When Victoria Beckham unveiled her first shoe collection at New York Fashion Week last month, we thought we knew what to expect. The designer formerly known as Posh Spice is famous for having platform stilettos seemingly glued to her feet, be it for a shopping trip or a school sports day. Yet her most talked-about footwear creations for spring/summer 2015, adorned with leopard print or pink appliqué flowers, were Western-style, pointed … flats.
High heels have been losing their dominance of high fashion for a while, with smoking slippers, brogues, trainers and flatforms all enjoying moments in the spotlight in recent years. But things have reached a peak in 2014, with luxurious flats front and centre in the footwear collections of Armani (pearl-encrusted Mary Janes), Saint Laurent (glossy lace-ups), Proenza Schouler (striking criss-cross loafers) and Dolce & Gabbana (jewelled slippers in lace, velvet or brocade), as well as Mrs Beckham’s latest.
Some believe that the trend has come about because it suits the looser, more androgynous silhouette currently seen on the catwalks. For others, it is an economic phenomenon – heels reached a 20-centimetre peak at the time of the global financial crisis, this theory goes, and, like the markets, have since been forced down to a more sensible level. For Hannah Rochell, a fashion editor and the author of En Brogue: Love Fashion. Love Shoes. Hate Heels, the truth is a little of both.
“Fashion always gets to a point where it wants the complete opposite of what has gone before,” she says. “I think there was a natural tipping point, when heels got so ridiculously high that they were genuinely difficult to walk in. Women love how they look standing still in heels, but it’s probably quite a small percentage of us who feel good in them.”
For a time in the early 2000s, it seemed as if ballet pumps were the answer to women’s prayers. Popularised by Kate Moss, who wore them with skinny jeans on the school run, they became the decade’s most popular street-style trend – so popular that they started to be mass-produced and sold on plastic hangers, stacked up on rails. Neither flattering nor aspirational, they were studiously avoided by luxury fashion houses.
But there was still a demand for comfortable shoes. The actress Emma Thompson articulated the point at last year’s Golden Globe awards, when she walked onstage barefoot, telling the audience: “I’ve taken my heels off as a feminist statement, because why do we wear them? They’re so painful. And pointless, really.” Anyone who has owned a pair of Louboutins, looked at the red-soled heels in her hand and understood immediately: while flattering, the shoes are notoriously painful. Indeed, Christian Louboutin once told an interviewer that it is “not my job to create something comfortable”.
Gradually, however, the fashion world started to listen to its customers, experimenting with brogues, smoking slippers and even slide shoes. It helped when Phoebe Philo, Céline’s creative director, developed a habit of taking her post-show bow wearing trainers. Rather than scruffy, the hugely influential Philo looked cool and confident – and soon enough Karl Lagerfeld was sending his models down Chanel’s autumn/winter 2014 runways in couture trainers, while Dior’s sequin flower-embroidered sneakers made headlines in style titles around the world.
And it's not just couture houses: shoe labels that were built on skyscraper heels have also embraced the flat craze. In recent years Manolo Blahnik has created everything from a manly, buckled "monk" style for Beckham's spring/summer 2013 show to a flat version of the jewel-coloured, gem-adorned Hangisi style that played a starring role in the first Sex and the City movie.
Jimmy Choo’s creative director, Sandra Choi, has put flats firmly at the centre of her design strategy, saying: “A flat is such a basic for the modern woman. We’re running around so much but we still want to look great – a flat is essential.” Even Louboutin has made a literal and figurative comedown on comfortable shoes, creating a few pairs of sparkly brogues for spring/summer 2014.
“I think all designers have taken notice of the flat-shoe trend and understand how important it is to have an offering in their collection,” says Jessica Crawley, who, as a buyer for Bloomingdale’s, is responsible for stocking one of the UAE’s largest shoe departments. “We have always had a strong business with flats from brands such as Pedro Garcia, Giuseppe Zanotti, Le Silla, Stella McCartney and anything with a bit of bling. Lately, we have also seen an edgier customer emerging who is buying more footbed sandals, which have been a dominant shoe on the runways, from brands such as Givenchy, Isabel Marant, Alexander Wang and Marni.”
But the trend isn’t all about practicality. For Rochell, whose coffee-table book features photographs and illustrations of some of fashion’s most original flats, high heels too often become the only point of interest in a pair of shoes – think of the dull nude stilettos so favoured by the Duchess of Cambridge. “Luxury details such as pony skin, embellishments or stones look much better on a flat shoe,” Rochell explains. “Look at the printed flats at Erdem, or Dolce & Gabbana, which were made out of velvet with gemstones on them. If they’d had heels they would have looked horrible, but because they’re flat you can get away with a lot more bling and luxury.”
The designer Giuseppe Zanotti, who sells his popular, glittering shoes via boutiques in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as Bloomingdale’s, believes that this glamorous approach to flats will make them particularly appealing to shoppers in the UAE. “Flats are gaining ground on high heels,” he says. “Some time ago, only 11 per cent of our shoes were flat, but the proportion is now about 40 per cent. They are very comfortable for hot weather, reminiscent of the 1960s, and practically timeless.”
Reports that heels are dead are greatly exaggerated, of course: while Beckham has been increasingly spotted in flats such as the YSL monochrome lace-ups, she still took her bow in New York wearing her favourite Manolo Blahnik stilettos. But with so many modern, beautiful flats around, tottering about on heels is beginning to look anachronistic.
“Will heels go back up?” muses Rochell. “Probably, at some point – but I don’t know if it will ever get that ridiculous again. I wonder if women will look back in 20 years’ time at how high heels got and say, ‘Can you believe it?’”