Friday, April 21, 2006

Give your feet a break

By Debra D. Bass

ST. LOUIS - It’s not exactly surprising that more people are choosing their sneakers based on style and color rather than athletic performance.

In our unabashedly casual world, athletics-inspired shoes known as "athleisure" have become perfectly acceptable to wear with spring dresses, flowing skirts and jean shorts.

Athleisure shoes differ from top-dollar basketball styles coveted by teenagers because those shoes were actually designed for sports. Athleisure is about looking sporty, and the footwear is becoming so popular that a growing number of couture sports fashion shoes sell for as much as Kate Spade or Manolo Blanik pumps.

"I wear these because they are so cute. I’d choose something else if I was dancing or running," said Melissa Cohen, a local dancer and Pilates instructor who was sporting a pair of Kangaroos with sporty diagonal stripes and a Velcro pocket for change.

"I don’t know what kind of activity they were designed for, but they are great for teaching Pilates," Cohen said, lifting her foot to show off a split sole that makes the shoes as flexible as slippers.

She joked that when she tried to walk her dog in the same shoes, she discovered their limitations. The shoes have no traction and little arch support, which made them somewhat dangerous when she stepped on a muddy path. But the shoes are perfect for wearing to work and running a few errands, she said.

"You see everyone wanting comfortable shoes. Moms can’t run around in heels or platform wedges," said Eileen Lewis, director of fashion strategy for, one of the largest shoe sellers on the Internet.

She said that Pumas and adidas are back after their last heyday in the ’80s, and both are offering couture items. Lacoste shoes will also be big this year — the athletic-looking skimmers and ballet flats were paired with skirts for runway shows.

"People see the shoes and ask our sales people, ‘Can I go running or walking in these?’ and the answer is, ‘No.’ We make sure people know what the shoes are designed for," Lewis said. She said that athleisure shoes are about comfort and personality, not performance.

European athletic-looking shoes by Gola, Palladium and Fly London — available at the Soul store, 6301 Delmar Boulevard — are as functional as they are fashionable.

"But people really just buy them for looks," said Soul assistant manager Sean Mangrum. "It’s a bonus that they have the orthopedic sole, but most people are looking for fashion, not a shoe to wear for a walk around Forest Park."

The fashion-forward store, with shoes ranging from $74 to $110, will also be stocking Puma and adidas vintage styles, Mangrum said.

For years, men looking to stand out or make a style statement paired comfy sneakers with formalwear, often taking their cue from Hollywood stars and musicians. Now, women who have typically held an allegiance to the high heel, no matter how tortuous it becomes, are taking more interest in comfort.

Lewis said customers who spend $300 to $400 on fashion sneakers would generally spend top dollar for sexy footwear.

So how long before casual couture sneakers drift into a new realm? Lewis said that in Europe, it’s already common to see women in blazers, tank tops and slacks walking around in a pair of cute sneakers.

If jeans can be as easily paired with sequined tops and heels as with a T-shirt and flip-flops, maybe sneakers can be just as versatile.

"When I get the chance, I like to wear heels because I spend so much of my time in sneakers," Cohen said.

"But if I worked in heels, I think I’d be perfectly happy dressing up and going out in some cute athletic shoes."

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