Bruce Lerner wears mild-mannered lace-up shoes to work, but his passion for exotic footwear is never far from mind. When he leaves his Hollywood office, this 6-foot, 4-inch man slips his Size-14 hoof into a blue suede Martian boot.
It doesn't make him feel macho, he says. Or like a rock 'n' roller. "It provides an overall sense of security. Like a little arm around my feet.
"The way I feel about myself in any social situation is predicated on the shoes I'm wearing more than anything."
Lerner, a record-company financial analyst, has succumbed to what could be the shoe industry's highest hope for the American male: that he feels an irrational tug toward an article of dress once considered a matter of function over form.
"Shoes are my only fetish," he says.
And egging him on is a men's shoe-industry shift from what one store executive calls "the dowdy wing tip brogue" to more adventurous looks that include multiskin, multicolored shoes and shapes formerly reserved for the women's shoe department.
It's a matter of shoes catching up with men's fashions, shoemaker Kenneth Cole says.
"Men's tastes in footwear have changed more in the past two years than in the past 20," says the 32-year-old, among the most progressive of the new shoe designers. "They no longer consider a wardrobe of footwear one pair of black and one pair of brown shoes."
Cole, who entered the men's shoe business because "I couldn't find shoes I would wear," makes a colorful, silk print espadrille that has become a signature look this season--a summer when tricolored top siders and white lizard pumps also have surfaced.
So free-spirited have some men become that at one New York boutique, Maud Frizon, customers are requesting women's styles be converted to men's.
"And sometimes we do it for them," manager Cookie Mallat says.
One of the biggest trends is a variation on the tuxedo pump--and not just for black tie. Dino Certo, owner of Certo men's store in Beverly Hills, calls this slip-on a natural for Los Angeles.
"In California, for some reason, men don't like to bend over and tie their shoes," Certo says. "L.A.'s a loafer town."
Certo designs most of his private-label shoes as low-vamp pumps, in everything from printed pony skin to cobalt-blue leather. The proportion makes the foot look trimmer, he says.
"Some men say that it looks like a slipper. But that's the intention," he says.
John Warner Williams is a convert to this low-vamp style he once considered "effete." He has a closet with several, from a Navajo print to black patent leather. "When I get depressed, I want to buy shoes," says Williams, co-owner of the West Hollywood boutique Alley. "I know I shouldn't spend $300 on a pair of shoes. But it's my treat."
Aiding in this extravagance is a coming season steeped in unusual skins. Ostrich, snakeskin, deerskin and wild boar are among the choices. Salvatore Ferragamo plans to market a $695 crocodile shoe.
"We offered it last season and were absolutely amazed how well it sold--out of a mail-order catalogue even," one Ferragamo sales assistant in New York says.
Frog skin, sharkskin and fluffy-textured sea bass, priced $300 to $400, are the newest at Torie Steele's Maud Frizon boutique in Beverly Hills, manager Karen Dash says.
A sign of the broadening shoe market came when Neiman-Marcus asked a high-fashion woman's shoe designer, Andrea Pfister, to create a line for men earlier this year. Sensing "a need for avant-garde designer footwear," the store gave the designer free rein, says shoe buyer Randy Price. The result was almost too wild.
"We got into too many colors that aren't commercial enough, like turquoise and red," Price says, noting that the more subdued styles sold better.
If Neiman-Marcus' experience hints that men are still a little baffled by too much flash, Ron Rifkin is trying to adjust. This L.A. actor, who also is in the fur business, says when he wears bright shoes, "I just tone everything else down.
"What I do when I wear a green shoe is wear all one color. All black. Or jeans," says Rifkin, who often keeps shoes for years just because "they look nice in my closet."
Tacit rules such as this may develop as men's shoes turn livelier. But there is one rule that Nick Newmont of Saks Fifth Avenue, Beverly Hills, wishes men wouldn't forget.
"To be proper--and gentleman's etiquette has really gone out the window--certain suitings call for a lace-up shoe," says Newmont, men's clothing department manager. "If it's a very rich-looking charcoal or navy suit, it belongs with a black, dressy lace-up."
Even in a loafer town.