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Foot Patrol

For Women With Double-Digit Shoe Sizes, Finding a Stylish Sling-Back Can Be a Major Ordeal


Michele Walman figured she would grow up to be a nurse because the only shoes that fit her were clunky Red Cross oxfords.

Salesclerks would take one look at the nearly 6-foot-tall teen with the size 11 feet and point her toward the men's department, where she had her pick of sneakers and penny loafers.

She was the girl who shopped for the party shoes before the dress, knowing the dismal odds of scoring a pair of dressy flats.

"Finding shoes has been my life nightmare," says Walman, 42, now a West Los Angeles Realtor, who wants nothing more than to find shoes to match her work and special-occasion clothes. "My whole life I've had big feet and have had to deal with the unfashionable, old-lady shoes that are just hideous. I refuse to wear them."

While the selection of styles available in large sizes is steadily improving, and this season's roomy square-toed pumps and boots have been particularly accommodating, wearers of big shoes can never really relax. They have to sweat for every sling-back and moccasin. To have a prayer of owning anything remotely trendy, they must work their connections: a handful of manufacturers, the salespeople who disappear behind the curtain in pricey boutiques like Salvatore Ferragamo and the department store renowned for its vast inventory and special sales.

In the 1980s, the average shoe size among American women was a 7. Now it's an 8 and creeping upward as the overall population grows taller and heavier, says John Burnham, an economic analyst for the National Footwear Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. Even so, only 1.2% of women wear sizes 11 1/2 and up, which means most manufacturers can afford to write them off. Those who do cater to a small audience tend to charge accordingly.

"Close to 100 components must be factored into a shoe," Burnham explains, noting that length and width only scratch the surface. "If they are going to manufacture a product that is going to be purchased by only a small segment of the population it's going to be more expensive."

Indeed, the large-footed can depend on the makers Ferragamo and Via Spiga to deliver 11s and Cole Haan goes up to a 12, but their shoes hover in the $200 range. On the low-end, Payless Shoe Source carries all its styles in an 11 but only a limited selection in 12 and 13. Many mall chain stores, such as Dolcis, stop at 10.

For a few lucky shoppers like Walman, price is not an issue. When she finds a style she likes, usually via catalog or at Nordstrom, she buys it in every available color. Her record purchase on a single outing? Fourteen pairs. "Finding shoes is my concern," she says, "not the cost."

Carol Bergman of Santa Monica, who wears an 11, for years risked getting bunions to look stylish, cramming her feet into more plentiful size 10s. She has spent as much as $500 for a pair of boots that fit. Equestrian stores have proved good sources, she says, along with Nordstrom and such boutiques as Souliers in Santa Monica.

In addition to stocking 78 styles in sizes 3 to 13, Nordstrom offers even more options through its 12-year-old Overs and Unders selection, catering to women with feet smaller than a 5 and larger than a 10, from about 40 manufacturers. Customers can count on two sales per year from this inventory, usually in the spring and fall.

"We have a lot customers who wear small and large shoes so we try to accommodate them," says Tim Joyce, manager of ladies shoes at Nordstrom Westside Pavilion.

Indeed, Pauline, who declined to give her last name, has been a loyal Nordstrom shopper for nearly 15 years because, she says, it's one of the few stores that stocks 13s. Before moving to Southern California from Boston, she kept the lot numbers for the retailer's Sensations and Sidewalks styles so she could buy them via catalog.

Pauline, who's 6 feet tall, also relied on the Tall Gals Shoe Store, a national chain, until it closed last year. Then, while cruising the Internet, she discovered Showtime Dance Shoes, an Atlanta distributor of dancing shoes up to size 11 that will special-order larger sizes. Prices range from $89 to $110.

For many women, the increase in mail-order options has been a godsend. Spiegel, Lane Bryant and Tweeds all sell large sizes. Still, it would be nice to just hit the mall like everyone else.

"It's almost like if you have big feet you don't deserve attractive shoes," says Vicki Johnson of Los Angeles, who buys most of her shoes via catalog (Spiegel and Lane Bryant are favorites), and complains that the styles available in an 11 or larger look like Russian wrestling shoes. "I've managed to stay away from that ugly orthopedic stuff, but I'm left with a very small wardrobe of shoes."


No Squeeze Zone

Here is a sampling of sources catering to women who wear sizes 11 and up:

* Allen Edmonds Shoe Co., (414) 284-3461

* Beacon Shoe Co., (314) 488-5444

* Cole Haan, (207) 846-3721

* Daniel Green Co., (315) 429-3131

* Dexter Shoe Co., (207) 924-7341

* Lowell Shoe, (603) 880-8900

* Magdesian Bros., (818) 330-3384

* P.W. Minor & Son, (716) 343-1500

* Salvatore Ferragamo, (800) 822-1956

* Showtime Dance Shoes, (770) 455-7122

* Sebago, (207) 854-8474

* Wolverine World Wide, (616) 866-5500

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