Social status, fashion IQ. The reasons behind our shoe obsessions are many, but one thing's for sure: more and more avant-garde designers are taking on the feet.
"There has been a big emphasis on high-designer shoes in the past 10 to 12 years, so more women are certainly willing to spend more money on high-end shoes, but there's also been a real focus on shoes as art pieces," says Colleen Hill, an assistant curator of accessories for The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York.
The museum went directly to the source - a who's who of shoe designers and some high-profile collectors - for Shoe Obsession, an exhibition that runs until April 13.
The outlandish stout heiress Daphne Guinness lent some of her favourites. So did the jewellery designer Lynn Ban, who owns roughly 800 pairs and says: "I've worn them all, at least once."
The exhibition shows off 153 specimens, mostly from this century, including Ban's silver platform Chanels with handguns for heels (they came with a warning against packing them in carry-on luggage when flying). From the eerie, bone-white Exoskeleton made of resin and produced through 3-D digital printing by Janina Alleyne to the disco-ballish silver sparklers without a heel by Giuseppe Zanotti (also Ban's), nary a style is left unrepresented by FIT.
Hill and Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the museum, have co-written a book, Shoe Obsession, to accompany the exhibit. During a recent walk-through, the two spoke of designer shoes as the new millennium's "it" bag, which has not gone unnoticed by major department stores.
The flagship Macy's in Manhattan expanded floor space for shoes by 10 per cent, boasting 250,000 pairs. Saks Fifth Avenue enlarged shoe departments in about a dozen shops around the country, with the Manhattan store's department 40 per cent larger, spanning the entire eighth floor and hosting the first Louis Vuitton shoe shop within a department store. And in The Dubai Mall, more than 250 labels (60 of which are exclusive to the region) and 30 shoe boutiques are housed in 96,000 square feet of shoe heaven at the Level Shoe District that opened last year, considered the largest shoe shop in the world.
Shoes by established designers and design houses - Manolo Blahnik, Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Vivier, Chanel, Prada, Christian Louboutin - remain popular, but quirky stars have risen as quickly as heels have gone so high that four inches (10 centimetres) is the new "low", the two curators say.
The new design generation? The modernists Kei Kagami, with art pieces that take on an almost orthopaedic terror, and Noritaka Tatehana, working in stamped leather, spikes and tall toe platforms absent a heel, stand out in a strong contingent from Japan.
The Brazilian shoe designer Alexandre Birman lent the exhibit three pairs done in painted reptile skin.
"Shoes have a psychological, sociocultural and seductive significance to our culture, from the Hollywood celebrity to the everyday woman, which goes beyond a materialistic obsession," says Birman.
The centuries have spawned many beautiful shoes. Shoes are so popular, in fact, that Hill cites recent data noting the average American woman owns nearly twice as many shoes as she did a decade ago - about 17 pairs.
"What we're seeing in a way is a kind of democratisation of the kind of phenomenon that we saw in Sex and the City," Steele says. "At first it was just sort of some people who were really obsessed with high-end designer shoes. This has now spread."
Shoes, she says, have moved from accessories to fashion's main story "to being the main story, in part because designer clothes have become so expensive. So even if you're spending US$900, $1,000 (Dh3,300-Dh3,700) on a pair of shoes, something insane, that's less than you'd be spending, by far, than if you were getting a dress or something, and people seem to feel that it's more worth it."
Height, Steele says, "has reached this great moment" compared with a decade ago. "We've gone about as high as most people can walk in shoes, unless you're Lady Gaga. That's about six inches, but some people can do higher."
Ban is one of them. "I can go maybe 10 inches, but that's, like, standing at a cocktail party not moving. Anything for fashion," she says, laughing.
There's no way to categorise popularity in shoes today. There's a range of heights, shapes and embellishments - feathers, crystals, beads, spikes, human hair made to look like the tails of ponies, moulded and painted resins, painted python. All are included in the exhibition.
Linda Wells, the editor in chief of Allure magazine, says in a New York Fashion Week interview that shoe trends are like fashion trends in general - you can find whatever you want: pointy toes, stiletto heels, high platforms, fancy flats, more masculine shapes.
"Everyone likes buying shoes. You don't have to take your clothes off or be a model size to wear them," Wells says.
Shoes, Steele says, are "fierce," but also feminine, high and often striving for that "Cinderella factor" that can transform the wearer. It's all "quite delightful".
"It just makes you want to run out and go shoe shopping."
With contributions by Anne D'Innocenzio, Nicole Evatt and Samantha Critchell
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