Read an Excerpt
Five years ago, I moved into my current apartment. The previous tenant, the usual friend of a friend, was a very sporty type, with a decided flair for DIY. While showing me the features of the house, he paused proudly before a recess in the wall that he had skillfully transformed into a spacious cupboard replete with shelves, where he kept his numerous mountaineering sweaters (he's not the jacket and tie sort).
At the sight of this, I was filled with excitement, and cried out: "How wonderful! That's where I can store my shoes!"
He stared at me in amazement, and asked: "Well, how many shoes do you own? I myself own four: two for the winter, and two for the summer!"
If ever I had doubted it, here was the proof: men and women are very different in several respects, but the moment you get onto the subject of shoes, a chasm opens between the two sexes.
It has been calculated that the average person walks almost two thousand miles during their lifetime. Thus, shoes are useful objects for both sexes, but it is only for women that they become an all-consuming obsession. Women's magazines tell us how to use shoes to find ourselves a husband, reconquer a lost lover, or get that job we hanker after.
They can cost a fortune; yet while money itself does not bring happiness, a pair of new shoes can bring about a kind of exaltation that comes pretty close to that fleeting pleasure described by the philosophers. The reason is often a mystery. One explanation may be that, unlike many other objects clothes, for example shoes have a distinct advantage. Whether you're fat or thin, short or tall, beautiful or ugly, you can buy all the shoes your heart desires.
Shoes possess magical properties; capable of making you feel splendid or sexy, elegant or sporty at a single stroke. In spite of the soles coming into contact with the less-than-immaculate streets, and indeed our own sweat, they remain works of art or at least of a kind of noble craftsmanship, which at the end of the day is not that far removed from that of jewelry. With the difference that they cost somewhat less than diamonds, which are considered to be "a girl's best friend." In the end that's what shoes are: our best friends.
At this point I have to come clean and admit that the aim of this book is not to arrive at a definitive understanding of the subject, because that would be impossible. The French director François Truffaut maintained that cinemagoers have two professions: their own as well as that of film critic. In just the same way, all women are experts on shoes.
They always have been, but over the last ten years this phenomenon has increased massively due to several factors. In order to increase the popularity of their brands, the great fashion houses have invested a great deal in the production of accessories not only shoes but bags, glasses, and cosmetics, all of which are in a far more affordable price range than clothes, suits, and coats.
For a long time, the obsession with luxury shoes has been the prerogative of a select caste composed of "It Girls," the females of the international jet set, a select tribe of actresses, socialites, and millionairesses whose members could be identified by the accessories with which they adorned themselves. Their distinguishing tattoos were the labels Hermès, Gucci, Caovilla, Ferragamo, Blahnik which they procured by putting their names down on the special waiting lists of international boutiques.
Subsequently, in accordance with the new commercial politics of the top brands, what was once the preserve of an elite has now turned into a behavioral trend for the masses. The brands have multiplied or branched out into numerous lines, along with their collector-buyers.
Over the last couple of years, producers have described the state of the shoe market as being critical, as is the case with other fashion sectors: decreasing exports, an increase in imports of mass-produced, shoddier goods from China, Vietnam, and India. And yet, in spite of these intimations of economic crisis, or perhaps precisely because of them, a pair of high-quality shoes continues to be seen as a form of intelligent investment, partly due to the philosophy of "spending more to spend less," partly because a pair of designer shoes is one of the most widespread status symbols to be found, and one that is most difficult to renounce. For those people unable to afford the hot new pieces of a collection, there exist stores, outlets, and markets where at a far lower price, one can easily pick up models that certainly haven't yet lost their luster.
Perhaps, in order for shoes to once more become truly exclusive objects, we will have to return to made-to-measure products, as happened before World War II. It's not a coincidence that in London, if you're a little bit handy, there now exists a two-day shoe-manufacturing course from Prescott & Mackay (for further information see the Web site, www.prescottandmackay.co.uk).
Frankly, I don't believe that this initiative will be particularly successful. The attraction of shoes rests entirely in the encounter: there they lie, splendid, virginal, on show for all to see, whether in a well-illuminated city center shop or jumbled up on a pile in a market stall.
A shoe, just like love, can awaken violent instincts. I have seen things that men could never even believe possible, but which women have experienced, often in first person: fisticuffs for the last pair of leopard-skin shoes in a size 7; elbow jabs to get to a ridiculous pair of gold sandals; even insults exchanged over an absolutely ordinary-looking pair of brown ankle boots and shame that everyone wanted them.
Our passion for shoes has an extraordinary history behind it. Mankind remained barefoot for precious little time. Already in certain prehistoric graffiti one can make out footwear derived from animal skins. The evolution of shoes proceeded apace alongside fashion and customs.
Finally, here is my own personal "shoeography." I wrote the book you are now holding in your hands while wearing almost exclusively a pair of Nike Pegasus, the same sneakers I use for jogging. For me, it is the equivalent of being barefoot.
Wandering around the city in search of inspiration, looking in shop windows, and making special note of the shoes women were walking around in, I was never without my pair of black, medium-heeled, slightly pointed brushed calfskin boots, one of my most successful purchases of the winter 2002-2003. They taught me one thing: what you're looking for is not always on display, even in the better-stocked shops. Carefully explain to the assistant what it is you're after. In the storeroom there might lie as was the case with my beloved boots the exact design you're looking for, but which, thanks to the mysterious rules of fashion, might not fit into the trend of the moment.
When I went to interview Sara Porro, one of the best shoe designers around, I made the great mistake of wearing an old pair of Hogan suede lace-up ankle boots (it was freezing cold!). Being a kind of high priestess of elegant footwear, she gave me a filthy look, but she charmingly forgave me.
On the other hand, for my trip to the Ferragamo museum in Florence, I wore a pair of Dolce & Gabbana shoes from the 2000 collection in patent leather and snakeskin, with an ankle strap and fairly low heel, which had become quite comfortable through intensive use. This too was a bit of a gaffe, but the best I could do under the circumstances, in view of the intense day I had ahead of me. They too were kind enough not to comment thanks for that!
In order to celebrate the end of this marvelous journey into an obsession mine and others' for shoes, I haven't yet decided which shoes to wear. I might go and buy a new pair for the occasion. In fact, come to think of it, I really need some.
Copyright © 2004 by Sperling & Kupfer Editori S.p.A.