Mind your step! Skyscraper stilettos used to stand for sex and power. Now sales have plummeted. Harriet Walker on the death of the killer heel – and the rise of the comfy flat.
The Sex and the City shoe-turier Christian Louboutin has built a business on being in step with trends. Baby steps, perhaps, given the tallest of his designs teeters at almost 8in (20cm), but the man who turned high heels from wardrobe staple into personality type has a good track record of knowing what it is that women most desire.
So it was surprising to hear him in Paris last month sounding so thoroughly out of sync.
"I don't want people to look at my shoes and say, 'That looks comfortable,'" he told guests at the private view of his new retrospective. "When I design, I don't think about comfort."
Which is a shame, because when women shop, they now tend to.
We didn't used to, it's true. But given there were more posh trainers and designer bovver boots than stilettos at Fashion Week this season, as Louboutin opened the doors to his paean to platforms at the Palais de la Porte Dorée, I – in true Carrie Bradshaw fashion – got to thinking: will this be the decade that the power heel finally dies?
For some they're already long gone. Among Gen Z shoppers, the resurgence of Doc Martens has become a global phenomenon; the brand reported 70 per cent growth last year. The Eighties punk boot is now a fashion purchase, worn with sexy dresses and plenty of make-up, glam above the ankles and grunge below.
Retail analysts at Lyst noted a 25 per cent year-on-year decrease in sales of heels last month, while heeled boots had dropped 40 per cent. In 2018, overall sales of heels were down 12 per cent, while trainers rose by 37 per cent. According to Mintel, fewer of us bought heels last year than the year before, and trainers were the most popular category of women's footwear.
Meanwhile at Fashion Week, everybody is steadier on their feet. The steps outside the Grand Palais in Paris used to be notorious for making skittles of the editors who picked their way down them during Fashion Week. It wasn't a question of whether one would fall, but of how many they might take down with them.
Then there was the grey carpet gauntlet in the Tuileries. Ineffectually laid to smooth the dips in the ground and flanked on each side by tourists and onlookers, those with tickets trod nervously on wibbling ankles, each hoping not to be the one who went arse over tête.
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And the models! Difficult to stalk moodily on shoes that threaten variously to trip you, tip you or otherwise troll you along a catwalk that can stretch to the length of a football pitch. Simply search YouTube for the montages of models falling over – many of them viewed more than a million times – for the endless variations of pitfalls and pratfalls that skyscraper heels can cause. I have been at shows where breath was collectively held for 15 minutes until the torture was over, as model after model slipped, skidded and stacked their way round as though on an ice rink, thanks to nail-like stilettos that were meant to evoke glamour.
These days we are all are steadier on our feet. Editors and influencers descend those stairs sure-footed as mountain goats to twirl and preen on the pavements for the assembled photographers. Many of them dart nimbly between the traffic to find their drivers; some even travel by foot now.
"At Paris Fashion Week, editors used to fall down the steps like skittles."
What's changed? Their shoes. The women famously characterised in 2003's The Devil Wears Prada as "the clackers" for the sound their heels made on the lino have clacked their last. Now they are in Church's brogues and Gucci loafers, Bottega Veneta biker boots and Balenciaga trainers, even bog-standard running trainers. Those among them still hobbling about in vertiginous heels are, in every sense, struggling to catch up.
"Only the couture clients are still wearing heels," one glossy magazine editor texted me from the couture shows last year. The inference was clear: the clients count trophy wives, noticeably younger girlfriends and assorted types of rich-man arm candy among their number; the other women – editors, stylists, businesswomen – were, in their newly modish flat shoes, on the right side of history.
On the catwalk in London last month, one model tumbled off a pair off wobbly stilettos, and one of the front row dived in to remove them for her as she lay prone on the floor. At most shows now, the many models in trainers now routinely lap their unfortunate peers who have been chosen to showcase the one towering pair of heels that remains in that brand's collection. They must dawdle behind them, like traffic queuing up behind a learner driver, while the rest of us marvel at how we used to voluntarily incapacitate ourselves.
The reason lies squarely with Sex and the City. Between 1998 and 2004, women were drip-fed a sort of heels propaganda, a Manhattan myth that encouraged us to believe that New York women tripped about in nothing less than 4in (10cm) heels at all times. The glamour of Carrie Bradshaw's shoe cupboard versed us in high-end brands and even higher heels. We became a nation of footwear fetishists, casting aside practical mid-heights (which had formed the bulk of most brands' catalogues until then) and opting instead for ever brighter colours, more bravura and – ultimately – more height.
Forget a sturdy Elizabeth R block or a Bridget Jones-era kitten, heels became a test of strength in the Noughties: a night out non-negotiable. There were – and are – women who travel to work in their trainers or tuck a pair of ballet pumps in their bags to mitigate the damage. To the pros, it was a badge of honour not to need to.
Time will tell whether stilettos come to be seen as the arsenic face powder or whalebone corsets of their day. Pick a side in the culture war and they're either tools of female empowerment or heir to the hobbling practice of Japanese foot-binding. "Being a woman is enjoying the freedom to be feminine," Louboutin said in his defence of heels.
They can be incontrovertibly glamorous, not to mention leg-lengthening and flattering, but heels are also uncomfortable, unhealthy even – and at odds with modern life.
"[French Vogue editor] Emmanuelle Alt and her team all used to wear the same pair of Jimmy Choo heels with their jeans rolled up," says Ellie Pithers, digital director at British Vogue. "That was the Fashion Week uniform. Maybe for the Brits it was a Rupert Sanderson or Manolo Blahnik court with a stonking heel. But practical is a way of life now – you feel like an idiot if you're running around in silly shoes."
The seasonal whims of fashion editors and street-stylers do not, of course, speak to the sartorial tastes of the whole country. For every flat shoe on the front row, every millennial trainer worn out clubbing, there are several hundred more women still wedded to the femme fatale glamour of stilettos. But heels are in decline, perhaps terminally. It's hard to come back from comfort – we've opened Pandora's boxfresh Nikes, if you will.
At Kurt Geiger, trainer sales grew by 35 per cent last year and are projected to grow by 50 per cent again this season. As a proportion of all the own-brand women's shoes the high-street chain sells, trainers are up 500 per cent over the past six years.
"We've increased our sneaker collection by a third this spring," says the brand's creative director, Rebecca Farrar-Hockley. "Four years ago, we had a range of heels at almost 5in. Now none is higher than 3.5in (8cm). The sort of high-heeled courts typically worn for work are not selling at all."
Instead, women are choosing low, chunky blocks on ankle boots, mid-height slingbacks or the sort of trainers that barely register as sports shoes: glamorous leopard-print plimsolls, sequin-covered high-tops or opulent metallics more suited to black tie than track and field. Heels are thriving in their new, more comfortable iterations, but the stiletto as we once knew it is finished.
In 2008, I scored my first byline in a national newspaper with a piece called "The Height of Fashion". On the page, my cub reporter words fitted around an actual-size image of Christian Louboutin's latest skyscraper shoe, the Lola, whose spindly gold-tipped heel stood at 5.5in (14cm) and had recently been worn by Victoria Beckham. There were reports that women in LA were opting for cosmetic toe amputation to better fit their feet into them.
On the Times fashion editor's top ten checklist that summer, platform shoes came in at No 4. Giambattista Valli's bestselling Victoria sandal – named for Posh Spice herself – came with a 1.5in (3.8cm) platform to support its 6.5in (16.5cm) tapered spike. On the catwalk at Lanvin, every model wore 5in (12.7cm) heels.
"Young women now see heels as something that their mums wear."
Not long afterwards, I bought a pair of the so-called must-have Saint Laurent Tribute pumps (5in, with a platform of 1in and a heel surface area of less than 1in) at a sale, reduced from £600 to £150 ($1,200 to $300. Their cost-per-wear – an equation by which fashion editors like to justify their extravagant purchases – remains £150: I wore them once. I could barely stand up in them.
I have those Tributes still, but these days they look like what they always were: mainstream fetish gear. In 2020, I wear trainers to work. Victoria Beckham does too. Other items popular during the Noughties that we have shed over the past decade include thongs and push-up bras; heels appear to be part of a pornified past that now feels strikingly out of step.
"Ten years ago, stilettos were the status accessories of choice," says Eleanor Robinson, director of accessories at Selfridges. "It's just not cool any more. Young women now don't see the point in putting themselves through the discomfort. Back then it was cool; now it's not – that's the difference."
Vogue's Ellie Pithers agrees. "The other week at our Baftas party, one of the girls said she had to go home because her shoes were killing her, and all I could think was, 'How depressing!' Having the time of your life at a Vogue party and leaving early because your feet hurt."
Even Anna Wintour, 70, and a stickler for heels among her staffers, has downgraded in recent years. Her preferred Manolo Blahnik Maysale pumps come with a 3in (7cm) heel or a 2in (5cm) one; she's as likely as not to be in the lower version now, and her trademark tall boots all have a block heel in place of the old spindles.
"High heels were Alex Shulman's signature look," Ellie Pithers says. The 62-year-old former editor of British Vogue swears by slim 3.5in (9cm) stilettos. "But they don't feel like office uniform any more. That was a product of the time and times have changed."
The demise of the heel has happened gradually over the past ten years, but the fatal blow was sudden when it came. In March 2011, the designer Phoebe Philo – a fashion oracle on the scale of Coco Chanel during her time as creative director at Celine – took her bow at the end of the show wearing a pair of Adidas Stan Smith trainers. As one editor put it, "When Phoebe says jump, the fashion world asks, 'In which shoes?'"
In following seasons, Philo also teamed her signature poloneck and cigarette pants with Nikes and New Balances; the latter were part of Steve Jobs' anti-corporate uniform too. Soon there wasn't a heel left along the front row. "If you're not wearing Stan Smiths this #nyfw, you're not really living," tweeted Lauren Sherman, editor at large of Fashionista.com, in February 2014.
That was the winter of the polar vortex freeze during the shows in New York, which saw editors still wedded to their six-inchers being carried through waist-high snowdrifts by doormen, their ankles blue with the cold. That was the season the rest of us realised how ridiculous we looked. In Paris, later that month, Emmanuelle Alt et al hung up their spikes too. They compensated briefly with Isabel Marant's £396 ($815) wedge-heeled trainers, then went the whole hog in Stan Smiths and Nikes.
Sportswear didn't only infiltrate footwear trends; it also revolutionised wardrobes in the form of what retailers call "athleisure" – exercise garb worn beyond the gym. The £150 ($308) "power leggings", so called because they were the unofficial off-duty uniform of the A-list, took over. Gym kit and all things "wellness" became a status symbol; being too busy or too important to change out of it for brunch or your next meeting earned you extra points. Leggings began to eat into the market share usually held by skinny jeans; among teenage girls, they were weekend mufti. The only shoe you could wear with them? Trainers.
"Trainers have acted as a gateway drug to flats, with everyone offering a vajazzled ballet pump."
Suddenly, the shops were full of fashionably slimline sneaks in sweetshop shades of pastels, high-fashion greys and clubwear neons that were deliberately designed to be worn with everything from jeans to sundresses, to work and the pub. University towns and shopping malls were awash with them. At the Berlin nightclub Berghain in 2016 – a place renowned for its strict and uncompromisingly cool door policy – I noticed most people were wearing black Nikes with leggings. The only people still in heels were drag queens.
The Insta It girls Gigi Hadid, Hailey Baldwin (now Bieber) and Kendall Jenner, with almost 200 million followers between them, have popularised the trainers and hoodie look, alongside pop stars such as Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa. Thanks to them, a generation of young women now see heels as something that their mums wear, as contorted to them as Scarlett O'Hara's 18in waist.
In 2005, when power heels were in the ascendant, hoodies had become a collective noun for juvenile delinquents, and were banned from the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent. During the London riots of 2011, branches of Foot Locker were the most targeted across all the sites of unrest and the Daily Mail tutted at the teenage trainer yobs.
A few years later, in January 2014, trainers appeared on the catwalks at both Dior and Chanel – not just as part of the twice-yearly ready-to-wear collections but as part of the labels' handmade couture offerings (guide price: £50,000 for a jacket) – styled with trousers, skirts and red-carpet gowns. At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld – the man who once described jogging bottoms as a "sign of defeat" – dressed every model in bespoke trainers made from the house's signature bouclé tweed. They cost £2,500 per pair and were only available to clients who purchased an outfit. At the time this was headline news; now Dior's website boasts more than 27 styles, with the most expensive topping the £800 mark.
A month later, Phoebe Philo's Celine brought Vans, the cult skate trainer, to an audience of middle-aged women, reimagined in black satin.
These days, gleaming white trainers – Stan Smiths, Nike Cortes or, latterly, the sustainable brand Veja, as worn by everyone from the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex to just about every yummy mummy – are a wardrobe basic in the same way as, say, jeans and a cashmere sweater.
When it opened in 2010, Selfridges' 35,000sq ft Shoe Galleries was a Sex and the City dreamscape of teetering Choos, Louboutins and Manolos; now it bristles with Converse and Asics, alongside trainers by the likes of Alexander McQueen (£360) and Balenciaga (£695). Sports shoes, and their designer counterparts, have acted as a gateway drug to flats, with every esteemed soulier now offering a vajazzled ballet pump or loafer. On the front row, Jimmy Choo's pointed-toe pumps are as prevalent as the brand's high heels once were – and they cost £450. Customers accustomed to paying £600 for trainers are happy to pay more for flats too.
"Once you're used to wearing trainers, it's very difficult to come back," says Selfridges' Eleanor Robinson, who at 5ft 3in remains wedded to her heels. "I used to pride myself on not having to change out of my skyscraper heels on the train, but when I returned to work after my first baby, I tried my Tributes on again and I couldn't wear them. I was in agony." She now wears lower heels.
Trend forecasters call this "macro casualisation" – a falling off of formality in the workplace and its dress codes. There remain occasions when heels might feel right – black tie, wedding days (I wore flats for mine), job interviews. Most work clothes still look better with a bit of lift. "I wear a 1in block heel most days in the office," says a friend, who works in the City. "I don't like flat 'smart' shoes – they look square."
That might account for the resurgence in mid-height heels in recent years – wearable and walkable, the sort that might once have felt a bit Margaret Thatcher but now seem to make much more sense. The heels women wore before the skyscrapers took over, in fact.
Now, the consensus across footwear retailers is that just under 2in is the bestselling heel height. These days, 65 per cent of the current Christian Louboutin range is under 3in. Despite Louboutin's comments last week, when I asked the brand for clarification on the highest heel they'd made, I was told, "We're not talking about tall heels at the moment." This translates roughly from fashionspeak as, "They are dead to us."
In fact, Louboutin's highest ever was 2007's Ballerina Ultima, a vertiginous pump with an 8in spike designed in collaboration with the film-maker David Lynch and which looks about as comfortable as you might imagine – like a ballerina on blocks. It features in the Fetish room of Louboutin's L'Exhibition[nist] retrospective in Paris, and is a stark reminder of what too much of a good thing looks like.
I gave up wearing high heels in 2012 when I broke my leg while dancing in a pair. I caution you to do the same.
Written by: Harriet Walker
© The Times of London