WITH sales of gorgeous footwear up to record levels, it seems our love affair with kitten heels, flats and even designer flip-flops knows no limit
Appearances can prove deceptive, and only the foolish or foolhardy judge a book by its cover. But here's one warning that may bring all womankind to heel. You're more likely than ever to be defined by the shoes you wear. Flats, kitten-heels, stilettos, or wedges: you identify the woman you are (or aspire to be) by what you choose to wear on your feet.
In the book marking the culmination of his ten-year reign as creative supremo at Gucci, Tom Ford declared, "Shoes are always the most important thing ... They are who you are. They change the way you walk, the way you move." And he clearly has a point. Because shoes readily exaggerate height, gait and posture, they are a key element in a woman's self-projection. More effective than shoulder pads, corsetry, or many surgical procedures, shoes have the power to transform.
Certain styles can add three or four inches to a woman's stature. More intriguingly, perhaps, certain styles have the capacity to make any straight-laced Sunday school teacher prowl like a sexual predator. It's all about balance, of course. Some shoes force the wearer to throw back her shoulders and thrust forward her chest. Others exaggerate the wiggle of the derrire.
In today's panoply of fashionable shoe styles, ranging from dead-flat thong sandals to vertiginous pin-thin heels, there's a shoe that fits the personality, aspiration and mood of every woman. And it would certainly seem that women have never previously bought quite so many expensive shoes. For while designer labels struggle to maintain their appeal, and most of our major high street clothing behemoths are reporting a significant waning of demand, sales of high fashion footwear are booming.
This is driven by the luxury end of the market, where retailers such as Cruise and Harvey Nichols are boasting double-digit increases in footwear sales as significant numbers of women re-arrange their spending priorities. The average fashion-savvy consumer has never been more likely to partner a high street top or frock with much more costly footwear. She'll put one of this season's near-ubiquitous kaftan tops from Miss Selfridge or Topshop with cropped jeans from Gap ... and insist that the only shoes that work with the look are labelled Marc Jacobs or Miu Miu.
"Sexy, strappy and high." These, according to Averyl Oates, buying director of Harvey Nichols, are the three words that remain uppermost in shaping the store's shoe range.
"When our customer is spending upwards of 300 on a great pair of heels, she wants performance. In the past five years, the quality of designer-brand shoes has rocketed. Fashion houses are using better factories. Their designs and techniques are better too. Look, for example, at Jimmy Choo. When you wear a pair of his 12 centimetre heels you're not exactly walking on air, but the pitch and balance is so beautifully judged that you're certainly not teetering."
Jim Gibson, owner of Cruise, agrees that footwear has become a key category in his ever-expanding business. "Our buying has evolved with the demands of our customers and we like to think we're pretty tuned into their tastes. We look for interesting and individual pieces very much with particular people in mind.
"Our customer expectations differ slightly in each city. Whereas Cruise has its own niche of customer in Glasgow - a woman who loves extremely glamorous, showy shoes - our Edinburgh customer tends to buy slightly more idiosyncratic and quirky styles."
And Cruise is not the only retailer to experience this previously unrecorded demand for fashion-forward footwear in the Scottish capital.
"Glamorous high heels continue to dominate our business," says Oates. "We're running 28 per cent up in this category alone, this season. But our Edinburgh store has had the best response in the group to much more adventurous styles, such as the round toe and chunky heels we're carrying from Dries Van Noten, Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs. Dries's green leather shoe with raffia cross-stitching has proved a bestseller.
"Its gauche styling suggests a woman who's not afraid to adopt a new trend. She enjoys playing the fashion game, but she makes fashion work for herself. She doesn't dress to impress men or to look conventionally sexy. She's very much her own woman," says Oates.
So who is the woman who remains, as shoe fashions come and go, resolutely dependent on 12cm heels?
"She's sassy," says Oates. "She's a woman who oozes sex appeal. And, if she's not already got an impressive diamond on her finger, she soon will have!"
"She's always sexy," agrees Gibson.
"And always glamorous," adds Pam Jenkins, who opened her eponymously named shoe shop in Edinburgh last year.
"She might be a footballer's wife," adds Gibson. "She's certainly high-maintenance - the sort of woman, I guess, who never leaves home without perfect lipstick."
And what is such a woman snapping up this season. "Butterfly-motif high strappy sandals by Christian Louboutin," according to Jenkins. At Cruise? "Dolce & Gabbana's high-heeled sling-backs in fuchsia and cyclamen suede with gold lattice-work - or anything by Dior." At Harvey Nichols? "Everything by Dior or Jimmy Choo."
What about the woman who has eschewed pin-thin heels for the solid wedge?
"She's definitely on-trend," says Gibson. "She has a strong fashion awareness, and is very likely to put her name down on waiting-lists for her key must-have pieces. Even before Christmas, we were inundated with calls for Dior wedges, and we sold out of most sizes long before our first consignment arrived."
We all thought wedges would be the shoe look of the season," admits Oates. "And they are a great look. But clearly they're not for everyone. In fact, walking in wedges does tend to make one stoop. I'd say wedge woman is a seasonal shopper more interested in snapping up whatever is current rather than an investment piece."
Which makes wedge woman sound a little like a financially incontinent flibbertigibbet.
"I've sold wedges really well," says Jenkins. "Women of all ages have bought Kate Spade's pink python style. It's perfect for Scottish marquee weddings - less fear of sinking into the inevitable mud!"
Perhaps wedge woman is not entirely devoid of a practical streak.
Is there a shoe shape that defines the yummy mummy? You bet your life there is. Check out the pram-circled tables in any suburban branch of Caff Nero, and you'll note the preponderance of LK Bennett's dainty kitten-heeled mules in pretty pastel shades. "Or," offers Jenkins, "something comfortable and practical, like loafers by Kate Spade or Chlo."
Not that yummy mummy should be confused with moccasin girl. "She's Miss Miu Miu," says Oates. "She knows her fashion labels. But she's a bit of a tomboy. She's definitely a fashion hero, not a fashion victim."
"She's the woman who's traded in her Ugg boots," suggests Jenkins. "She's fashionable, of course - always in the look of the moment. Right now, that means she's wearing soft, comfortable moccasins with prairie skirts and peasant tops."
"Maybe she's an arty type," says Gibson. "A woman who likes a touch of boho, but would never do full-blown eastern exotica. Moccasins can be as comfortable as trainers, and we're seeing a lot of younger trendy girls wearing them with jeans." And, of course, moccasin girl is definitely a very different creature from the non-ironic, post-modern Sloane in flat pumps.
"We have a Miu Miu style in raffia with a white patent trim, which is selling very well to successful businesswomen who want to look smart and conventional, but feel comfortable," says Gibson.
"Flat pumps with a twinset, a pashmina, and an Alice-band will always be reminiscent of the Sloane Ranger. They're not always easy to walk in, and they can make anyone look dumpy. But they define a woman who's juggling kids and a career - they're as much a part of her life as the pram, the laptop, and the Volvo," he says.
So, if the woman in flat pumps is a non-ironic post-modern Volvo-driving Sloane, and moccasin girl is the arty, boho type ... if yummy mummies remain queens of the kitten heel and a high heel still defines the high maintenance diamond-digging glamour chick ... if fashion-forward round-toes and clumpy heels denote women who dress for themselves, and wedges denote women who dress however trends dictate ... well, what does the (relatively) humble flip-flop say about its wearer?
For, if you haven't noticed, the flip-flop has never looked less humble? This season's hottest styles from Dolce & Gabbana and Marc Jacobs marry eye-popping colour and elaborate decoration. More bohemian versions come lavished with coins, or tribal beading, or sequins, or flamboyant jewels.
"This is footwear," offers Gibson, "for the woman who doesn't want to compromise on glamour even at the side of her own private pool in Marbella or Sardinia."
"... a woman," adds Oates, "who knows nothing but sunshine and heat."
As in, I rather suspect, the celebrity gossip magazine.
Occupation: Restaurant Manager, Brian Maule, Glasgow
"I've just had my dressing room reconfigured to create proper storage for my shoes. I used to keep them in their original boxes with a Polaroid taped to the outside, but now they're all arrayed on banks of shelves. Much easier to find whatever I'm looking for!
"I've always loved beautiful shoes. I guess my all-time favourites must be a pair of black satin ridiculously high heels that I had custom-made by Manolo Blahnik. Or the red-soled Christian Louboutin heels that I liked so much I had to have them in oyster as well as black.
"Or the high Dior sandals in a strange, nothing-in-particular sort of colour that goes with just about everything. Or the Dior evening shoes embellished with jet beads and ostrich feathers. Oh, they're all favourites.
"I won't pretend I teeter around the restaurant in three inch heels. I usually wear something flat and functional like a simple Prada loafer, or those plain leather trainer-like shoes from Hermes, which feel like gloves. I've just bought replacements of both, but of course they're like school shoes: practical and sensible. So they can't hope to compete with the buzz I know I'll get from wearing the raw-edged striped silk shoes by Lanvin that I heard whispering "buy me, buy me" last week in Harvey Nichols. It would have seemed churlish to resist them, don't you think?"
Occupation: Sculptor and director of the Corn Exchange Gallery, Leith
"My love of fashion started, I guess, in my days as a fashion student at college in Limerick. I do like shoes. But I'm quite small, so I go for lots of heels or wedges, which are more comfy if you're standing all day long. I also like flat ballet pumps, sequined and ornate, to wear with jeans. But for evening it has to be majorly high sandals with a bit of girly glitz. I look for nice detailing, such as applied designs or unusual colours.
"I guess I must have 40 or 50 pairs. But I'm not a shoe snob. I'll shop anywhere from the children's department at Gap (where I've just found a great pair of gold ballet pumps) to Cruise or Harvey Nichols. I'll also borrow from my friend who has the most beautiful Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks.
"Already, this season, I've bought high black courts by Christian Louboutin, wedges by Michael Kors, white and gold heels by Fornarina (not my usual look - I've not worn them yet!), moccasins and beaded sandals by Miu Miu, and Ash raffia wedge sandals from Cruise, that I loved so much I had to buy them in two colours.
"Shoes can change the whole look of an outfit. They can make you feel dressed up. They certainly make you feel more confident when, like me, you're only five foot, three. Buying shoes is certainly not the only thing I do. But I'm totally surrounded by creative things ... and I do love my shoes."
Occupation: dentist, GLASGOW
"I think trainers are for the gym, or running. Otherwise, I never ever do flats. I'm only five feet tall, so even when I'm choosing sandals for the beach, they must have a bit of a heel or a wedge. For evenings out, it's always stiletto heels. And for work? Usually wedges - I find them incredibly comfortable.
"I've just bought the most fabulous white stilettos with tinted gel insets by Stella McCartney, and a lovely pair of turquoise espadrille wedges from Whistles.
"I love Stella McCartney's shoes. I also like Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo. I guess I must have about 100 pairs of shoes in total, of which about 60 per cent are designer brands and 40 per cent are from high street chains such as Dune, in which I recently found a great pair of gold wedges.
Generally, I shoe-shop at House of Fraser and Cruise in Glasgow, Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh, Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton in London or New York. I also pick up things I like at Danielle, near my flat in the west end of Glasgow.
"Am I a shoe-a-holic? Well, I love clothes, and bags too. But when I go shopping, shoes are always my first priority. I have very small feet - I wear a size two and a half or a three, which isn't always easy to find. So if a shop happens to have the shoes I like in the size I need, I absolutely have to have them!"