Women's footwear is now about sexuality, attitude, aesthetics and social status, writes Vivian Chen
Marilyn Monroe once famously mused, "Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world". Fast-forward half a century, and the shoes that today's screen sirens have to conquer have risen to a whole different level - quite literally, in fact.
From Lady Gaga's towering Armadillo booties to Victoria Beckham's gravity-defying, heel-less shoes, and the coveted collection of possibly the most notorious on-screen shoe addict, Carrie Bradshaw, the focus of footwear today has long shifted away from function to fashion, while designers debate the balance of aesthetics and practicality.
"Shoes are emotional purchases for women," says Irene Yu, an experienced buyer for Pedder Group's footwear and handbag division. "Many women, including myself, view shoes as a representation of our attitude, aesthetics, sexuality and social status. Putting on a great pair of shoes instantly changes our mood for the better. We are suddenly more confident, taller, thinner and sexier. It is an 'affordable treat' that makes your heart flutter, and makes you look and feel beautiful." While Gaga-proof shoes continue to plague entertainment news headlines, flattering and feminine silhouettes have been selling like hot cakes.
"Courts are having a moment," says British shoe designer Rupert Sanderson, who counts A-listers such as Kate Middleton and Gwyneth Paltrow as fans. "During the Oscar season, the most-worn shoes by the celebrities on the red carpet are just a pair of simple, pointy-toed, high-heeled pumps. It's no bells and whistles. It's just flattering."
Practical courts and even flats have made major fashion statements over the past seasons.
"In addition to the man-tailored-inspired Oxford lace-ups and smoking slip-on loafers, designer brands such as Balenciaga, Tabitha Simmons and Valentino recently introduced a 'new ballerina', the flat point-toe skimmer that's definitely a must-have this season," Yu says.
Sanderson, famous for dressing women with subtle, elegant pumps, introduced a head-turning pair of platforms embroidered with sushi-roll print to his autumn-winter collection during his recent visit in town to open a second boutique. The print might be playful, but the shape remains simple and minimalistic.
"I don't want to just design a crazy shoe and hope to become famous overnight. It's a slower and more considered process," he says.
"I like the idea of a very simple picture because the most potent and powerful imagery is often just the simplest. By stripping things away, the bare essence becomes clear."
The "less is more" approach is embraced by veteran shoe makers to create timeless styles.
"Sometimes we see women become accessories to their shoes," says Italian shoe designer Gianvito Rossi, who honed his skills under father Sergio, also a famous shoe-design maestro. "I think a shoe should exalt, not overwhelm, the wearer's silhouette and personality. The shoe is just a frame, but the woman is the masterpiece. The Gaga effect is like a mask for a woman, but I prefer to show her real beauty."
Not to be confused, though, classic shapes and simple silhouettes showcase as much craftsmanship and design as their heavily embellished counterparts.
Sanderson's Hong Kong style, for example, is especially designed for Asian fit. Based on Winona, a classic court shoe, the Hong Kong last is narrower, with additional support on the arch for comfort to wear. Giuseppe Zanotti's popular heel-less shoe, despite its unconventional look, is also designed with comfort in mind.
"I've worked hard on the fitting of this special shape, also in extreme situations," Zanotti says. "Its harmonic silhouette [creates] an imaginary line from the heel to the ankles, like an elegant mule that lifts the whole body."
While male designers argue that they know better about what catches a man's eye, women's shoe designers have the privilege to actually give their designs a test run.
French fashion designer Isabel Marant's Bekket high-top sneakers with built-in wedges got some of the most stylish ladies hooked - think Beyoncé and Victoria's Secret Angel Miranda Kerr.
The idea for Bekket was actually an old habit of Marant's. "As a teenager I would put a cork sole in my trainers because I wanted to keep the comfort of a sneaker while looking taller at the same time," she says. "The challenge was to strike a real balance between aesthetics and comfort. I worked hard on the hidden wedge to create the elongated silhouette."
Like Marant, designers Tabitha Simmons and Charlotte Olympia Dellal try on almost every pair of shoes they create.
"I'm always trying on samples, working on fit and thinking of functionality and wearability," says Simmons, whose present collection draws inspirations from nature and garden creatures including butterflies, dragonflies and beetles.
Dellal agrees. "I have every pair I've ever designed, as I sample them in my own size to know exactly what they are like to walk in. Now that I'm a mum, I do find myself wearing my Kitty flats a little more often when I race after my two small boys," she says.
Constantly inspired by vintage and retro style, Dellal collaborated with On Pedder this season. From now until December, a seasonal shop inspired by 1960s Americana will be set up at the Landmark mall, offering exclusive styles such as the whimsical Archie Comics capsule collection.
"I don't design with a form-over-function mentality," Dellal says.
"I believe that [women should be able to wear] high heels throughout the day. I love developing beautiful sculptural pieces that look as good off the foot as well as on."
Dellal is not only speaking for herself, but for all other women who fancy shoes. Apart from practical kicks, statement heels also earn prominent spots in women's well-polished closets.
"Our customers choose shoes not just based on their wearability, but on how they would look in their wardrobes. They choose shoes to complement the look of their wardrobes. Many of them collect statement shoes from various designers," says Pedder Group's Yu.
Zanotti agrees that comfort is not all that matters. "We do our best to give women the maximum comfort, but we don't want just comfort but also innovative design," he says.
"A shoe is the translation of an emotion, of your idea of a woman in a specific moment. Comfort is important, but if you only look at that, the shoe won't be seductive. If a woman wants to be seductive, she [will need to embrace] high heels."
JOIN THE CLUB
Christian Louboutin, the mastermind behind the red-soled heels, has come up with a new design for stylish gentlemen. The latest addition to Louboutin’s men’s footwear is the Club Flat line. The design brings together classic brogue tassels and rubber-sole sneakers, finishes with a chic buckle and white midsole. Louboutin is among the few shoe brands that branched out of their original women’s business to tap the men’s style market, with players including Jimmy Choo, Sergio Rossi and Giuseppe Zanotti.