SARAH BUITENDACH: The long overdue death of the high heel
Investors ditch showy stilettos in favour of comfort, as the timeless Birkenstock attracts a €4bn buyout offer
I read with interest a column in last weekend’s UK Sunday Times about the return of the high heel.
In it, the newspaper’s fashion director, Jane McFarland, posited that after months of women wearing flats and shuffling about the place, the stiletto is on the way up again. And there is proof, she says. It includes the fact that “heels as high as 10cm feature in the new collections from Christian Louboutin, who confirms that an appetite for vertiginous footwear hasn’t waned”.
McFarland adds: “Sales of reality-busting haute heels have been surprisingly robust all year, despite the fact that we have absolutely nowhere to walk to: 45% of searches on Manolo Blahnik’s website have been for high heels, whereas flats account for 26%. According to Matchesfashion, sales of high heels are up 25% compared with last year.”
Yah, right. Perhaps she hadn’t read how last year demand for designer shoes like stilettos plunged 21%, according to market researcher Euromonitor.
After I’d finished reading McFarland’s piece, I tumbled out of bed, put on my day pyjamas (not to be confused with my night pyjamas) and slipped on my Birkenstocks.
You know I meant business — that I was plunging into a day of purpose and productivity — because I put on shoes at all. But the thought of heels gives me actual chills.
In my spare room is a teetering pile of boxed mules, stilettos, courts and other forgotten footwear, waiting to go to charity. I know I will never wear them. Why on earth would I ever sacrifice comfort again?
Many of you may not agree. Perhaps you have been wearing your fancy wedges all summer, frolicking about in your loveliest sundresses last month like it was February 2019.
Certainly, I can imagine that now that slivers of warm weather are beginning to emerge in the UK, coupled with an impressive vaccine rollout, Brits might be starting to think of dressing up again. But I cannot believe this pandemic hasn’t put paid to some of the more arduous elements of fashion forever.
At the top of this list: unnecessarily uncomfortable shoes.
My dark thoughts about banishing elevated footwear were vindicated when I spotted a Vogue Business article announcing that “L Catterton, the private equity firm backed by LVMH and Bernard Arnault’s family investment company Financière Agache, are acquiring Birkenstock.”
Ha, I thought to myself smugly, even the luxury gods like LVMH know that comfort is the future. I gazed at my cupboard floor, with its jigsaw of different-hued Madrid-style Birkenstocks, and it was good.
Birks are a perennial delight. And, according to this week’s assessment, valued at €4bn.
First created by cobbler Johann Adam Birkenstock in Langen-Bergheim, Germany, in 1774, the sandal made of cork with layers of suede was one of the first to contour to the shape of the owner’s foot.
Not for nothing did The Guardian recently refer to Birkenstock as the “founding father of comfortable footwear”, arguing that if the Covid lockdown “proved to be the perfect incubator for comfort wear, it also normalised it”.
The Vogue article, by Laure Guilbault, also discusses the recent London listing of that other orthopaedic icon — Dr Martens. Since Dr Martens listed in January, the value of these beloved eight-hole symbols of grunge and punk has surged 32%, from £3.7bn to £4.9bn.
“Private equity is interested in casual footwear,” Bernstein analyst Luca Solca told Vogue. “Covid-19 has boosted a process towards casual and comfortable that was already under way — both in apparel and in footwear. I believe this is because these brands are in sync with fundamental consumer demand shifts.”
If you think I’m just name-checking all these big, international companies to make an erm, flat-footed point, just have a look at Woolworths’s results presentation last week.
In it, Woolies said it would be expanding casual and sports leisure ranges to “mitigate the reliance on formal wear”. (Do they mean workwear? If only they could speak human.)
“The company aims to tap stronger demand for casual and sportswear as the Corona virus pandemic has accelerated a shift to working from home” a Reuters story said.
And, you’ll be pleased to know, Woolies is doing a roaring trade in Birkenstocks.
My final point of evidence: Sunday night’s Golden Globe awards.
This hallowed Hollywood event is known for being the one place where starlets and their cinematic kin can “push” the sartorial envelope on the red carpet.
This year the event was split between LA, New York and everyone’s couches — and it was a bonanza of shloomp. Sure, there were some invitees dolled up to the nines, but there was also Jeff Daniels dressed like a dad in plaid on a Zoom call.
John Boyega wore a tux jacket and sweat pants; Jodie Foster was dressed in her PJs; and winner Jason Sudeikis accepted his Globe in a tie-dye hoodie.
Sudeikis “looks extremely divorced right now,” said writer Esther Zuckerman, referring to the actor’s recent split from actress Olivia Wilde. Well, you could put it like that; but I prefer to call his look “on the money”.
* Buitendach is contributing editor at the FM
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