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THE SHOE ISSUE : EXTREMISTS ARE AFOOT : Daring footwear designs are driving sales among shoe buyers who want to make a statement.

November 15, 2009|BOOTH MOORE | FASHION CRITIC

Roopal Patel, senior fashion accessories editor for Neiman Marcus, hit the mark during a customer lunch with shoe designer Bruno Frisoni last month:

"God created a special emotion," she said, "for when women walk into a shoe store."

It's the same emotion that led Beverly Hills resident Renges Fabris to construct a special cabinet for her footwear collection, designed so that when the doors open, the song "If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want to Be Right" starts to play.

Fabris knows exactly why, like so many other women, she adores shoes.

"I can wear the same outfit, the same Levis, as long as I have different shoes," she said at the recent opening party for the new Christian Louboutin store in West Hollywood. She had already taken home seven pairs of Louboutins from the fall collection but had her eye on a pair of hot pink, patent leather, peep-toe platform "Barbie shoes" from the holiday collection.

Such a passion may seem extreme. But with the economy limping toward recovery, shoe sales are beginning to rebound, thanks in no small part to exciting shoe design.

"Women are reaching back to footwear to step forward," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group. "It's pent-up demand; it's frugal fatigue. And footwear is one of the areas women consider investment wardrobing." In the women's footwear market, sales for the three-month period ending in August were down almost 5% from the same period last year. But sales for the three-month period ending in September were down less than 1%, indicating that the numbers are almost back to where they were a year ago, according to NPD research.

While shoppers are embracing a back-to-basics attitude about most spending, what is generating excitement in the footwear category is extreme shoes. Kinky styles that might once have been the hallmark of a lady for hire are elevated on hockey-puck-like platforms and pin-thin heels, studded and buckled like bondage gear. And they come at various price points -- $1,400 over-the-knee boots at Nordstrom, $1,195 Balmain multi-buckle booties at Fred Segal Feet, $149.90 open-toed and studded Steve Madden booties at Zappos.com and $129 studded gladiator sandals at Zara.

"From a fashion standpoint, heels are getting higher and higher, and platforms are getting bigger and bigger," says Mark Goldstein, who operates six Madison boutiques in the Los Angeles area, selling shoes and clothes by such high-end designers as Yves Saint Laurent and Balmain.

Eileen Lewis, Zappos.com's director of fashion strategy, agrees. "Anything that's a statement that gives people a reason to buy is selling."

Footwear has outperformed almost every other category in fashion because designers have been able to constantly inject dramatic change, NPD's Cohen said. "To take a pair of shoes and change the heel height, that's not dramatic change. But add the element of studs and stones and embellishment, and the shoe becomes that much more of a showpiece."

The recent wave of shoe fetishism may have started in 1993, with the 10-inch lace-up platform fetish shoes that sent model Naomi Campbell tumbling on the Vivienne Westwood runway. Since then, subversive has become the standard on the runway, where in the last year designers have outdone themselves. Who can forget Christian Dior's fertility-statue-shaped heels, Miuccia Prada's chandelier-crystal-strung Lucite sandals or Alexander McQueen's armadillo-like, snakeskin boots? (Because of the huge interest in the McQueen runway shoes, the designer is considering auctioning the samples -- which took 30 people, three suppliers and three factories to create -- to benefit a charity.)

"Designers realize outrageous shoes get noticed," said Saks Fifth Avenue fashion market director Colleen Sherin. "Since fashion has become more accessible on the Internet, the general public has taken an interest in shoes."

Popular fashion has also put the spotlight on shoes. Fall's top-heavy, shoulder-padded silhouette demands a powerful shoe, and the more ethereal and feminine looks coming for spring look best balanced with bold accessories.

"It's not about looking fragile," says Gregg Andrews, a fashion director at Nordstrom. "It's about looking strong and being able to deal with the world we're in today. Shoes are either extreme in their femininity or extreme in their aggressiveness."

But the rise of more casual everyday dressing and denim may have done the most to pave the way for shoe fever. "There are many women who keep what they are wearing simple, and flash out that crazy pair of over-the-top shoes," Sherin said.

While many women are cutting back on clothing purchases, shoes are easier to rationalize.

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