The world is finally catching up to Bettye Muller.
Even a quick glance at the latest shoes and boots shows an explosion of brocades, of quirky details and all manner of luxurious accents.
New? Not to Muller, founder and creative director of her eponymous brand.
“I’ve been doing it forever,” she says with a wry smile. “Now, it’s all the thing. Whimsy. Now it’s all the rage.”
We don’t have to take Muller’s word for it. WAG has joined the Manhattan-based shoe designer in her South Salem weekend retreat, where she’s graciously brought dozens of examples that walk us through her history.
She points to an intricately brocaded bootie or, on other designs, a puff of fur, oversize buckle or sprinkling of sparkles.
“Now these things are all over the place and I’ve been like, ‘I did that,’” she adds with a knowing laugh.
For Muller, who has always followed her own path, it’s just another chapter in her story, one that includes plenty of shoe-shopping days when she was a student at White Plains High School. It was a time of haunting the local Thom McAn and Alexander’s, of trips into Manhattan searching out Pappagallo and Capezio shoes.
“I just feel like that was when everything kind of, even in cars, everything had their own personalities.”
That appreciation for singular style has never left Muller, whose designs have been called conversation starters.
THE WORLD AS CLASSROOM
Muller studied fine arts at what was then the Silvermine College of Art in New Canaan. In the 1980s, she lived in London with her uncle, a professional photographer. As her love of fashion and design continued to grow during this period, she was spurred to create her very first collection and began selling to local shops. An opportunity to go to Milan led to her having a few styles made for her in Italy — and she was on her way.
“I came back to New York and started to peddle my shoes,” she says. “I was very bold.”
Muller started working in the business, crediting shoe designer John Higdon as an early mentor. In time, she was designing shoes for lines including Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis, L’Emporio and Henri Bendel, all leading up to 1998, when she officially launched her own label in New York.
There were, of course, pivotal moments.
“I was able to get into Bergdorf Goodman,” she says. “That was like my showcase. From there people saw me.”
Muller, whose styles are known for combining classic elements and a playful twist with unexpected comfort, has certainly made her mark. A testament to the onetime competitive ice skater’s balancing of grace and power, her designs have caught the eye of publications as diverse as Vogue and Glamour to Real Simple and Self.
Back in South Salem, Muller talks us through a few designs such as the Download. The longtime favorite, a suede wedge espadrille sandal, is suddenly of the moment.
“I can’t even tell you how many years I’ve been selling this,” she says of the signature design that she has made for her in Spain.
Travel, both business and personal, influences much of her work. In the span of time WAG was working with Muller on this story, she was first in Italy, then Spain, home in New York then off again to Italy, luckily escaping any ill effects of the earthquakes.
What she experiences influences her work. The collection on display on this day, she says, “shows you all the places I’ve been.”
An eye-catching fabric on a pointy-toed flat, she notes, recalls “a little Morocco.”
Muller gives us an impromptu demonstration of her process, sketching a quick style once she sets up on her dining room table.
“I have my little inspiration page, my tools,” she says. “I’m very old school.”
Muller does, as expected, wear her own designs — unless it’s something that really has caught her eye. That would include the style she has on at one point on this day — a shoe as quirky as it is luxurious.
“I bought these in Italy,” she says. “They’re mink. Birkenstocks.”
ONE STEP AT A TIME
Through many business twists and turns, Muller has continued to fine-tune her efforts, a sort of regrouping after national stores scaled back in the wake of the economic downturn.
“I would say it’s a very challenging time, a very challenging market.”
She’s not one to give, up, though, and has already seen an upswing.
“I’ve done it and now it’s like reinventing again,” she says, noting she wants to keep her prices moderate while not compromising on “beautiful quality.”
What sets her apart, she says, is that dedication to quality, “I do my own lasts and heels,” she says, key elements in the fabrication of footwear. Production trips to ensure that quality also mean a welcome return to Europe, where she lived for many years and continues to fuel her creative spirit, in home décor as well as work.
“We have stuff from all over the world,” she says, glancing around the living room. “My husband and I love to travel.”
She and Michael Bruno, a prosthodontist, share a Manhattan apartment with a modern feel, while this 1790 historic home is a treasure trove of furniture, art and accents that create surroundings at once warm yet elegant, casual yet worldly.
“It tells you who I am and that’s how I’ve created the shoes that I do,” she says.
AROUND THE WORLD — AND BACK
This is, it must be said, a woman who enjoys life, from dining to travel, interior design to art. She summed it all up in a most artful way when publishing a “mini magazine” for her customers, small-scale publications that not only featured her latest collections but also fashion trends, travel and dining picks offered in a wonderfully playful spirit.
As she wrote in a 2013 edition, “There is always fun to be had in blurring the lines between art and fashion. It is my constant inspiration.”
She continues to share inspiration, an Instagram photo from fashion week in Paris here to a Facebook tribute to Audrey Hepburn there.
Muller fans find her designs at select boutiques that include Walin & Wolff in New Canaan, Rye and Southport, and through department stores, including Bloomingdale’s in White Plains. Strong support comes from Richards in Greenwich and Mitchells in Westport, both part of the Mitchells family of stores.
When asked what comes to mind when you say “a Bettye Muller design,” Kristin Colasonno-Winans, women’s shoes and leather accessories buyer for Mitchells Stores, has a ready reply: “Chic designs with the right amount of fun.”
When it comes to selecting who to carry in their stores, Colasonno-Winans says, “We look for designers with a catching look, great quality and a story to go with the shoes. Bettye has it all.”
And the customers at the Mitchells stores truly connect — perhaps most strongly, the buyer notes — with “their wearability. Her designs offer women beautifully chic shoes that feel great on.”
But that’s not the whole story, Colasonno-Winans says. “I would also like to just add that Bettye is such a warm, fun person and her positivity is infectious.”
Indeed, that enthusiasm and warm spirit seem ever-present, her dedication more than clear.
During our chat, Muller tells us about a comment she recently read — “I wish that were my quote, but I can’t take the credit” — later emailing it in full.
Fashion editor Jo Ellison in the Financial Times had written, “Nothing else can punctuate a look so efficiently — shoes are the semicolon, comma, exclamation mark and full stop of an outfit’s expression.”
That those words so connect with Muller, as she nears the 20th anniversary of designing under her own name, says a lot.
So much that we’re not a bit surprised when she tells us, “Seeing someone walking down the street in Manhattan, or anywhere, wearing my shoes, it’s still exciting.”
For more, visit bettyemuller.com.