When in 1759 Col. John Hale, leader of the British cavalry’s newly formed Light Dragoons, conceived the regiment’s death-or-glory insignia, he did so to honor his former commander, Gen. James Wolfe. Hale wanted to convey the message that those who served in the brigade should emulate the heroism of Wolfe, who recently had been killed leading the assault on Quebec that resulted in Canada becoming an English colony. But centuries later, the emblem, a skull and crossbones placed over the words “or glory,” received a different interpretation from Derrick Miller, founder and creative director of Barker Black. “It’s the only symbol I can think of that has a subversive tone but is also beautiful and sophisticated,” says Miller.
Miller first encountered the crest and learned of its provenance during his travels through England in 2001, while working as a designer for Ralph Lauren. He subsequently applied the motif (minus the verbiage) in a collection of Ralph Lauren Purple Label neckwear. In 2004, Miller left Ralph Lauren and accepted a position with Barker, a 126-year-old shoe manufacturer in Northampton, England, that wanted to launch a collection in the United States. After convincing the company that its stodgy British styling would fail in America, Miller developed a more contemporary look and label for the shoemaker: Barker Black. Miller reclaimed the skull-and-crossbones symbol as a hallmark for the new brand, which debuted last fall at Saks Fifth Avenue. Almost simultaneously, Barker Black opened a shop offering ready-made and made-to-order footwear (for a 20 percent premium) in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood.
“I wanted to twist the traditional shoe into something a little more fun,” says the 32-year-old Miller. For fit models, he employed wooden shoe lasts made during the 1930s and 1940s, which he considers the most elegant period for men’s footwear design. He also mined some time-tested concepts from his father’s extensive wardrobe of John Lobb brogues and loafers, including wooden sole shanks with narrow London waists, a term that refers to the hourglass shape of the sole’s arch section. Extra layers of cork between the foot and the sole are added to enhance comfort. Some Barker Black shoes, which cost from $650 for calfskin loafers to $4,800 for crocodile lace-ups, also incorporate skins that have been chestnut tanned, a process that Miller says “produces harder- and longer-wearing leather than [more common] oak bark tanning.”
All Barker Black shoes include a reference, sometimes subtle, to the label’s skull-and-crossbones motif. For his version of a traditional loafer, Miller replaced the metal horse bit that typically goes across the vamp with a piece of metal forged in the shape of crossbones. He has perforated holes in the shape of the skull and crossbones on one pair of dress shoes, and punched a pattern of tiny X’s and O’s in the shape of the insignia on another style. The underside of most models also bears the insignia, formed by 139 brass tacks. Miller insists that the decoration is intentionally discreet. “It’s meant to be a little secret,” he says, “just between the wearer and his feet.”