“The shoe department of Bergdorf Goodman, on the morning of May 29, looked like “an insane asylum of very well-dressed women,” said Sasha Charnin Morrison, the fashion director of Us Weekly, who was reporting from the front lines of what has become an annual rite of spring in Manhattan: the first day of the designer shoe sale.
In one room of the sprawling, glittering, intoxicating Shangri-La of shoes that begins at the top of the escalator on the second floor, were the smaller sizes: Manolo Blahnik pumps made of shiny turquoise patent leather ($322, down from $645); piles of citron and mint Lanvin leather ballerina flats ($247, from $495); and surreal pink pumps covered in blue crystals from Giuseppi Zanotti ($1,097, from $2,195). In another room were similarly decadent displays in larger sizes, beckoning from the racks like abandoned puppies.
“You know the way that men lose their minds when they look at cars?” Ms. Charnin Morrison said. “It was the same thing. You had every major brand on sale. Everybody lost their minds. The prices are insane, and yet I could tell you a million reasons why they are justified.”
The designer shoe industry, to some extent, relies on the willful suspension of rational thinking, the giving over to a more primal urge (to shop, that is) in order to move merchandise that common sense would suggest is patently, obscenely, even self-destructively overpriced.
Shoes are an especially fetishized subject in fashion, but it is only since the late 1990s, not coincidentally at the start of the television series “Sex and the City,” that they have become what they are today, with warring retailers, an influx of new players on the battleground each season, and very little price resistance demonstrated by consumers, even when the market has all the characteristics of another fashion bubble.
Here, a pair of raspberry suede espadrilles, among the most basic styles available at a luxury store like Bergdorf, can cost $495. The soles may be mere rope, but they’re Jimmy Choo, after all. Prices for pumps now commonly range from $600 to $1,400, and boots can cost $2,000 or more. At the top of the hierarchy of luxury footwear designers, Christian Louboutin makes a Lady Spiked Leopard-Print Platform Pump with a 5 3/4-inch heel for $1,595. Versions of his shoes in exotic skins, like crocodile, can cost as much as $4,645, which, it is strange to say, is anything but exceptional in this world.
For luxury retailers, expensive shoes have become a lucrative business, among the most profitable at Saks Fifth Avenue, for example. At Barneys New York, sales of shoes are three to four times higher per square foot than in any other department. The average purchase in the shoe department there is about $850, among the highest in the city.
While designer apparel may not have fully recovered from the shock of the recession, shoes have proved far more resilient, because they offer more perceived value to a customer than a designer dress that she might wear only a few times.
“Women have figured out quickly that shoes are a less expensive way of updating your wardrobe,” said Bonnie Takhar, the president of Charlotte Olympia, which makes exceedingly playful shoes like a wedge sandal designed to look like a wicker picnic basket ($1,995). “Plus they make you look taller.”
So it is not surprising that shoe salons in Manhattan’s fanciest stores have expanded at a breakneck pace over the last five years, or that the battle to become the ultimate showplace for shoes has gone global. Macy’s in New York, with its 39,000-square-foot shoe department introduced last year, has claimed the title of “world’s largest” from competitors like Galeries Lafayette in Paris and Selfridges in London. Saks, Barneys and Bergdorf, meanwhile, face the potential of yet another competitor in the next decade once Nordstrom, well-known for the breadth and service of its shoe departments, realizes its plan to open a store on West 57th Street.
In the shoe wars, the question is just how big they need to be to win, without risking casualties.
“WE ALL SIT AROUND and talk about the price of shoes,” said Ronald Frasch, the president and chief merchandising officer of Saks. But prices of everything in designer fashion, from handbags to men’s suits to swimwear to shorts, have increased so precipitously over the last decade that a pair of shoes can seem more justifiable when compared to a pair of equally expensive pants.
In 2007, when Saks introduced a footwear department on its eighth floor so big that the store, in a clever marketing move, gave it its own vanity ZIP code, 10022-SHOE, it set off what would ultimately become the great shoe wars of retail. Barneys introduced its floor-wide shoe department last year, with shoes displayed in large gilded cages and copious cushy seating, drawing comparisons to Saks. And now Bergdorf Goodman has announced plans to expand its department by 20 percent this fall.
The stores are just as competitive about carrying the top designers, like Mr. Louboutin, who, upon his 20th anniversary in 2011, was feted with a star-studded dinner by Barneys and then a blowout store party by Bergdorf.
Last week, Saks raised the bar again, opening a 1,600-square-foot shop dedicated to Mr. Louboutin, incorporating his handbags and signature store designs, the first of its kind. Next, Saks plans to open an accessories department for Alexander McQueen in the same area.
“Quite frankly, we felt the need to take it another step,” Mr. Frasch said.
At Barneys, the strategy has been to bring more exclusive new labels, or products designed just for the store, which now account for a third of its department, said Daniella Vitale, the chief operating officer of the store.
One successful example has been Marsèll, a collection of androgynous slip-ons that cost around $665, which has shot up to a $1 million business for the store in a year. Barneys is also sensitive to price, Ms. Vitale said, but exclusivity is a strong selling point. A pair of Azzedine Alaïa sandals may cost $1,400, she said, “but at the end of the day, we are selling out of them.”
Joshua Schulman, the president of Bergdorf, said that the growth of designer shoes is as much a societal trend as men becoming more interested in fashion. (The store is expanding, by the way, to include men’s shoes from Mr. Blahnik, Mr. Louboutin, Tom Ford and Berluti.)
“Personally, I don’t have any concern that this phenomenon is going to go away anytime soon,” Mr. Schulman said.
THE COMPETITION to stand out among designers today is fierce, said Charlotte Olympia Dellal, the chief executive of Charlotte Olympia, because newer companies have to fight for the same factory space as the big brands. Tabitha Simmons, whose ultracool style has made her a shoe star, said that starting out, she had to be on top of her business and production “30 hours a day.”
Last year, Ms. Dellal ranked No. 57 on the closely watched list of 100 power players published by Footwear News, which gives some idea of the scale and importance of the designers included on the list. Mr. Louboutin was the highest ranked designer at No. 3, behind the Nordstrom family and Phil Knight of Nike. Mr. Blahnik was No. 12.
Mr. Louboutin and Mr. Blahnik have waged battle for more than a decade. Mr. Louboutin charges $600 to $800 for many of his signature red-sole styles, but his over-the-top designs cost much more. In a perverse twist, a classic ladylike pair of pumps from Mr. Blahnik, the exemplar of luxury footwear who was made a household name by “Sex and the City,” are now, at $595, priced at the lower end of the market.
“It is more expensive to make shoes now,” Mr. Louboutin said last week from his studio in Paris. “And it’s for a very boring reason.”
Since the introduction of the euro and its subsequent strength against the dollar, the cost of producing shoes in Europe has increased substantially. More recently, facing competition from Asian factories for quality materials, some luxury houses are buying their own tanneries. “Now, there is a gap of raw materials and leather, which puts the prices up very high,” Mr. Louboutin said, adding that his costs have doubled within five years.
But Mr. Blahnik has held firm on prices for at least three seasons. The company is having a resurgence, said George Malkemus, its president, partly because of renewed interest in the single-sole shoe, which is Mr. Blahnik’s signature, and partly because the price of a classic BB pump, $595, might seem more reasonable.
Neiman Marcus recently introduced a made-to-order boutique for Mr. Blahnik’s BB pump, offering five different heel heights and 20 colors (if you count leopard as a color). And going full circle, Mr. Malkemus is starting a separate shoe business with Ms. Parker, with prices in the $200 to $400 range, that will be sold exclusively at Nordstrom beginning in February.
Although Blahnik offers some embellished styles that cost more than $1,000, Mr. Malkemus said that prices of shoes have generally gotten “out of whack.” Of course, the risk is that customers will associate higher prices with better shoes.
“Not if you know quality shoes,” Mr. Malkemus said, affecting a garmento accent. “I’m a bar-gain. What ultimately hurts a lot of these young people, including some very talented designers, is when a shoe costs $1,400.
“A customer might like what they see,” he said, “and then she turns the shoe over, looks at the price and walks away.” –The New York Times