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The Prince Of Pumps

Who's the most IMPORTANT MAN in every woman's life? The guy who knows a SLIDE from a SLING-BACK.

August 27, 2000|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe's last piece for the magazine was a fictional look at George W. Bush and Al Gore's first days in the White House

Why does a woman tuck her hair behind her ear, cock her head sideways and smile flirtatiously for the mirror when she's trying on shoes? Do shoes look different when she smiles? For that matter, why do women need to look in mirrors when they're trying on shoes? When you think about it, can't they see them just fine by looking straight down at their feet?

I have just seen an example of this sort of mirror posing in the women's shoe department at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. It is just one of many mysteries surrounding women and shoes, and I am hoping that Lonnie Bishop can provide perspective. He doesn't even stop to think about it. "It's because they like to see the shoes in the context," he says. "It's not just about how the shoes look by themselves. They complete the picture."

To say that Bishop is a shoe salesman does not quite paint the picture. He has shod women for audiences with the president and meetings with Prince Charles. His cell phone number is on many a woman's memory dial. Movie stars' personal assistants call him frantically from film locations, pleading that he locate a certain pair of Guccis for the next night's premiere.

Many of his regular customers stop by the store just to say hello. If getting hugs is good for your serotonin levels, Bishop will never need Prozac.

Needless to say, Bishop is selling more than footwear, and he knows it. "People come to you to fulfill their fantasy," he says. "It's 'I want to look spectacular tonight, and can you help me?' So you work out the shoes, you help them find a great handbag, then you go over to the Chanel counter and get an amazing nail color for their toes. You kind of feel like you're assembling this beautiful thing for that evening."

Bishop's status among jet-setting shoe mavens across the country and around the world hovers somewhere between celebrity and legend. This can be hard to wrap your brain around if you think of shoe salesmen in terms of Al Bundy, the seedy protagonist in television's "Married With Children." But Bishop isn't Al Bundy any more than Neiman Marcus--where women can spend the equivalent of the per capita income of a developing nation on a single pair of designer shoes--is a discount store.

Neiman's typically stocks as many as 24,000 pairs of premier brands that cost between $250 and $3,500. It's also the West Coast flagship for Manolo Blahnik, the designer who visits once or twice a year and seeds the showroom with rarefied footwear that inspires serious shoppers to hop a plane from the East Coast for a look-see.

Bishop has an almost preternatural ability to recall the stylistic preferences of about 300 women, and as boxes of the season's new looks arrive, to deploy them to the homes and hotel rooms of his clients. (The store offers fast delivery and a liberal return policy, so try-ons are encouraged.) It's a rare event that his selections are ever rejected, and his clients attest to his unerring instinct.

"I can always rely on his taste," says Csilla Somogyi, who estimates her shoe collection at more than 500 pairs. (She IDs them by affixing color photos to each shoe box.) "If something comes in and he calls me, it's always exactly what I want. He repeats himself a little bit, but there are always variations that make it more interesting."

"You notice immediately that Lonnie has his own very personal sense of style, and that gives you confidence," says April Gore, a stock investor, as she tries on a pair of crocodile Manolo Blahnik pumps and checks up on her special order placed with Blahnik's factory in Italy. "But he also understands others' personal style. He'll remember that you don't want stilettos, or if you're partial to certain colors. He's got a rare kind of personality. You never feel pressured."

Then there's Bishop's unflagging persistence in scouring Neiman Marcuses the world over for the new Sergio Rossi cranberry suede sandals with diamond buckle or Manolo Blahnik crocodile pumps in that very popular size 8.

"Sometimes a shoe gets such tremendous press, it becomes the Holy Grail," Bishop says. "Or sometimes a customer will bring in a magazine with a picture of an unidentified shoe, and it turns into detective work. So I'll call up the advertising agency to find out who made the shoe. Or, I'll contact the stylist who was on the shoot. Sometimes it works out great, but a lot of times the customer is extremely disappointed because it turns out the shoe was never produced--it was just a sample."

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