By Robin Givhan
Sunday, June 21, 2009
The announcement last week that luxury shoemaker Jimmy Choo is creating a limited-edition collection for the bargain merchant H&M makes one wonder whether the high-end fashion market will survive the economic crisis.
If the luxury market does survive, it certainly won't be as dazzling. Bargain designer shoes will sever the connection between product and fantasy.
Jimmy Choo shoes rose to prominence thanks to an abundance of red-carpet appearances on the feet of starlets. Choos accessorized the lemongrass-colored ensemble first lady Michelle Obama wore on Inauguration Day. And a significant percentage of the brand's notoriety results from shows such as "Sex and the City" and "Gossip Girl," which have made mid-priced shoppers as well as bargain-hunters more attuned to designer brands.
It makes sense that H&M -- which, along with Target, has led the way in bringing a designer point of view to modest price points -- would want to take advantage of the name recognition of this luxury shoe brand. In addition to footwear, the Jimmy Choo for H&M collection will include ready-to-wear, as well as men's shoes and accessories. It will be sold in about 250 stores worldwide beginning Nov. 14. A company spokeswoman couldn't confirm whether the Washington area would receive any of the bargain designer merchandise.
Shoes have always been fashion's great equalizer. A woman is never too fat or too old, too short or too thin to indulge in this singular luxury. She may not wear the highest heel or the thickest platform, but she can always take part in the fantasy.
Designer ready-to-wear, by contrast, has always been an exclusive club. Simply because a woman has a hefty bank account does not mean she can wear Balenciaga. She must be blessed with legs like a gazelle. The majority of designer ready-to-wear also maxes out at a size 10 or 12.
But a woman who finds herself relegated to a plus-size dress shop can find her shoe size in even the snootiest fashion boutique. Shoes allow a woman to participate in all the status-chasing and snobbery that fashion has to offer.
Women have been known to coo over Jimmy Choo shoes because of their fanciful designs and their sex appeal. Their exorbitant prices -- a basic pump costs about $550 -- has only added to their allure. For less than a thousand dollars, a woman can get a name-dropping label, a trendy silhouette, price-point exclusiveness and the aura of celebrity endorsements.
While apparel sales declined 8.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, fashion footwear sales were down a slightly less dismal 6.4 percent, according to NPD Group, a market research company. (Sales of sporty and outdoorsy shoes were up during that same period. Apparently shoppers are strapping on Tevas and hiking away their woes.)
Shoes and other accessories have always been great moneymakers for designers. Rarely do they pay their bills with the revenue from fancy cocktail dresses and bejeweled jackets. It's accessories that push them into the black.
But there's something about cheap Jimmy Choo shoes that doesn't feel right. True, the democratization of good design has been nothing but positive. As designers dabble in the mass market, it has heightened their brand awareness, added to their customer base and made for a more aesthetically pleasing populace. There is no longer any excuse for anyone to be afflicted with bad design.
But unlike ready-to-wear, women's shoes have been sold on a centuries-old mythology that makes the discovery that Jimmy Choo can produce a desirable pair of shoes for less than $50 as jarring as when Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard.
There's no other item in a woman's wardrobe that is as fetishized as a pair of expensive designer shoes. No one pretends that a three-inch heel is ever going to be comfortable, but the conventional wisdom has been that an expensive pair of stilettos is going to be more comfortable than cheap ones because all that high-priced engineering is going to make the heel more stable, thus making walking without tipping over less of a challenge.
Women have always known that to be an exaggeration. But it sounded good. It justified the cost to folks who didn't understand the fantasy. The reality, though, is women buy designer shoes that they cannot walk more than 10 paces in because they believe that they will look exquisite for those 10 slow, painful steps.
In boutiques, shoes are presented on tuffets and are spotlit like works of art. What makes them so desirable is not merely the way they make a woman look or feel but the experience of trying them on, of purchasing them. The shoe department remains the one section in even bare-bones department stores that has not gone self-service. A salesperson -- quite often a man -- takes a woman's request for a shoe that she has plucked from a display and is cradling in her hand. He returns with her size. Perhaps he even helps her put the shoe on. That's not a shopping trip; that's an erotic adventure.
The Jimmy Choo shoes for H&M will undoubtedly be striking. And if history is any indication, there will be a stampede of shoppers the day the shoes go on sale. But the outsize fascination that women have with shoes is not merely about the product. It's a mythology that incorporates everything from fairy tales to feminist porn. The shoes are the easy part. It's everything else that costs so much.