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Page 2 / NEWS, TRENDS, STYLE AND BUZZ | Rhapsody in
Shoes

August 14, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Thousands of homeless soles showed up here last week, hoping for a closet to call their own.

They were examined from heel to toe, stroked, bent and twisted--by folks who buy footwear for the country's retail stores. In search of the most salable shoe styles for next spring, they descended on a trade show that spread over a million square feet, so to speak.

The buzz on the floor, as heard by a guy who wears 6-year-old Hush Puppies, suggests these tips for a fashion-hot foot.

* For hip young women: open-toe high-heeled slides in faux ostrich or snakeskin, or embroidered fabric. Pool blue or pink. Sexiness and femininity over function and comfort. Marilyn Monroe and Barbie dolls rule.

* For their moms: Forget sexy; comfort is here to stay. Stick with sandals--casual and dressy--with flexible soft soles, but have fun with colors of citrus. Think grapefruit.

* For men: What's a wingtip? Dress-down dudes will be steered toward luxury sneakers--an athletic-shoe foundation, some with cleat-like soles, topped by the tandem use of soft leather and fabric. Tough like a truck, sleek like a sports car.

* For both sexes, the movement continues toward European-flavored, wide, round-toed shoes. Retro be damned, those Beatle boots just aren't coming back.

Trends notwithstanding, there's a shoe out there for everybody, if only your local store buyer has the money and space to stock it all. The explosion in styles was in full display at the footwear convention, staged twice a year here by the World Shoe Assn. It attracted 16,000 shoe salesmen, 8,000 buyers and a few models with very pretty ankles.

The show left some buyers in awe, others in utter confusion, as they tried to reconcile consumers' tastes with those of the designers, debated how swiftly to change stock and wondered just how far their buying budgets would take them.

Gail Kandel, who owns a women's shoe store in Baltimore, was mesmerized by it all, and thankful she had brought along a digital camera so she could review her options later in the solitude of her hotel room. "The creative people out there have been more creative than ever this year," she said. And that poses a problem for owners like herself who must tiptoe gingerly when updating stock so as not to offend customers' tastes.

"There's always something in the market that's a step beyond where I want to go," she said. "After a year, it either disappears from the stores, or you begin to understand it and find a form of that style that your customers will like."

There's no shoe revolution around the corner, nothing like the first-generation tennis shoe to shake up closets. At best, current fads are becoming bona fide trends, as witnessed by the recent infatuation with reptile skin for women, and thick-soled, soft-leather loafers for guys.

Not that there isn't room for innovation.

Florsheim is excited about its "magneforce" line, with "lightweight, flexible unipolar magnetic insoles" to capitalize on the belief by some that a deep-penetrating magnetic field increases circulation and reduces fatigue. (Be careful how you word that, the saleswoman warned, it's not exactly scientific.)

The makers of LaCrosse work boots offer their version of a behind-the-scenes improvement, moving the boot's stiff stabilizing board into the shank "so your foot rests directly on the comfortable mid-sole." And oh, such designer colors: brown, brown, black, brown. . . .

The designers at Irvine's Sugar Shoes factory are targeting a different niche market with sandals that feature an exfoliating loofah on the foot bed, like a bed of uncooked Top Ramen noodles.

Mike Kaye and his wife, Bobbi, came here from Lima, Ohio, to outfit their store, and said the sea of shoes was overwhelming. How to pick winners?

"We call it SWAG," he said. "Scientific wild-ass guess."

Their science: Disregard somewhat what's pushed on the convention floor, "and watch what people are wearing on the street. If you see a trend developing, join it," said Bobbi. "Women don't want to go to a party being the first ones wearing really stupid shoes."

Who comes up with shoe designs? At one end of the spectrum, it's the high-fashion designers, who seek statement shoes to accent their upscale creations. Fashion editors decipher and crystallize the emerging styles, and rank-and-file designers introduce the common elements into the marketplace. On the other hand, wholesale designers aren't naive, and they exploit what's already popular by tweaking the designs just enough to give shoe aficionados another reason--do they need it?--to refresh their collections.

To this dynamic add the fabric companies, who come up with new materials, colors and patterns that influence both shoe makers and the ready-to-wear garment industry.

Birkenstock designers, for instance, have taken such cues in creating their 175 new spring styles, many of them in reptile- and faux ostrich-skin patterns in hot pink, olive, red clay, as well as denim and metallic-sheen shoes in mint green, strawberry and cantaloupe.

Some of the more bizarre shoe colors and styles are produced in small quantities--just enough to put on display to attract attention. "People will walk over to see the yellow, blue and red shoes, but they'll still buy the taupe," said Mark Neal, standing in front of a bunch of yellow, blue and red Hush Puppies.

For all the variety at the shoe show, buyer George Gaspard remained a frustrated Floridian. "Everything seems geared for the younger market," he said. "But there's nothing much new for my customers--seniors with hammer toes and bunions."

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