Sophisticated style on McDowell Street
by Billy Warden | photography by Smith Hardy
Matt Gray’s soul is deeply invested in your soles. “When I put someone in a pair of these,” he proclaims, “I get cold chills. My hairs stand on end.” Gray gestures reverently to an array of shoes displayed on a handsome hardwood table. But to call them shoes is, as Gray tells it, like referring to a Bentley as a mere set of wheels.
These are Aldens, a men’s brand that dates back more than a century. Evidently they cast a powerful spell: Rumor is that Harrison Ford was so bewitched with the brand that he insisted on wearing Alden boots—sometimes his own personal pair—throughout his globetrotting adventures as Indiana Jones.
Gray owns 50 pairs. Yes, 5-0, dwarfing the combined fancy footwear collection of my wife and me—and these are shoes that cost between $400 to $500 a pair. He is also the owner of Ealdwine Gentlemen’s Shop, which opened on McDowell Street in the spring and hopes to hook the capital city’s stylish set on the joys of not only Alden, but of tapping into a head-to-toe collection of made-in-North America men’s clothes and accessories.
The shop, named for the phrase “old friend” in Old English, arrives as high-end menswear is surging, with forecasts indicating luxury lines for guys will grow faster than women’s over the next several years. In the meantime, Raleigh is just as flush with growth and prosperity. But is the Oak City ready to shed its quasi-signature ensemble of a polo shirt, khakis and sneakers for this tailored, polished look?
Gray’s business partner, Jim Pietryka, is optimistic. He’s also a relative laggard, owning a mere 40 pairs of Alden. However, he’s an ace at describing the traits that make the shoes special: The eyelets! The speed hooks! The durability!
The partners met where everyone connects these days: online. Specifically, at styleforum.net, a hub for men’s fashion fanatics. They took note of each other’s passion for Alden and the fact that they both reside in Cary. Soon, they teamed up to pursue opening a rare Alden-sanctioned store. The shoe was, as it were, a fit: Alden approved the store and has so far produced seven styles available only there. But Ealdwine is not exclusively about footwear. The accessories include pens, one with an exterior shell made of acorn tops; and pocket knives, my favorite boasting a handle inlaid with fossilized woolly mammoth tooth (Father’s Day hint!). Slipping into the clothes at Ealdwine is a sensualist’s delight, I discovered on a recent visit. First comes an offer of bourbon, always a winning start. Soon I’m in a checkered button-down that feels refreshingly cool to the skin and is guaranteed to wick away moisture—you know, in case the price of the full ensemble gives me the sweats. The first pair of jeans I sampled were tight enough to have me squeaking in a pained falsetto, but that was remedied by a fuller fit. A lightweight blazer tops things off, though it’s not quite the topper: For the pièce de résistance, Pietryka guides my feet into an elegant, hand-sewn snuff suede penny loafer, “perfect for summer.” It may not be a religious experience, but, coming with all the pomp and circumstance, it certainly feels like a rite of passage. “Once you get your first pair,” promises Gray, “there’s no going back.” Gentlemen of Raleigh, are you ready to slide into a new obsession?