We're tripping over our own two feet in the search for fashionable footwear. The shoe, it seems, has become more than something to just wear.
By JEANNE MALMGREN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 1999
Shoes are hot. These dazzling sequined platform sandals on the second issue of Shuz , the magazine, were actually just "concept" shoes, to the dismay of disappointed readers clamoring for the shoes.
[Photo Courtesy of Shuz]
An object of veneration, it is a many-faced idol: coquettish and sexy; sensible and strong; beaded and bespangled.
Credit cards in hand, acolytes gather to pay homage to the soft nap of buckskin, the subdued sheen of velvet, the young suppleness of pony hide.
They worship anywhere their deity manifests, in department store salons, the pages of fashion magazines and -- for the truly addicted -- on Web sites where one can indulge in 3 a.m. shoe shopping sprees. Some even collect showy-shoe Christmas tree ornaments or even smaller charms, thumb-size shoes that exist only to be admired.
Think this is a bit much? Can't understand the swooning over an accouterment that basically keeps your feet dry?
Then you have no awe in your soul, no capacity to comprehend the genius of Bruno Magli, no appreciation for art in its wearable form.
"Women have been obsessed with shoes since the dawn of time," declares Mademoiselle shoe editor Robin Wunsh. (Who knew? A magazine with a shoe editor!)
According to Wunsh, the addiction is no longer a guilty secret. We can flaunt our Imelda Marcos-ness.
"It used to be, if people had a bunch of pairs of shoes, they hid them in the closet. Now we celebrate. It's like potato chips. You can't have just one."
On a recent afternoon, Wunsh had just spent an exhausting but exhilarating day treading the sidewalks of New York in her favorite black high-heeled boots. Her mission: Visit every shoe designer's showroom in Manhattan and peek at their new designs for fall 2000.
"Fabulous footwear coming up," she gushed. "Tons of new choices for women. It's so much fun."
What women choose to wear on their feet, according to Wunsh, is expressive of their personality, "sort of a shoe IQ." And women are becoming more and more daring about their footwear.
"It's a way to create that jzuzz factor in your wardrobe," Wunsh said. (Etymological note: Although the word jzuzz rolled off her tongue with ease, Wunsh, when pressed, couldn't venture a guess as to how it might be spelled. Nor does Merriam Webster recognize the word. "All the girls here (at Mademoiselle) say it," Wunsh maintained. "It means to add spice.")
Tiny shoes, ready to hang on the Christmas tree, grace the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog. Designs are based on originals in the museum's Costume Institute.
[Photo: Jon Coolidge ]
Witness also the birth, last year, of Shuz magazine. Page after glossy page, Shuz celebrates women's footwear, everything from leopard-print Belgian loafers to satin slingbacks and thigh-high stretch-suede boots. Prices are not for the faint of heart.
Immediately, New York shoe designers christened Shuz "the Bible" of their industry.
"We're the only media that we know of in the world to target the shoe enthusiast," said publisher Mark Hulme, from his office in Fort Worth, Texas, heretofore a little-known hotbed of footwear fashion. "And we've just been thrilled with the results."
Hulme, by the way, wants his readers to be called shoe enthusiasts, not fetishists. No X-rated obsessions here, just the hunt for high fashion.
Although conceived as a twice-yearly magazine, Shuz now is going quarterly, after only three issues. Readers demanded it, Hulme said.
Readers also went ga-ga over a pair of red sequined platform sandals featured on the cover of the second issue, pleading to know where they could buy them. Alas, the ruby slippers were "concept" shoes, constructed solely for the photo shoot, Hulme told disappointed readers.
At $9.95 an issue, Shuz is an expensive read, Hulme concedes. Average age of the magazine's readers is 38 or 39, he said, "and there's a high skewing toward people with M.A.s and Ph.D.s."
So far Shuz has been marketed only as a newsstand buy, but Hulme said subscriptions will be offered next year, at $19.95. "We think our in-home subscription rate will start at about 250,000 readers."
There's a Web site, too. Already up and running, http://www.www.shuz.com is joining the ranks of such offerings as http://www.nordstromshoes.com, which bills itself as "the world's biggest shoe store." By early next year, Hulme said, shoe fanatics will be able to browse among (and buy) all the latest designs on the Shuz site.
Another new Web site is designed not to sell shoes, but celebrate them. Solemates: The Century in Shoes (http://www.centuryinshoes.com) is a decade-by-decade analysis of footwear trends, featuring actual vintage shoes borrowed from personal collections all over the United States. Virtual reality graphics allow the user to "spin" each shoe for closeup views from every angle.
"We wanted to build a site that was sort of a gift to the Internet," said Lisa Scovel, a Web strategist for The Marketing Store in Sacramento, Calif., and the mastermind behind Solemates. "I like vintage clothes, and it occurred to me it would be cool to do a Web site with historical shoes, to show how they change with the culture."
Footwear of any era, according to Scovel, is like sculpture. "People who are into 3-D stuff really appreciate shoes."
What's amazing about them, she added, is that the designer creates a work of art, but it must always conform to the basic shape of a human foot.
"They can be creative, but only within certain constraints. So they use colors, stitching and different materials to create variation."
Consumers, Scovel said, often have a love-hate relationship with footwear. Shoes delight our soul, but they also can pinch our toes.
"You associate both pleasure and pain with them. Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice in comfort to wear high heels."
It's not sexist to say that women are the shoe-loving gender, Scovel says.
"Women are way more into shoes than men," she said. "With men, it's all about comfort and function. My boyfriend wears one pair of shoes -- usually sneakers -- until they wear out."
Women are even into shoes they can't wear, it seems. Miniature hand-painted porcelain shoes have become the latest rage in the world of collectibles.
Just the Right Shoe, a line of miniatures introduced in October 1998, features historically accurate designs dating back to the 1700s. Some simulate early leathers, others look like tapestry. All feature tiny folds and creases that make them appear to be worn.
There are nearly 50 designs, ranging in price from $12 to $20, and the shoes are "flying off the shelves," said Laurie Boudash of Willitts International, the California manufacturer. Nine other designs already have been "retired," making them more valuable.
Just the Right Shoe designs are sold in retail stores and through a collectors club (http://www.worldcollectorsnet.com/justtherightshoe/ or (877) 587-5877) that offers memberships for $40 a year.
There's also a newsletter, "From Heel Toe Eternity," ($16/year from P.O. Box 1393, Easton, MA 02334-1393) where Just the Right Shoe fanatics can buy, sell, swap and salivate over their objects of desire. Editor Laurie Anne Greez is still working on the first issue, and "already I can't keep up with the mail," she said. "People are sending checks for two-year subscriptions."
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has offered collectible miniature shoes in its store, mail-order catalog (call (800) 662-3397) and on its Web site (http://www.metmuseum.org) for three years. This year's holiday collection features $15 "shoe ornaments," exquisite, 31/2-inch-long resin slippers with gold cords attached, for hanging on the Christmas tree.
All are fashioned after originals in the museum's Costume Institute.
"We've been inundated with sales on these things, to the point that production couldn't keep up," said Dick Stevens, the museum's manager of three-dimensional reproductions.
The collection has grown from three styles the first year to a planned 20 for next year.
"We'll have three new introductions in January," Stevens said. "One is an open-toe, hot pink slingback with a butterfly on the toe. Another is a 19th century pale blue tapestry shoe with embroidered flowers. And the third is a Chinese child's slipper with a cat's face on it. It's really fun."
Stevens came up with the idea of shoe collectibles several years ago, when he noticed a recurring theme at the Frankfurt Home Furnishings Fair.
"There were dinner plates with shoes painted on them, Limoges boxes with shoes on them. And then Linda O'Keefe came out with her book, Shoes. We carried it in our store and it was selling like hotcakes."
When a Philippine manufacturer came calling with a oversized resin shoe model, Stevens asked if they could go to the other end of the scale and make pint-sized shoes. The answer was yes.
Even though other manufacturers are now flooding the market with shoe collectibles, Stevens said sales of the Metropolitan miniatures remain strong, totalling $2.5-million last year.
"We don't see the business flagging for us there," he said.
Not as long as collectors keep loving shoes.
Two years ago, Stevens traveled to the Philippines. At a private dining room he bumped into an avid collector of the museum's shoe miniatures. She was delighted to hear he was from the Met and proceeded to "talk shoes" with him for an hour.
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