Are high heels headed for fashion’s scrap heap?
Footwear remains one of the strongest categories in retail, but only because sneakers, flats and mid-heels have been driving growth as women prioritize comfort, versatility and a fast-paced lifestyle that’s more about clocking steps than having an Uber at every curb.
Who could miss the Off-White x Nike sneakers that Serena Williams wore with her Atelier Versace gown on the pink carpet at the Met Gala in May? Why did Kristen Stewart flout the Cannes Film Festival red-carpet-high-heel rule last year, removing her shoes and walking into the Palais de Festivals barefoot?
Women’s needs — and fashion aesthetics — are changing in a post-#MeToo world,. which is no longer so eager to satisfy the male gaze. This attitude has given a new lease on life to established footwear purveyors, which have been adjusting ranges to suit the needs of a more mobile, sporty generation. It has also allowed for a brighter spotlight to shine on a host of new shoe labels, which have been trumpeting the idea that chic heels needn’t be painful.
“We’ve seen an interesting move away from the high-heeled stilettos and toward mid-height heels, sneakers, flats and platforms. The modern-day woman has realized she can still be extremely feminine and chic while also being comfortable, so she’s seeking shoes to wear from day to night,” said Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director at Net-a-porter.
The site has been promoting kitten and block heels, has doubled its buy of sneakers since 2017 and has worked hard to get first dibs on cult sneaker collaborations, from Nike’s tie-ins with Sacai and Ambush to Adidas’ latest Yeezy Boost.
“Sneakers have always been an integral part of our buy, particularly since 2015 when Phoebe Philo appeared on the runway in Stan Smiths and almost singlehandedly made sneakers a cool, luxury item for women of all styles and ages,” von der Goltz said.
At Jimmy Choo, creative director Sandra Choi said she has been working more closely with the younger members of her design team to look at the brand’s signature styles through their eyes. This renewed vision has resulted in lower heel heights, modernist flat sandals and plenty of sneakers.
“Never would I have imagined that we’d have a set of trainers in the collection, but that’s where fashion — or part of fashion — is at the moment. You can’t ignore that,” added Choi, whose take on the sneaker involves logo soles, bright cobalt blue shades and mesh cutout fabrics. “I see it as a blend between the strappy sandal and the sneaker.”
Sergio Rossi’s chief executive officer Riccardo Sciutto has also been looking to diversify the business with more casual styles, more heel heights and customizable sneakers, which feature heavily at the brand’s new boutique on London’s Mount Street.
“In 2016, when I joined the brand, 70 percent of the business was based on evening styles such as stilettos and platforms. Since then, we have shifted our focus on daywear and in general on collections that women can wear from day to night. Today Sr1 — the symbol of Segio Rossi’s rebirth, and a collection dedicated to day shoes — represents more than 50 percent of our business worldwide. We are also working on reinterpreting our eveningwear,” said Sciutto, adding that he has also invested in the brand’s factory in San Mauro Pascoli in Italy, given its abilities to “develop and industrialize” all types of shoes.
“Casual shoes are now on-trend because they give women the freedom to move,” agreed Gherardo Felloni, Roger Vivier’s new creative director. “The future is about women, power and freedom and that’s why trends right now are moving toward casual shoes that give women freedom to move: kitten heels, running shoes and other similar styles.” Since taking the helm of the brand from Bruno Frisoni last year, Felloni has introduced a number of kitten heels, as well as the house’s first sport shoe.
“The Viv’ Run sneakers were inspired by technology. They’re comfortable and aerodynamic, but still showed the heritage of the maison through the buckle and shape of the heel. The challenge for me is to design a casual shoe that still retains the spirit of Roger Vivier,” the designer added.
The Italian brand Casadei has employed this new way of thinking about heels into its latest bridal collection — a project spearheaded by Arianna Casadei, the daughter of creative director Cesare and the brand’s new global marketing and communications director.
The idea is to offer women the opportunity to stay true to themselves on their big day, with a broader offer of flats, sandals, mid-height-heel slingbacks and even white cowboy boots.
“The bridal market is getting more complicated in terms of demand. If you look at what brides are wearing today, it has nothing to do with what our mothers or grandmothers were wearing. In the past, if you were getting married you’d wear plain satin pumps but now it’s not up to us to choose which box to put a bride in,” Casadei said. At the same time she is also holding onto tradition, including a special, made-to-order version of the brand’s signature Blade stiletto featuring real diamond dust.
Newer labels are also seizing the moment, and building businesses on low-heel foundations.
Midnight 00 designer Ada Kokosar has been one of the pioneers in the field. “We, as women, have so many things to handle, we are multitasking more and more, so comfort shouldn’t just be considered a trend or an option, but a standard,” said Kokosar, whose collections of fantasy, modern-day Cinderella slippers feature easy-to-walk-in heels. They have been quickly embraced by big luxury retailers globally. Most recently, they also made an appearance at the Met Gala’s new camp-themed exhibition.
“It’s fundamental for us to make the heels as comfortable as possible,” added Kokosar, pointing to the cushioning that is often added into her shoes and the process of creating multiple layers using draped silk and PVC over leather that act as padding and help mold the shoe to the foot.
Jennifer Chamandi, another up-and-coming name in footwear, has built her brand around her own experiences: She went from wearing towering heels on trading floors to visiting factories.
She put all her efforts into creating a comfortable stiletto. It comes with a 100-mm heel and a strap that wraps around the foot: “I’ve worn heels for half of my life and know exactly where it hurts, so we adapted our shoe molds accordingly. My highest heel, without a platform, is 100-mm as this is the highest women can wear without arching the foot too much and having lower back pain. A high heel will never be a sneaker, but there are ways to make it comfortable and that has been my mission.”
Chamandi has since translated her signature shape onto mid-heels and flats.
“I introduced flats just 18 months after launching my brand, as it became apparent very quickly that there was strong demand. Since then, buyers have increased the number of flat styles and quantities they have bought into each season,” she added.
A flurry of other, young contemporary brands have been flooding the market with elegant, modernist designs featuring mid-heels, which often come in architectural shapes ranging from glass spheres to wooden cones. Neous, Rejina Pyo, Reikenen and Jacquemus have been among the most popular names, while a number of contemporary handbag labels are also entering the market, namely Wandler and Manu Atelier, whose flair for color-blocking, modernist square-toe silhouettes and luxe leathers offered at appealing price points got customers hyped up long before launch.
For more established names with a reputation in making glamorous high heels, transitioning into this new era doesn’t mean ditching heels or famous signature styles altogether, but making them available in a bigger variety of heel heights.
“Part of the winning formula is when the customer can get the same silhouette in anything from a 100 mm heel down to 45mm,” said Ida Petersson, women’s and men’s wear buying director at Browns. “Manolo Blahnik, Gianvito Rossi and Jimmy Choo have always had an amazing selection of lower heels.”
“When it comes to very special, fashion-forward high heels, there is definitely a specific customer for them,” von der Goltz said.
That rings particularly true at Moda Operandi, which is best known for its roster of wealthy clients: “The more special or emotional the shoe, the faster it sells,” said Lisa Aiken, the retailer’s fashion director.
Sneakers remain big business, especially as they are now establishing themselves as core parts of any luxury wardrobe rather than niche products reserved for streetwear aficionados.
“The biggest shift in the luxury sector is the move toward sneakers. What was previously ‘borrowed from the boys’ or primarily reserved for the young streetwear clientele is now a thriving business with category-specific brands such as Common Projects or Golden Goose,” said Petersson, adding that for brands like Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga, sneakers are now the main drivers of footwear sales.
That’s why Browns wanted to stand behind the booming category in a big way, with the launch of Sneaker Beast, a monthlong celebration of sneaker culture highlighting its broader offer, as well as new partnerships with reseller Stadium Goods.
Selfridges has also dedicated a gallery in its famous shoe department to showcase “the full spectrum of sneakers” in its offer and to cater to its customers who are now also looking for sneakers for work, as dress codes become less refined.
“Heels remain desirable but what’s shifted is that classic court heels and more conservative styles are no longer necessarily the key styles customers go for when it comes to shoes for work. The traditional formal approach to workwear is changing and sneakers are more acceptable,” said Eleanor Robinson, head of accessories at Selfridges.
The overall market is growing and customers are buying into both: “When looking at overall sales, it looks more like an increase in demand for shoes as a whole has taken place, with heels remaining steady. But when you break it down, high heels have taken a hit in sales from the rise in demand for heels that are 70-mm and below, driven by Dior, Prada or Manolo,” Petersson added.
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