Karen Heller: Fancy shoes still sell at AAA prices

Shoes for the well-heeled. For many consumers of ultra-luxury goods, high price has become the object.
Shoes for the well-heeled. For many consumers of ultra-luxury goods, high price has become the object. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: August 10, 2011

Last week, when America was still a AAA nation, the New York Times reported that luxury goods were selling fabulously, including fine German automobiles, Tiffany jewelry (thank you, Newt and Callista!), and vertiginously priced and heeled European footwear.

Later that day, the market slumped 512 points. Cause and effect? You be the judge.

Shoes are having their moment in the marketplace, popular culture, legal proceedings. Lindsay Lohan appeared recently in court pleading she couldn't afford psychological counseling, which we all hope she gets, even as she sported $1,200 Christian Louboutin Madame Butterfly platform sandals - demonstrating that, if nothing else, she engages in retail therapy.

Louboutin is famous for fantastic prices (try finding a pair under $500) and red soles that inform others you've spent that much. The company sued YSL for having the temerity to use red soles, arguing that Louboutin has the exclusive Scarlet Leather.

Bryn Mawr poker champ and mother of three Beth Shak has become newly famous for her 1,200-pair collection, 700 of them Louboutins, including Swarovski crystal-encrusted pumps purchased for $4,000, possibly the price of your first used car (or, in my case, double).

Shak stars in the forthcoming documentary God Save My Shoes, although the Almighty seems to have little to do with acquiring soles. As clips on the website attest, high heels - nary a flat or loafer are extolled - are about sex, how they make women feel more desirable.

"I was filling a void in my life. It turned into love/obsession," Shak told The Inquirer's Kathy Boccella. Shak estimates her collection is worth half a million, worth being a relative term. Shoes are not gold. What Shak means is that her shoes cost half a million. They're nobody's idea of a sound investment.

Shoes can make women do strange things, not all of them pretty, and I argue this as someone not immune to beautiful, impractical temptations, including European footwear. In many ways, shoes are a metaphor for what has gone wrong in a status-driven consumer culture, where appearances and cost are valued over substance.

Many people, armed with money (or substantial credit), have been incapable of putting the brakes on luxury spending, "luxury" being retail-speak for "overpriced and unnecessary."

For many luxury consumers, price is no object. Indeed, price has become the object, the higher the better, consumption being the billboard for affluence. Bravo built an entire television channel around such excess.

"This group is key because the top 5 percent of income earners accounts for about one-third of spending, and the top 20 percent accounts for close to 60 percent of spending," Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi told the Times. Did the rich get their tax breaks to flaunt their income on in-your-face goods? How's that working in helping the economy?

Women have made great strides, through education, career advancement and, as Suze Orman says, taking control of our finances. But it's troubling that, as we still struggle for job parity and pay, increased representation in most professions, and greater access to power, women have never been more loony for overpriced stilettos that hobble us financially and physically. In five-inch heels, you can't run for anything, a bus or higher office.

Do people take seriously women who have blown a fortune on crippling, transient vanity? Those $1,500 shoes - many people can identify the price and provenance the way others can cite salary caps and player contracts - aren't art, no matter how much their owners rhapsodize. They won't increase in value or create a legacy. They're worth less the moment Louboutin creates a newer, costlier pair.

Fashion magazines, publications that "celebrate" women while making us feel woefully inadequate, preach about the freedom of contemporary design while inevitably promoting short skirts and perilous heels, one giant wobbly step back for womankind.

One constant piece of street theater is watching women all over any city changing from comfortable flats into more expensive cruel heels, supposedly to make a better impression. Do we really work this hard to earn money to spend so much on shoes that get us nowhere?

The only consumer metaphor as troubling yet apt for our times is the fantastic sums women shed from their wallets to purchase the handbags carrying those wallets. But that's another story.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

comments powered by Disqus