and others by women who want to wear them. (She snatched up a dozen shoes and matching handbags herself.)
The bulk of the remaining collection was purchased by Brown and Padilla for a reported $200,000.
LaRose also had a thriving mail order business, selling shoes to famous clients including Betty Grable, Jayne Mansfield, Joan Crawford and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby). Letters from celebrity clients also are being auctioned, including one from Crawford notifying LaRose that she returned two pairs of shoes that were too small and hoped it would not happen again. She included an outline drawing of her feet.
Proceeds from the auction will go to the LaRose Foundation, which was set up after his death to benefit art institutions in the Jacksonville area. The Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art will maintain 1,000 pairs of LaRose shoes, and the foundation is looking to place others in museums around the world.
In their day, LaRose’s shoes ranged in price from $50 to $100. “That was a lot then,” said Garthwaite Klaiman. Although most of the auction estimates listed for the bags and shoes are less than $1,000, she expects the fancy footwear to sell for much more.
“If the shoe fits,” she said, “people are going to have to have it.”