Tracing The German Pilot Boots Through Fashion

Examining their influence on the repertoires of Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester, and Tatsuro Horikawa


Since the earliest recordings of human history, clothing designed for war has ended worn by ordinary civilians. Its influence is embodied in items like cardigans and khaki pants, and due to the last century’s mass production of garments and increased popularity of vintage, military garments are now not only affordable, but also accessible and durable alternatives to fast fashion.

Original Bundeswehr "Pilot Boots"

While some military items are adopted into wardrobes directly from military surplus stores, others make their impact via streetwear and high fashion. Boots, trench coats, and fatigue pants are among those in the latter category, favorite references of designers such as Raf Simons and Rick Owens.

Kanye West attending a Ralph Lauren fashion show wearing an N-3B parka and vintage camo pants

One of the most influential, timeless, and recurrent military influences is the combat boot. The classic model is characterized by an upper leather construction, lacing or buckles that cover the ankle, and a solid, heavy-duty sole that grants stability and grip. The first recorded pair is placed in the 1st century roman empire, but it is likely that boot-like footwear predates even these.

Raf Simon's AW2001 "Riot Riot Riot" bomber jacket 

The combat boots' present popularity, though, sprang more immediately from the 60’s and 70’s, when Dr. Martens became a staple of British punk style. The genre’s success and spread to the United States brought the boots with it thanks to bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols in the 80s. Combat boots were also a grunge scene staple in the 90s.

The Clash wearing combat boots

Combat boots made their high-fashion debut in groundbreaking Perry Ellis SS93 show, which infamously got Marc Jacobs fired due to poor critical reception and backlash. The show marked a turning point in the industry, blurring the line between fashion and streetwear. Since then, many high fashion designers have re-interpreted the boots, often celebrating their durability, utilitarian properties, and various cultural associations.

Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic wearing combat boots for a Nirvana photoshoot

One of the most commonly re-interpreted combat boots are the German Army (Bundeswehr) pilot boots. These boots are characterized by the double lacing system, which consists of a normal eyelet lacing and a quick-lacing system in the form of a zipper. Along with this mechanism, the boots have a wedge sole inspired by boots such as the Red Wing 875's and 1907's.

Naomi Campbell for Perry Ellis SS93 wearing Dr. Martens

This design has been replicated and referenced by many designers, and has had an acute impact felt in the repertoires of designers Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester, and Tatsuro Horikawa of Julius. For these designers, the German boots have served as inspiration and a starting point on which they can impose their vision. The sole has been modified countless times, enlarged, narrowed, and exaggerated to complement the leather construction. The practical lacing system has been applied to many shoes by these designers due to the aesthetic and functional value.

Detail picture of the lacing system in the Pilot Boot

These boots are also conceptually interesting. To understand the influence that these boots had on the aforementioned designers, we need to take a closer look at the footwear in their respective repertoires. Tracing the evolution of these boots from military issue to high fashion staple illuminates the reference behind the beloved style, and serves as just one example of a military aesthetic seeping into contemporary designs.

Rick Owens

Rick Owens wearing a Military-inspired leather trench coat

Military clothing is a pivotal part of the Rick Owens repertoire. Not only does Owens use military designs as inspiration for his own, but he actually used fabric from military garments in the early days of his brand. His love for military garments extends into his personal life; he repurposes army blankets as carpets and has even reupholstered his own bed with them.

Rick Owen's bedroom circa 1999

Perhaps the most notable incorporation of military elements is seen in the most sought after Rick Owens category: footwear. The military boot design aesthetic is featured repeatedly in Rick’s collections, even in putatively unrelated sneakers, evident in a sense of rigidness and stability characteristic of combat boots. Great examples are the Ramones and the Geobaskets, two sneakers that feel more like combat boots than high-top sneakers.

Rick Owens FW17 "Pentagram" Boots

Referencing the German pilot boot specifically is a staple in Rick footwear, appearing in some capacity in almost every collection. The sole from the German boot is featured in one of Rick’s most recurrent designs, the Creeper. The base model of this boot features a side zipper, but many additional configurations are offered, such as spiral zippers, double zippers, and laces. Along with these modifications, the Creeper boot has evolved over time with the FW12 combat boot, the FW09 “elephant boots, the “motorcycle” boots from SS15, and the FW17 Pentagram boots, which feature an enlarged sole and characteristic lacing configuration.

Rick Owens FW12 Combat Boot

Rick Owens "Spiral" Leather Creepers
Rick Owens FW09 "Elephant" boots

The connection between the pilot boots and Rick’s shoes is clearly evident, but the Rick shoe that resembles the vintage boots the most is the FW11 “Mohawk” boots. These boots not only brandish the aforementioned Creeper sole, but feature a closing mechanism and an inside tongue that closely resembles the German boot. This tongue also echoes the tongue in the “Ramones” high boot.

Rick Owens FW11 "Mohawk" Creeper

Ann Demeulemeester

Ann Demeulemeester / Photo by Willy Vanderperrec

Part of the famed Antwerp Six, Ann Demeulemeester is known for her gothic designs. The belgian designer finds inspiration in Proto-Punk style. It is because of this distinct inspiration that her goth style is separated from other gothic and punk-inspired brands, characterized by a refined elegance that other punk-inspired brands lack.

Ann demeulemeester fixing a dress

This unique source of inspiration results in designs that are often more polished than those associated with punk culture. Nevertheless, both punk and proto-punk share a source of inspiration in military designs.

Ann Demeulemeester's SS98

The influence of military designs is clearly visible throughout Demeulemeester’s repertoire. Jackets, coats, and boots are the stars of this show. Demeulemeester often takes military cuts and plays with them, elongating, enlarging, and using luxurious fabrics. Out of these military influences, Ann’s combat boots are amongst the most recognized and desired items.

Ann demeulemeester leather boots with a fast lacing system

Demeulemeester’s footwear consists mainly of military boots and military inspired loafers and derbies. Ann has incorporated some elements from the German boot into her footwear, and they have become part of the brand’s DNA. The Bundeswehr pilot boots in particular resemble many of Demeulemeester’s boots, mainly due to the sole. This wedge sole is featured in many of the boots and derbies by the Belgian designer. The sole is often altered, enlarged, and sometimes even rippled, yet remains familiar.

Leather sandal By Ann Demeulemeester with the characteristic sole

Once again, Demeulemeester’s characteristic elegance shines through this re-imagining of combat boots. The Vitello boots pictured below are perfect examples of Ann’s playful design. Taking the classic combat boot sole, she transforms this silhouette with a rear lacing system, which makes a sleek and graceful design. Her take on this model exemplifies her take on design in general, as she manages to create an elegant and ingenious shoe from a rugged and utilitarian design. Demeulemeester also incorporated the zipper mechanism in her boots in the past to create a more elegant and refined look than the original combat boots.

Ann Demeulemeester Vitello boots with back lacing system

Additional examples of Ann’s take on these boots in her repertoire include derbies, boots, and even sandals.

Ann Demeulemeester leather boot with folding tonge and characteristic sole

Julius - Tatsuro Horikawa

Lastly, we have Tatsuro Horikawa of Julius.

Dysplay of Julius garments at a Hong kong flagship store

Featuring a gothic aesthetic that resembles that of Rick Owens and a similar inspiration in architecture and military uniforms, Horikawa’s designs are often more dramatic, featuring pronounced and exaggerated shapes. For Horikawa, military items are a building block on which he can sculpt his creations. He often uses the same military inspirations in multiple collections with subtle redesigns.

Julius FW16 "Gas Mask" cargos

This limitation in influence, however, results in an array of designs. The “Gas Mask” cargos are a good example. These pants have been featured in almost every collection, with tweaks like elongated pockets, pockets grouped together, different materials, or incorporating other items like bondage straps or flight pant zippers.

Julius Zip up boots featuring the exagerated sole 

Similar to his modification of cargo pants, most of Horikawa’s boot designs originate from a particular boot: the German pilot boot. In Julius’ repertoire, the characteristic wedge sole of the boot in question is a staple, making appearances in a myriad of Julius footwear.

One of Julius classic shapes, featuring the iconic sole 
Julius sandals with exagerated ripple soles

The sole has been incorporated in Julius’ designs directly, such as in the SS13 boots or the AW16 boots, however some designs feature a more wild take on the sole. In particular, some sneakers by Julius have a shape that resembles that of the German boot, but highly exaggerated, featuring a thick sole, larger at the heel and expanding from where the shoe meets the sole to the ground in a pyramid-like shape. The sneakers embody Julius’ wild take on the boots. The zipper system has also been featured in some of the Japanese brand’s footwear.

Julius leather boots with characteristic lacing systemv

Overall, the fashion impact of the Bundeswehr pilot boot extends beyond their impact on the aforementioned designers. Its influence on these three designers, however, provide a good example of how military styles are absorbed, transformed, and adapted by creatives. The influence of these boots embody how military designs bleed into everyday life, and give hard to acquire items, like the Bundeswehr pilot boot, a new life.