They're all over the catwalks and luxury sales are up, so is it time to bring our heels out of retirement? Yes, says Jane McFarland — they're the instant mood‑booster we need right now.
The death of the high heel has been greatly exaggerated, as well as frequently predicted, throughout this pandemic. It was predicted at the beginning, when we shifted into reverse mode, shuffling around in some form of fluff-lined slipper. It was predicted in the middle, when any kind of socialising took place outside in the park, resulting in record-breaking sales of wellies. And it was predicted as recently as the US election, when Vice-President Kamala Harris abandoned the longstanding political shoe of choice — namely high-heeled pumps — in favour of Converse Chuck Taylors. We have been too comfy for too long, but time is up for our unmanicured, unloved feet: life may not be back to "normal", but the heel, my friends, is back.
This season designers have thrown caution and logic to the wind, eschewing practicality in favour of fantastical footwear. There are power platforms. Spindly stilettos. Lace-up mules. Cinderella-style jewelled pumps. Heels as high as 10cm feature in the new collections from Christian Louboutin, who confirms that an appetite for vertiginous footwear hasn't waned.
Manolo Blahnik, whose heels have been worn by Meghan Markle and Gwyneth Paltrow, agrees. ''Even when there is nowhere to go, women still want to feel enticing and desirable, either for themselves or for a significant other. Historically women have loved heels; nothing will change that.''
He's right. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley hasn't abandoned heels in her lockdown Instagram selfies. Neither has Cardi B, who regularly posts at-home pics in heels including Balenciaga's thigh-high gold armour boots and Bottega Veneta's puffy leather sandals.
At the recent Valentino couture show models teetered in monster metallic, patent and glitter platform boots, inspired by the raised chopines worn by aristocrats during the Renaissance to walk on muddy, unpaved streets. "I think there is something metaphorical in the desire to go down in the street to live, but at the same time, detaching from what we don't like about reality," the brand's creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli wrote on Instagram.
We think what he is saying is: can flamboyant footwear save us from these oh so monotonous days? Perhaps, says Caroline Stevenson, head of cultural and historical studies at London College of Fashion. ''Fashion has often been used as an antidote to dismal times.''
And she may be right. Sales of reality-busting haute heels have been surprisingly robust all year, despite the fact that we have absolutely nowhere to walk to: 45 per cent of searches on Manolo Blahnik's website have been for high heels, whereas flats account for 26 per cent. According to Matchesfashion, sales of high heels are up 25 per cent compared with last year. "We have seen clients invest in bright, uplifting pieces that bring joy to the wearer," confirms Cassie Smart, head of womenswear buying at Matchesfashion, citing brands such as Amina Muaddi and Bottega Veneta as top sellers.
Celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Kendall Jenner have been seen at home in Muaddi's kick-flare heels. Ubiquitous in A-list circles and surprisingly good on grass and gravel, the sought-after shoes are usually reserved for parties and red carpets. Undeterred by a global shutdown, the designer released a collaboration with Rihanna in November. Likewise, the Italian label Paris Texas recently released a range of knee-high crystal-embellished heeled boots; they sold out in 72 hours. "It is amazing considering it's our highest-priced style and people aren't going to events at the moment," says founder and creative director Annamaria Brivio. "I have always been a supporter of comfort, but our brand DNA remains the same, pandemic or not. We cannot say because of the pandemic, we are now only going to wear flats. I believe those women who were wearing heels before will still be wearing heels in the future and maybe even now."
Are we bonkers, bored or a combination of both? Some believe it's indicative of the so-called Heel High Index — when the economy plummets, heel heights rise. Perhaps it's simply a stylish — if expensive — survival technique. I put the theory to the test with Vogue's fashion news director Olivia Singer, a certified shoe fetishist and the only woman I know to wear heels on a plane, at the beach and during a feminist march. Although she has been stationed in her east London flat for the best part of a year, the high-heeled purchases keep coming. ''I can't stop. I've had to build more shoe shelves to accommodate them,'' she says. ''Perhaps the best are a pair of Vivienne Westwood platforms — the pair Naomi Campbell famously fell in — which were reissued a couple of months ago. The Olivia stilettos by Brother Vellies (how could I not?). Chunky Miu Miu ones. A ton of Bottega. A new variation on my beloved square-toed Prada platforms. Some great Nodaleto mary-janes. If I find shoes I like — which I do often, because it's my job — then I want them, no matter when or where I might wear them. One day, if I ever leave the house again, I will be able to wear different shoes every day of the month.''
However, while some women say they need power heels to shift into work mode at the kitchen table (Samantha Cameron recently told me she often slips into heels for the "working day"), Singer draws the line at heels for her living room commute: ''I love shoes, but I'm not mad!''
Herein lies the crux of the matter: even dedicated heel enthusiasts are now paid-up members of the Birkenstock brigade, or in Singer's case furry slides by Celine. Uncomfortable footwear was losing popularity long before the pandemic — have our feet now permanently widened and flattened beyond recognition? For most high street brands, sales of heels are dramatically down. In fact, for the first time in the company's history, Kurt Geiger's latest collection has no heels at all. Sales of trainers, meanwhile, along with Birkenstocks, Uggs and Crocs, have soared.
So perhaps we need to take things slowly. The key to re-embracing heels is to take literal baby steps — it's not about teetering skyscrapers. ''The sweet spot is 70mm to 90mm. Heels shouldn't be higher than 105mm,'' Blahnik decrees. ''The wearer has to be able to walk gracefully and with confidence, otherwise what's the point? Some shoes can be so high they are simply vulgar!''
Indeed, the right heels — empowering as opposed to crippling — may be exactly what we need to shake up these anxious, nothingy days. Possibly the most powerful piece of clothing known to womankind, heels — unlike, say, a beautiful bag — can change your mood, your posture and your persona. "Heels have the power to make you feel extra-confident, they give you that extra boost of fierceness that we all need sometimes," Muaddi says. "Especially in moments like these, when the pandemic has affected not only our lifestyle, but also our spirits and self-confidence. I constantly look at my heels with melancholy. Like, I'll be back soon, babies, don't worry."
The influencer and podcaster Camille Charrière agrees. ''Heels are impractical and over-the-top, but they also make you feel like a different person. They give you a surge of adrenaline that makes you feel that everything is possible for a few hours until you take them off again,'' she says. ''If lockdown has taught me anything, it's that I will never take for granted how important it is to dress up. I can't wait to get my heels on and go out dancing.''
And after months of sweatpants, slippers and built-up Fomo, who isn't ready for a provocative outfit to bid adieu to this hermetic existence? Perhaps it isn't a look-at-me dress you need, rather a pair of spanking new — and spindly — shoes.
Written by: Jane McFarland
© The Times of London