By  on January 19, 2011

When Alber Elbaz famously delayed the start of his spring show for Lanvin so that models who struggled through the rehearsal could switch from dangerously high metal stilettos into flats, he elevated his already lofty pro-real-woman image to cult status. Toss off those heels, ladies! Be who you are! Be comfortable in your fashion skin — and in your shoes!

The critics, this one included, swooned; one absolutely buys into the conviction of Elbaz’s last-minute decision. That said, his dazzling flat sandals, shiny and bejeweled, were part of a major runway trend toward, dare we say it, sensible shoes. Yes sensible shoes, a phrase that has long sent shudders down the hyper-bony backs of fashion’s most outré consumers.

It’s likely that, when the runway-editorial penchant for major shoes started years ago, many people thought that was just where it would stay, on the runway and in pushed magazine stories. Few could have imagined how literally it would be embraced by edgy fashion customers, nor how long the fascination would last. To wit, given a few pretty runway shoe sightings, a feature in the March 2007 issue of W magazine wondered whether major shoes, call them what you will — sculptural, statement, aggressive — were on the way out. Time has delivered a very clear quite-the-opposite. And as shoes have gotten higher, bolder, sexier, more sculptural, more aggressive, so, too, have the personal styles of the women who wear them.

Now, suddenly, with spring shoes hitting the selling floor, a far more moderate look is in play. No, make that a more manageable look, podiatrically speaking, as spring shoe offerings indicate just how far flung “sensible” can be. Right now at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys in New York, the residuals of the fall sales detract attention from the resort bounty, filled with appealing espadrilles, platforms and flat sandals of the sort that will carry into spring.

Which from a fashion perspective, are not the dubious side of sensible. Flat sandals swing from Talitha Getty boho to fashionably (which is to say faux) earthy. They’ve been around awhile and fashionista types consider them de rigueur for their off-duty lives and even for those hot summer not-much-going-on days at work. Similarly, spring’s chic clunkers from Prada and Balenciaga ape major orthopedic footwear while screaming fashion bravado.

It’s in the middle where things get dicey. All things in moderation? Not so when it comes to fashion. Time was when extremes on the runway were reimagined into more manageable commercial fare. But today’s uberfashion customer — though a small part the luxury-buying universe, she’s essential and influential — has become accustomed to working extreme fashion, especially when it comes to her shoes. Even the chicest of moderation may prove not her cup of tea.

A key question is whether fashion-loving women of immoderate personal styles will fancy toned-down footwear. Not the acceptable, $500 ballet flat that has become the fashion girl’s errand-running shoe of choice, but shoes of moderate, is-it-fashion-or-do-her-feet-hurt heft, and runway takes on pretty classics, such as those Raf Simons showed at Jil Sander. I posed the question to three women in the industry, one each from the essential troika of high fashion design, retail and editorial: Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton, Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo and Elle’s Kate Lanphear.

The sartorial middle ground is not the McQueen woman’s way, according to Burton. “A McQueen woman is such a powerful woman. [A heel] gives her elegance; it gives her poise,” she said. “The on-the-runway aesthetic, from the McQueen point, is it’s always very much about a woman, not really a girl,” said Burton. “She is strong; she has a waist and she has a shoulder…when you put a jacket on, you can feel its character; it has a feeling of strength. The same way, when you put a heel on, you feel more powerful. You have a height and you have a presence. The McQueen woman challenges herself and wants to feel sexy and incredible.”

She also has the practical need for a great pair of flats, which Burton loves and wears daily to work. She noted an industrial-strength low-heeled boot with chain detail from the pre-fall collection she previewed on Tuesday. “That’s the McQueen woman. She’s either very high or she’s flat, but she’s not in between.”

Midheight shoes present a particular design challenge, Burton offered: getting the proportion to look good in front, but she is compelled to satisfy the needs of specialty retailers, particularly in the U.S. “A woman who goes into a McQueen shop, I don’t think she’s a midheight customer. You walk in to buy an amazing tailored jacket or a fur coat or a beautiful evening gown, you’re not going to say, ‘Where’s my comfy shoe?’ ”

Fargo will tell you that, while the most advanced Bergdorf’s customer may not worry about such things, legions of shoppers do. “I’ve been kind of waiting for this moment,” she said of the spring runway season. “We had towering statement shoes and we had flats.” She noted that, “the core fashion people” for shoes — Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Chanel — “have never turned their backs on that, and it shows in their business.”

Still, Fargo acknowledged that satisfying those customers on fashion’s all-important edge is essential. She said that, even predating spring, there have been impressive sensible options from Givenchy (“those great sandal-shoe booties”), YSL (the Tribute), Louboutin (wedges), Chloé (ballet flats) and Lanvin (“not just one shoe”). In general she loves platforms and wedges, because “You get [the height] with a more reasonable incline.”

It’s important that such manageable shoes wrap their comfort in a whole lot of style. “I’m really looking for fashion at these middle, manageable heel heights. I don’t want it to start getting skewed to dowdy and plain,” added Fargo

Hence the creative challenge, as Moderation Avenue is where Dowdy and Plain often reside. Often, but not always. (Hello, geek chic and heyday of minimalism). Lanphear’s personal taste in footwear — “the higher the better” — is as nontemperate as it gets. Yet she feels invigorated by the emergence of a new proportion. “It’s nice when you see something you really couldn’t predict come down the runway,” she said.

As an editor, she finds directions antithetical to her own style and exciting. “I obviously reject a lot of fashion personally. That’s anything with a bow, if you know what I mean. But in a way it’s interesting to have something that’s a huge trend that you might not embrace personally because you’re really forced to think about how, realistically, someone might wear it.”

Lanphear invoked the age-old, rock-solid notion that it takes time for the eye to adjust, even if in the past said adjustment was more often to, rather than away from, extremes. “Fashion is like this lovely experiment.…[Shoes] might change long-term. Or just for a little while — to get a little relief from the podiatrists’ office.”

Along the way, giving those who lack the graceful gene (I know all about that malady) a chance to feel on-trend. Said Fargo, “Even though the line may be sexy, there’s nothing really sexy about someone struggling in her shoes. I don’t care whether it’s the runway or the sidewalk.”

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