There she stands, resplendent, a goddess in her slim shift, clutching that newly famous handbag that looks like a grossly distended envelope, not a shiny hair out of place except the strand that is meant to be out of place. But wait, what’s that on her feet? Where should reside the most splendid of pumps, there are instead two furry slides that prove, on closer examination, to be deviant cousins of the lowly Birkenstock—a style formerly embraced by those in need of orthopedic footwear and maybe a few latter-day hippies still clinging to their Indian-bedspread dresses.
If her transgressive shoes bear some relationship to Meret Oppenheim’s famous 1936 Surrealist masterpiece “Object” (a fur-covered teacup), they are not meant to serve as a walking art project. They are in fact by Céline, and were among the most coveted accessories of last summer.
These neo-hoofs, these furball friends, with their fancy label and their ambitious price tag, are not the only discordant, strangely charming, charmingly strange pairs in shoe-land at the moment. For spring 2014, we are looking down the tongues of, among other jolie-laide suggestions, Marni’s towering black-and-white flip-flops, Prada’s bejeweled yellow Tevas, silvery huaraches courtesy of Proenza Schouler and turquoise suede studded wedge sneakers from Giuseppe Zanotti that have a curious foreshortening effect, so that it looks like the wearer has bound feet.
Of course, there is a long tradition of heretofore hideous, or at least, practical styles that have been elevated to stylish heights. For at least a century, fisherman (and fisherwomen?) wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing espadrilles for a night on the town; in more recent years, could any one have imagined that Uggs, which landed on these shores around 30 years ago, would grace the feet of everyone from pre-K scholars to bodacious legends like André Leon Talley? And let’s not even discuss Crocs, which some people (OK, me, when I’m in a bad mood) believe should be banned everywhere but boardwalks and boudoirs.
What makes people want to trot around in cerulean tugboats decorated with spikes? Is it just the exhilarating rush of something truly new, the appeal of “so wrong it’s right?” To answer this question, I do what any reporter worth her worn out black Repetto ballet slippers would do—I ask around. My friend K., a sort of jailhouse fashion historian, says it was only a matter of time before stilettos gave way to flourishes more earth-bound. “It’s the job of fashion to reinvent—after those sky-high heels, we had to get rid of everything and start from zero.” Plus, she observes, with a nod to the financial exigencies of the fashion world, a radical shift in perspective will get the butts back in the shoe-department seats: “No one owned these already.”
Well of course no one already has an ungainly canary Teva dripping faux emeralds in her closet! Maybe because they are ferociously, lust-bustingly ugly? A retail exec of my acquaintance, whom I shall call Mr. F., says flatly that despite how prominently these hoofers grace the pages of magazines, “You’ll never get laid in these shoes.” He avers that creations like the metallic gladiator sandal, gargantuan Mary Janes and high, thick-heeled oxfords with a fringy flap are being purchased “strictly for the purpose of impressing other women.”
Could be, Mr. F. But you are also forgetting one other thing—the C word. My deeply soigné buddy, a fashion professional I will call Ms. E., has lately been having a torrid love affair with a pair of Dries Van Noten matte leather loafers distinguished by a thick wedge and rubber sole that she describes as “basically big black erasers on my feet. I know I’m not supposed to care about this, but they were exceptionally”—dare she utter the word?—“comfortable.”
E. says she was fully aware that the shoes in question might not be considered the height of elegance, “but I was also buying a heavy, long-sleeved shirtdress that hit slightly above the knee and needed to be grounded by something more substantial than a BB pump.” (Full disclosure, I thought when E. said “BB” she meant Big and Black—or maybe Brigitte Bardot? Betty Boop? But in fact—what do I really know about fashion?—“BB,” it turns out, stands for a type of Manolo, a classic, 50–115mm-heel, pointed-toe pump with a single sole that is a stellar exemplar of quiet elegance. Just so you know.)
Still, even as E. glides (OK, clumps) through her fashionable day, hobnobbing with designers, retailers and editors, she and the millions of women who plan to greet the spring with hybrid monstrosities strapped to their pedicured piggies are well aware of her shoes’ limitations. E. admits that she is not above jettisoning her beloved clunkers at a moment’s notice. “If I am asked out on a last-minute date, I have to switch shoes—these make me feel like an elderly librarian.” She sighs, then acknowledges the unfathomable ways of the heart. “But I do love them.”
Click on the gallery above to see this season’s “ugly” shoes