Monday, February 13, 2006

'Chunky' heels spike the stiletto

By Olivia Barker, USA TODAY

The stiletto's supremacy is looking wobbly.

The ice-pick-thick heel, which for nearly a decade has been the ultimate weapon in a woman's shoe wardrobe, made wearers plunge through subway grates, sink into lawns and negotiate cobblestones with all the elegance of a toddler. Now, it's showing signs of bluntness.

Retailers and designers are trotting out thicker, chunkier (though still high) heels — to the relief of many women. Sturdier styles have been showcased in glossy magazines for a few months: February's Vogue declares the "woman of fashion" recognizable by the "reverberating thud" of her "heavy 2006 heel."

But the thud landed especially loudly last week on the runways of New York's Fashion Week. At Tuleh, the peep-toed slingbacks were anchored atop stacked towers. At Marc Jacobs, the heels were cartoonishly wide cones, some of them perched on toe-to-heel planks to create a kind of open-air wedge. And at Michael Kors, the Great Gatsby-meets-Love Story aesthetic played out in sandals, boots and T-strap pumps with rolling-pin heels.

"It's safe to say that the stiletto for now is behind us," says Michelle Baran, who covers the women's market for Footwear News. The Sex and the City staple "looks dated" — silly instead of sharp. The chunky heel, on the other hand, looks "simple, chic ... more sophisticated."

Part of the shift has to do with creating footwear that complements today's vintage-inspired clothes. But the trend toward stability also is about finding the nexus between fashion and function.

In a survey in November by the American Podiatric Medical Association, 35% of women said comfort trumps style when choosing shoes; previously, 18% of women said so. Women are "unhappy," says APMA president Harold Glickman, weary of stiletto-induced sprains and "the dreaded plantar fasciitis," or heel pain.

Department store sales of stilettos have stumbled; they were up only 15.8% in 2005 vs. 206.8% in 2004, according to The NPD Group, a market research firm. Meanwhile, sales of thick-heeled shoes rose 24.9% last year.

Chunkier heels are "one of the bigger pushes for the season" at Aldo, says marketing manager Lori Sternthal. At Farylrobin, they're 35% of the collection.

"Women have evolved," says founder Faryl Robin Morse. "It's not practical to ask a mother to walk in high heels while pushing a stroller. And it's not necessary for a woman to go to work in a pair of sneakers and change into heels.

"That's gone. And it's about time."

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