Shoes are having a 21st-century moment as they’ve pushed from mere accessory to the center of the fashion stage.
Sexuality, social status, fashion IQ: The reasons for our shoe obsession are many, but one thing’s for sure: More, and more avant-garde, designers are taking on the feet.
“There has been a big emphasis on high designer shoes in the past 10 to 12 years, so more women are certainly willing to spend more money on high-end shoes, but there’s also been a real focus on shoes as art pieces,” said Colleen Hill, assistant curator of accessories for The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The museum went directly to the source — a Who’s Who of shoe designers and some high-profile collectors — for “Shoe Obsession,” an exhibit that runs through April 13.
Outlandish beer heiress Daphne Guinness lent some of her favorites. So did jewelry designer Lynn Ban, who owns roughly 800 pairs and says, “I’ve worn them all, at least once.”
The exhibition shows off 153 specimens, mostly from this century. Hill and Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the museum, have co-written a book, “Shoe Obsession,” to accompany the exhibit. During a recent walk-through, the two spoke of designer shoes as the new millennium’s “It” bag, which has not gone unnoticed by major department stores.
The flagship Macy’s in Manhattan expanded floor space for shoes by 10 percent, boasting 250,000 pairs. Saks Fifth Avenue enlarged shoe departments in about a dozen stores around the country.
Shoes by established designers and design houses — Manolo Blahnik, Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Vivier, Chanel, Prada, Christian Louboutin — remain popular — obvi! — but quirky stars have arisen as quickly as heels have gone so high that 4 inches is the new “low,” the two curators said.
The new design generation? Modernists Kei Kagami, with art pieces that take on an almost-orthopedic terror, and Noritaka Tatehana, working in stamped leather, spikes and tall-toe platforms absent a heel, stand out in a strong contingent from Japan.
Brazilian shoe designer Alexandre Birman lent the exhibit three pairs done in painted reptile skin.
“Shoes have a psychological, sociocultural and seductive significance to our culture, from the Hollywood celebrity to the everyday woman, which goes beyond a materialistic obsession,” he said in an email.
The centuries have spawned many beautiful shoes, but the masses joining in a more recent phenomenon known as the “Sex and the City” effect continues to ripple in fashion.
Shoes are so popular, in fact, that Hill cited recent data noting the average American woman owns nearly twice as many shoes as she did a decade ago — about 17 pairs.
“What we’re seeing in a way is a kind of democratization of the kind of phenomenon that we saw in ‘Sex and the City,’” Steele said. “At first it was just sort of some people who were really obsessed with high-end designer shoes. This has now spread.”
Shoes, she said, have moved from accessories to fashion’s main story “to being the main story, in part because designer clothes have gotten so expensive. So even if you’re spending $900, $1,000 on a pair of shoes, something insane, that’s less than you’d be spending by far than if you were getting a dress or something, and people seem to feel that it’s more worth it.”
There’s no way to categorize popularity in shoes today. There’s a range of heights, shapes and embellishments — feathers, crystals, beads, spikes, human hair made to look like the tails of ponies, molded and painted resins, painted python.
Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure magazine, said in a New York Fashion Week interview that shoe trends are like fashion trends in general — you can find whatever you want: pointy toes, stiletto heels, high platforms, fancy flats, more masculine shapes.
“Everyone likes buying shoes. You don’t have to take your clothes off or be a model size to wear them,” Wells said.
Shoes, Steele said, are “fierce,” but also feminine, high and often striving for that “Cinderella factor” that can transform the wearer. It’s all “quite delightful,” she smiled. “It just makes you want to run out and go shoe shopping.”