You have to be a shoe lover to appreciate this, but, yes, it was a thrill walking into the Western Shoe Associates International Buying Market at the Convention Center and seeing, crowded together like some exotic Moroccan bazaar, mini-boutiques representing 1,800 lines of shoes.
Just the panorama of the Main Hall was staggering: the rich, woody saloon look of the Cole-Haan area, even a moose head attached to the booth divider; behind them, Rocksport, the walking shoe, and on to the left, all the makers of athletic shoes.
Down the middle and fanning out to both sides, women's shoes: the new bright fuchsias and blues in leathers, reptiles and fabrics; deadly earnest black shoes; shoes advertised "for the woman who is comfortable with herself"--the kind you might expect Queen Elizabeth to wear.
There were children's shoes, thongs designed to look like surfboards, fancy pointy-toed cowboy boots, fuzzy slippers that looked like rabbits, a lifetime collection of Keds.
There were shoe companies, such as Red Cross, Amalfi and Florsheim, that you've known all your life; designer names, such as Perry Ellis, Mauri, Diane von Furstenberg, Etienne Aigner, Julianelli, Walter Steiger, and others called Terra Australis, Ipanema and Chinese Laundry, some of which you've never heard, but their names sound wonderfully exotic.
This is not, however, shoe heaven. Shoe heaven is where there's a great collection of shoes and you can buy. (Also, in the true shoe heaven, you never get a bill.)
At the show, which has been held in Los Angeles twice a year since 1944, only retailers can buy. Only shoe-connected people can even enter. This is the largest regional shoe-buying market in the world.
No one, according to Western Shoe Associates executive director Ann Aiken, knows how much "paper is laid." However, you only have to look at the retailers' faces--grim, tense, a brief smile as they're introduced to a company sales representative--and the sales reps' faces--eager, anticipating, eyes darting in search of potential buyers--to know nobody's having any fun here.
There's not even a semblance of good times. No music, no announcements over the loudspeakers. Rather, a low hum pervades the three exhibit halls, the sound of business taking place. Walk the market, down each loosely structured aisle, and it's like seeing a moving gallery of negotiations with shoes as the coincidental backdrop.
Negotiations, though, are the last part. The first thing everyone does at a shoe show is walk around and get a feel for the direction shoes are taking.
The reptiles are the most obvious. That's what shoe people call them, not crocodile boots or snakeskin shoes, but reptiles, and they come in natural colors, plus brights--the generic shoe term for colors like red, green, blue and pink. Reptiles come at all price levels. It really depends on the reptile.
If budget is a consideration, Concordia's cute little pumps are made from frogs. Mauri, an Italian firm, is big on mixing its breeds: alligator, ostrich, lizard and python, all in one boot, at $550. A classic pump of the same mix is $220.
Veteran retailers were saying reptiles had been around forever, that they weren't really seeing anything new. Maybe so, except there did seem to be a certain trendy quality about the genuine snakeskin sneakers (about $80) made by a Carlsbad firm called Snakers. On the walls of their tiny booth area are photos of celebrities, such as Magic Johnson, and groups like Aerosmith, who apparently are finding red, black, yellow or natural Snakers a dressy alternative to Nikes or Reeboks.
There is something about the styling of Snakers, though the same thing probably applies to reptile boots, that makes you feel as if your foot has been swallowed by a snake. The snakes themselves, said Snakers sales representative Joseph Baron, are "a byproduct of the food chain of Southeast Asia."
Not a Statement
OK, so snakes aren't a fashion statement. Apparently you have to look deeper. Shoe people can see beyond the gilded shimmer of a reptile's skin.
Debbie Pearlman, co-owner of Shooze II in the Beverly Center, is a buyer. She spent two days, nine hours each, at the market, and yes, she said wearily, once back in her shop, "there's a very definite direction this year. It's fresh and new and very romantic."
It's those Louie heels. Short, shaped like an hourglass, these heels were big in the '60s. Now they're back with ribbons, little rosettes, flounces on the heels. Pearlman also talked about the texture mixture: "Very big," she said. And the way shoes "are being translated into suede," now that's the fashion statement, said Dennis Kursewicz, a Costa Mesa retail merchandising consultant.
At lunchtime, in the Kenneth Cole booth, where model Melissa Mogue was stacking boxes while West Coast sales rep Laurie Rosenthall was trying to gulp down a sandwich; the big sellers had been black leather shoes with Louie heels and grosgrain bows and mid-heeled pumps in bright colors.
There are, of course, people not headed in the same direction as mainstream shoe manufacturers. John Fluevok, owner of a Vancouver, B.C., shoe shop, said he hated the snakeskin, detested the brights and probably was going to return home empty-handed.
"What I want are shoes that will sell."
For his market, ages 15 to 22, the look was heavy black shoes with "exaggerated attributes."
Dale Churchill of Grand Forks, N.D., also was feeling a bit discouraged by what he was seeing. Then again, maybe it was just his mood.
"All those colors, the Louie heels, the ribbons. It's just kind of hard to get into it. We're in the middle of a blizzard right now."