Women swap skyscraper shoes for brogues and pumps as designers and style icons alike reject the agony of high heels
When actress Emma Thompson walked shoeless on to the stage at the Golden Globes, she confirmed what the rest of us have known for a while. Comfy shoes make sense. Clutching her Christian Louboutin heels in one hand – and a martini in the other – she joked that their trademark red soles were stained with her blood. "I've taken my heels off as a feminist statement really, because why do we wear them? They're so painful. And pointless, really."
With brogues and ballet shoes filling the fashion pages and shops, financial investors have started to take notice. Comfortable shoe brand Hotter, which started life as a slipper manufacturer, has just changed hands for £200m, while the Griggs family, which owned the Dr Martens brand for 50 years, has sold up to private equity giant Permira for £300m.
Flat shoes are selling well on the high street, with more than three-fifths of women polled on their shoe shopping habits by Mintel confessing to having bought a pair in the past 12 months.
"Under-35s are willing to sacrifice fit for fashion," said Mintel fashion analyst Tamara Sender. "By contrast, over-55s place the most importance on well-fitting shoes. Overall, three-quarters of consumers favoured fit over fashion."
Alexa Chung is credited with making flat shoes fashionable as, amid a sea of stoic women in skyscraper Jimmy Choos, she regularly pads up the red carpet in her Oxford lace-ups. But a change in attitude was signalled by the catwalk front rows last year when some of the industry's most influential players turned up to fashion week shod in flats. The signal that comfortable is OK was further affirmed last week, when Karl Lagerfeld sent models down the Chanel runway in sparkly couture trainers.
Lorna Hall, head of retail at trend consultancy WGSN, said that popular shoe styles are a reflection of the clothing that is in the shops. "The reason flat shoes are selling so well is that they go with the androgynous silhouette that is fashionable at the moment," she said. "Heels look good with dresses, but brogues and flats help you carry off slim-leg trousers and oversized jacket shapes."
Earlier this month, Dr Martens reported bumper Christmas sales, up nearly 70% in December. The brand, famous for its close ties to music and subculture, manages to hit both fashion and comfort buttons at the same time. It has benefited from the patronage of Miley Cyrus, who has made its rubber air-cushioned soles her boot of choice, while design collaborations with the likes of model Agyness Deyn have helped it appeal to a new young audience.
With a goal to make "shoes as comfortable as slippers", Lancashire-based Hotter may sound like the antithesis of fashion, but the firm is now big business. Each year it sells more than two million pairs of shoes whose USP is a sole featuring thousands of air bubbles, and sales hit £75m in 2013.
"We want people to put our shoes on and have that 'aah' moment," said its chief executive, Peter Taylor.
Hotter's target market of over-45s is proving lucrative against a backdrop of ageing populations. "We are not in the sexiest area of the marketplace, but in demographic terms it is an area that is growing," said Taylor. "Once you get over 40, your feet do start changing shape. It's a balancing act, but there's no reason why you can't have comfort and style."
Independent footwear chain Shoon is also targeting growth in this specialist area. It has been bought by entrepreneurs Ken Bartle and Peter Phillips, who previously revived the fortunes of high street chain Jones the Bootmaker.
"It is very difficult to design a pointed three-inch heel that is really comfortable," said Bartle. "What is comfortable, though, is nice leather. Comfort doesn't have to be ugly."
In the past, Christian Louboutin, who has been dubbed the "king of painful shoes", was unapologetic about the grit required to wear his skyscraper heels, telling one interviewer it was "not my job to create something comfortable". But even he has relented, introducing brogues for spring. Maybe 2014 promises to be a good year for feet.
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