By  on May 31, 1994

NEW YORK -- Will women leave their comfy, walk-to-work flats and mid-heels behind to totter around on the toe-crunching yet unquestionably glamorous stilettos that have been popping up as key accessory items on runways and in leading fashion magazines?

Unquestionably yes, for night. Emphatically no, for day. No, that is, for the millions of American women who lead rather active lifestyles. Most retailers acknowledge the ready-to-wear and accessory markets are shifting toward more feminine, sexier looks, but many executives are not so sure women, particularly working women, will immediately gravitate toward the over 21/8 heel heights currently making headlines. Many retailers question their chances for success in getting women who are used to wearing 12/8-14/8 heels to the office into heels nearly twice as high.

And what about all those twentysomethings accustomed to workboots and hikers? Will they automatically shuck their thick cotton socks and combat boots in favor of sheer nylons and heels that could make an acrophobe break out in a cold sweat? "I think it's going to be difficult to get women out of the comfort mode, especially if they lead active lives or have a business career," commented Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, Dallas."Unless, of course, they have a car or are being driven around. Otherwise wearing the higher-heeled stilettos will be a little difficult."

Kaner, like many retail executives, feels higher heels will gain almost immediate acceptance on the cocktail party and special-occasion front, however. Personally, Kaner said, she prefers practical shoes such as those by Robert Clergerie for her busy daytime schedule and more feminine, generally higher-heeled silhouettes from a designer like Manolo Blahnik for evening wear. Still, she said, persuading women to don higher heels for daytime is not an impossible task, only one that will take some time.

Meanwhile, the market's more feminine bent has prompted many retailers to look askance at the chunkier, heavier silhouettes that fared so well over the past several seasons. "After all these seasons of big, clunky looks like combat boots, there seems to be a return to glamour and femininity," noted Michael Stachowski, buyer and manager of the shoe department at Fred Hayman in Beverly Hills, Calif.Just look back to the most recent Academy Awards for a barometer on the high-heel phenomenon. Many actresses favored sleek, feminine outfits with strappy, higher-heeled shoes compared with previous shows' man-tailored looks and low-heeled silhouettes. (Fred Hayman, by the way, is the fashion coordinator for the Academy Awards.)

Furthermore, if they have not already given up the platform this spring, many retailers are opting to leave the silhouette out of their fall merchandise mix. The single-soled dress shoe, considered hopelessly outdated several seasons ago, is reappearing on the scene in the guise of pumps or in other reincarnations of intensely feminine styles.

"We are leaving the heavy looks in pumps -- the platforms and such -- behind for this fall," said Elizabeth Fishman, buyer for The Shoe Box in Plainview, N.Y. "We're going for the really beautiful high-heeled pumps. The 23/8 high heels."

Higher heels are on most retailers' fall list, but in moderation. Henry Webb, owner of Main & Taylor Shoe Salon in Columbia, S.C., tends to think that women will not stand for such an abrupt swing from heavy, thick-soled silhouettes to lighter, more feminine styling overnight.

Explained Webb: "Yes, platforms and heavier heels, broad toes are definitely out of the picture for us. But, it doesn't swing quite that far to totally feminine, thin high-heeled shoes. The next step is the little more tapered toe and more moderate widths in heels."

He predicts his best heel height for this fall will continue to be from 14/8-16/8. Nevertheless, Webb and other retailers admit women are starting to eye higher heels and sleeker silhouettes. Maybe not to the extent of readily handing over their credit cards, but they are definitely picking up and examining the shoes on display. If anything, the media has already piqued women's interest in leggy looks, which are doubly complemented by strappier, higher heels.

"In Vogue this month, our customers saw very high, sexy heels. They're gearing up for that," said Sherrie Oppenheim, owner of Shirise, a shoe salon in Glencoe, Ill. "They're off platforms. They are ready for thin, sexy heels." Perhaps not every woman is entirely ready to make the adjustment this fall. But, most retailers are betting that familiarity will breed acceptance over time. Even with the highest of heels.

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