At 3 p.m. last Thursday, in a nondescript room at the Bedford Hotel, six women, mostly 40-something, pored over binders and rings of leather samples, discussing the merits of patent leather versus suede and kibitzing about foot pain. Blanketing the floor all around them, in waves of red, green, pale pink and turquoise, were clogs: some lined up in pairs, others strewn haphazardly across the room. These were no ordinary clogs; they were authentic, wood-soled, Swedish clogs, and the women shuffled around the room in them, all nervous indecision and giddy camaraderie, attempting to choose from 92 colors and materials.
Presiding over this scene was Cecilia Tidlund, 55, known to customers as the Clogmaster, who sized the women’s feet and advised them pointedly on the durability of various materials. (“The nubuck comes with three conditions,” she said. “Don’t call me if they get dirty, don’t call me if they dye your feet, and don’t call me if they stretch out. I don’t care.”)
“This feels too tight,” one woman was saying as Ms. Tidlund hunched over her foot.
“Gaining or losing 20 pounds can change your shoe size,” said Ms. Tidlund, casting a knowing glance at The Observer.
“It hasn’t been that much!” protested the customer, a 40-ish brunette wearing corduroys and glasses. “Well, this one is two sizes wider and it fits you,” persisted Ms. Tidlund. “Have you had children?” “No!”
In sizing matters such as these, Ms. Tidlund usually prevails over the loyal customers who visit her store in Los Angeles or catch her at the various hotels in Chicago and New York where she stays during trade shows like the International Hotel/Motel & Restaurant Show, held earlier this week at the Javits Center (clogs are popular in the restaurant industry, where they help workers endure long shifts on their feet). Ms. Tidlund’s customers receive postcards in advance of her trips, and most show up year after year with several friends in tow—clog virgins, perhaps, familiar with the basic style but unaware of the orthopedic value and comfort of a true “rigid-soled, rocker-bottom shoe” as Ms. Tidlund calls them (as opposed to an imitation clog, made by various shoe companies like UGG, which Ms. Tidlund calls “horrible”).
Ms. Tidlund amasses devotees like a traveling evangelist, preaching the gospel of healthy, bunion-free feet to a rapt audience of aching urban women. Despite her gruff, bossy manner, she is adored and revered by her customers, who claim to be “converts” and obey her unequivocally in foot-related matters. “I’m the shoe Nazi,” she said, before reconsidering. “Actually, being from Europe, I don’t want to be called any kind of Nazi.”
After much hand-wringing, the six Thursday-afternoon customers placed their orders and trickled out (one customer had stayed three hours that morning, Ms. Tidlund noted), and Ms. Tidlund retired to the bedroom to smoke a cigarette out the window before more women showed up.
“I came to America thinking I was going to wholesale clogs,” recalled Ms. Tidlund, taking a drag from her cigarette. “And people said, ‘They’re not in fashion.’ And I said, ‘Why would you wear our clogs that we work in for fashion?’ And they said, ‘You’ll never get Americans to work in clogs.’”
What we didn’t understand, she said, and still don’t, is that clogs are the perfect shoe for work, or anything else that requires you to be on your feet all day. Better than sneakers, which were once worn just for physical activity, and much better than flip-flops (“If it didn’t land me in jail, I’d burn the [flip-flop] factories down,” she said. “They’re so bad for your feet.”)
“When your mother grew up in America, they didn’t wear sneakers; they wore saddle shoes to school and they switched to sneakers,” she said. “When I opened my shop (in 1977), we didn’t see hereditary foot problems until people were 25, 35 years old. Today we see it in 10-, 15-year-olds growing up in Converse, Vans and flip-flops. Shoes hardly even exist anymore. It’s very bizarre.”
Wood-soled, properly fitted leather clogs, Ms. Tidlund explained, walk for you, unlike flip-flops and other soft shoes, which your toes must grip as you walk. “When you stand on wood, your foot doesn’t bend, so you relax your feet,” she said. “The doctors I deal with estimate that the hip and knee replacements will be 20 to 25 years younger in this generation, and maybe they’ll be lucky enough to do two knee replacements on you.”
It’s hard not to whip out one’s credit card after a speech like this. Ms. Tidlund’s clogs run about $120 and will withstand many years of moderate wear. She will only sell to those who have been fitted in person; once your measurements are in her computer, you can call her shop and order whatever color and style of clog you like. The shoes are crafted from European materials in the Sven factory in Minnesota; Ms. Tidlund said she is the only retailer who sells custom-fit Sven clogs. The leathers she recommends—not the nubuck and the suede, which she calls “fashion shmashion”—are polyurethane-coated, and can be washed under the faucet with dishwashing liquid.
DESPITE THE VAGUELY tupperware-party feel of Ms. Tidlund’s stints at the hotel, her primary customer base remains men, mostly chefs and doctors who understand the clog’s orthopedic supremacy. Her first customer, in 1976, she will tell you, was Wolfgang Puck himself. “I had tape on the windows,” she said. “Somebody knocked and said, ‘I want clogs now!’” Thomas Keller of Per Se is also a customer, as are non-chefs Sarah Jessica Parker, Sandra Bullock, Whoopi Goldberg and an assortment of rock stars: Paul Stanley of KISS, Robin Finck of Guns n’ Roses, Brian May of Queen and Donny Osmond. “I’m on La Cienega,” Ms. Tidlund shrugged, by way of explanation.
Not that this has at all exempted her from the challenges facing small-business owners in this country, she added.
“If I don’t get an investor next year, or a miracle, I’ll be out of business,” she said. “I’ve been coming to the Javits for 17 years, and I used to do nine shows a year, but now I can only do three because I don’t have the staff. You can’t afford to live in L.A. anymore and work in a retail store.”
Around 5 p.m., a new crop of customers streamed into Ms. Tidlund’s room at the Bedford. Nicole Gammino, a stylish, pretty 30-something brunette and third-year customer, said she had sent an e-mail to all her friends. “It’s like a cult,” she said, removing her brown boots as her two friends looked around in wonder. “I bought my first pair eight years ago.”
“How do you pick?” mused one of Ms. Gammino’s friends, wide-eyed.
“How do you pick?” said Ms. Gammino. “It’s hard.”
For more information and to check on NYC visits, go to http://www.clogmaster.com.