Deena Simmons slipped on a pair of black suede loafers and marched over to the nearest mirror.
"Oh gosh, it's like putting on a pair of gloves!" she said, parading around the shoe department of Robinson's in Newport Beach in flat heels.
"I've always liked lower heels, and I love the new styles," said the Trabuco Canyon resident. "They're really comfortable."
Her mother, Gail Leslie of Villa Park, sat nearby wearing a pair of leopard-print pumps with three-inch spikes.
"I don't feel dressed up unless I have high heels on," Leslie said.
"She's crazy," her daughter said.
Mother and daughter represent opposing sides of an ongoing feud between women wanting low heels for comfort and those wanting high heels for style.
This season, anyway, Simmons and all who favor lower heels appear to have the upper hand.
"Flat shoes have never been as exciting," said Jack Miles, couture buyer for I. Magnin stores in Southern California.
"The designers are doing more to them. They're adding appliques and all kinds of ornaments. The leopard shoes are walking out like crazy."
High or low, shoe designs follow closely on the heels of major fashion trends, according to Michele Love, salon shoe buyer for Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
As soon as animal prints infiltrated ready-to-wear clothing, spots and stripes turned up on everything from sandals to knee-high boots. Several designers came out with animal print pumps.
Those who don't want to look like they just came in from the jungle can tread in something a little more tame, such as Anne Klein's black suede pump with a leopard print heel, which sells for $127 at Nordstrom.
To match the vivid colors of the fall collections, everyone suddenly turned to suede. Liz Claiborne and 9 West both introduced a line of suede pumps in rich tones such as purple, teal, royal blue and emerald green, which sell for about $60 at Robinson's.
"All of the spice colors and rich jewel tones translate well into suede," Love said. "They match the ready-to-wear colors perfectly."
Many have rediscovered suede's versatility. The material can be stamped with a paisley print or cut into unusual appliques and designs. Perry Ellis created a suede pump in a patchwork of blues, greens and purples, available at I. Magnin for $145.
Royal colors in suede suited another major clothing trend, the courtly "Dangerous Liaisons" look.
Women needed shoes to stand up to the season's lush velvet jackets with heavy gold embroidery, the sequined sweaters and gold lame skirts and dresses.
Shoe designers responded with rich-looking materials--black velvet and shiny satin as well as suede--and adorned them with opulent trims.
A black velvet slipper by Frankie and Baby, for instance, comes garnished with large rhinestones of varied shapes and colors. A sparkling black pump by Impo has been lavishly covered with multicolored beads in a paisley print.
"Jewels are appearing as footwear ornaments from necklaces on loafers, to sprinkled all over, to (one big gem) being placed center stage," said Stuart Weitzman, designer and president of the Stuart Weitzman Co. in New York.
Buttons, Fans, Bows and Ornaments
Many designers introduced their own version of what Weitzman calls "the court pump, where up-front treatments in buttons, fans, bows or ornaments balance the stronger court heels."
His "Mock My Day" moccasin, for example, features a necklace embedded with multicolored jewels draped across the top of a jewel-toned suede loafer. His "Fanny Brice," an orchid-colored suede court pump, rises high on the foot with a pleated fan and suede-covered button gracing the toe.
"It's very much a season for luxury and courtliness," Weitzman said.
Regal fashions have changed the very shape of shoes. Strappy sandals and stiletto heels have all but disappeared. The pump has gotten heavier. It now chokes up tighter around the foot, to complement the heavier jackets, according to Nordstrom's Love.
"The clothing's oversized, so the shoes are oversized," she said.
Many of her customers have gone for an even heavier look--cowboy boots that reach anywhere from the ankle to the thigh. The boots follow the trail of Western wear--riding pants, fringed leather jackets and other equestrian apparel. Like the pumps, they have turned up in every shade of suede with plenty of applique and ornaments.
To balance the heavier shoes, heels have gotten fatter. They're wider, with a chunky comma shape or with an hourglass figure known as the courtly "Louis Heel."
"There's a real emphasis on heel shapes," Love said.
Designers need the stronger heels to balance the gold coins, big buckles, chains and other heavy toe accents.
"The wider heels are more comfortable than stilettos and more practical for work," Love said.
Indeed, if not for the wild leopard prints and the big fake gems, this could be the season of the sensible shoe.