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A Sizable Obsession

You can't wear them, and they don't even come in pairs. But miniature shoes are attracting a devoted following.

April 27, 2001|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anaheim may be the family adventure capital of Southern California, but on a recent Saturday, the city was hit with a stampede of shoe fetishists, driving and flying in from all over the country. Pam Nelsen, an apple-cheeked blond in denim overalls and a tiara, had waited eight hours to get a standby flight from Seattle, where she lives, for one shoe--not a pair, mind you, or even one she could wear. The 40-year-old school bus driver was on a mission to complete her collection.

In a crowded hallway at the Anaheim Hilton, Nelsen met her connection and paid $900 for a 4-inch, porcelain, powder-blue "Promenade," the Holy Grail of miniature shoe collectibles. "I brought my baby blanket to take it home in," said the self-proclaimed collectibles queen, her eyes welling up as she cradled the pearl-buttoned Victorian-style boot that originally sold as a limited edition for about $12.

Nelsen is not alone in her devotion. Collectors, young and old, mostly women and a few men, began lining up as early as 7:30 a.m. outside a windowless hotel conference room to meet their mini-shoe creator. They came carrying boxes, bags and Tupperware, each one full of right shoes only, no pairs. For hours, they waited to have Raine, the pixie-like sculptor of the Just the Right Shoe line, sign the tiny porcelain soles of their tiny porcelain shoes.

They may not have the pedigree of Hummel figurines or the sparkle of Swarovski crystal animals, but miniature shoes are big sellers. The craze is nowhere near Beanie Baby proportions, but the success of Just the Right Shoes has spawned lots of look-alikes, including Limoges' shoe-shaped boxes and Disney's shoe-shaped Christmas ornaments. Toy companies are even wising up to the idea. Hasbro recently launched a line of finger-fitting plastic Shoezies for girls age 6 and older.

Footwear is the one bright spot in the lackluster $2.3-billion figurine category of gifts and collectibles, which overall has been down, according to Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a Stevens, Pa.-based research firm specializing in gifts and collectibles. "We've seen teddy bears done to death. No one wants to buy them anymore. But shoes are a product category for women that have a lot of emotional connections."

When Raine pitched her little idea to Willitts Designs four years ago, it wasn't a shoo-in by any means. The men in the headquarters office in Petaluma, Calif., were singularly unimpressed by her two sample designs--one was modeled after her husband's Vietnam War combat boot, the other a red high-heeled pump called "Va Va Voom." But the women were "squealing with delight," she remembers.

Based on their reactions, the company decided to move forward. Today there are 160 men's and women's Just the Right styles ($12 to $24) in more than 10,000 stores in 12 countries. The line's creator has even become a celebrity of sorts. Born Lorraine Vail, she goes by Raine for "privacy reasons," she said, whatever those may be.

Collectors are passionate to a fault. For outsiders, it's hard to understand how big a deal a little shoe can be.

Many women claim collecting is therapeutic. Susan Safran, 46, a nurse from Los Angeles, said creating a fantasy world to fit each of her 350 collectibles was a welcome distraction from her bout with breast cancer. "Every time I had a treatment, I would treat myself to another shoe. They gave me something to smile about."

Just the Right Shoe has several charity tie-ins. A portion of profits--$60,000 to date--from the floral-themed "Calla Lilly" and "Courageous Rose" shoes supports breast cancer research. A portion of profits from the "RaineForest" collection--shoes shaped like panthers, spotted owls and other endangered animals--will support the National Wildlife Federation.

Details such as tree bark on a bootleg and hind legs on a heel are important to Raine. "I wasn't just going to stick a head on a toe," said the graduate of Philadelphia's University of the Arts, who works out of her San Francisco studio. She crafts originals out of a wax-based clay material, referring to museum collections, photographs and drawings of shoes for inspiration. The shoes are mass-produced in China.

Collectors say it's those realistic touches that keep them coming back to the wee wedges, small sandals and mini-mules. "Leather" appears soft and supple, "velvet" appears plush and "satin" bows wrinkle in all the right places. Elke Rosenberger, 59, of Torrance believes there's even a hint of anatomy in the finished product.

"They have toe imprints, as if someone just took them off," said the customer service representative for American Airlines, sporting a white jacket emblazoned with the high-heel logo of the JCC--Just the Right Shoe Collectors Club--a 1,500-strong, online fan club.

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