Mirror, Mirror: Jellies for big girls

Now all-season, high-style, higher-priced.

Posted: July 26, 2012

This summer, jellies - those plastic shoes from yesteryear - went from playground chic to high-fashion sheen.

Michael Kors offered thonged flip-flops in hot pinks and bold oranges. The insole in Burberry's version popped with the company's signature plaid, and Marc by Marc Jacobs color-blocked his malleable flats.

"Jellies did really well this summer," said Mercedes Mincks, assistant buyer for salon footwear at Zappos.com, of the season considered finished in the fashion industry. According to Mincks, Kate Spade and Ted Baker's glittery jellies sold out last month on the online shoe website. "The brands did not anticipate how fast the category would take off," Mincks explained. "But we know they will be better prepared in the fall."

Jellies in the fall?

The sweaty shoes not only aren't just for summer anymore; they're also not cheap, either. Expect to pay more than $100 for seasonless jellies in wedges, booties, and tie-ups. And don't worry about stench ruining the high-class vibe. Some companies scent their shoes. The original jelly brand, Brazilian-based Melissa, smells like strawberry jam.

"There is so much you can do with the shoe," said Aarti Ruparell, marketing director for Melissa. Melissa's jellies include Mary Jane styles that look and feel like suede, and color-blocked wedges that could easily be mistaken for patent leather. "They are sleek and comfortable, and all of our shoes are waterproof."

Three years ago, in-house designers at Melissa started to work with celebrity designers including Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, Jason Wu, Gareth Pugh, and Brazilian wunderkind Pedro Lourenço. A renaissance was in the making.

This summer, people haven't been able to get enough of them. Maybe it was our rainy yet unseasonably warm winter and spring. Maybe it's because we are tired of high heels - this is the summer of the ballerina flat. Or maybe it's simply because jellies are easy to pair with the color-blocking trend. In any case, jellies are gaining in popularity.

"This is my third season carrying the jellies and I've sold out in a couple of styles," said Elena Brennan, owner of Bus Stop boutique on South Fourth Street, which stocked six styles of the Melissa jelly. "You can wear them around the city: to pools, to parties, to a picnic. You can wear them out to someplace swank. And we've had so much rain this season."

First lady Michelle Obama was an early adopter. In 2010 she wore a pair of the flesh-toned jelly flats with a blue Tracy Reese floral dress. The rest of the entertainment world seems to be catching on as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Anne Hathaway were spotted in the casual shoe this spring.

And last month, Harlem-bred rapper Azealia Banks rocked a pale lavender, sequined, furry-hemmed Moschino cocktail dress with a pair of chunky-heeled red jellies by British shoe company juju. During Fourth of July weekend, singer Nicola Roberts wore a pair of black Topshop jellies at the Wireless Festival.

"My jelly wedges are seriously the most comfortable high heels I've ever worn," said Karin Tyburczy, owner of Astro Vintage in Queen Village; she owns four pairs of Melissa wedges. Tyburczy never thought she'd be wearing jellies as an adult, but the 31-year-old is hooked on the shoe for trend and comfort. "I would throw out all of my heels in favor of these shoes. They are heat moldable so there is no rubbing on my toes at all."

Jellies slid onto the fashion scene in post-World War II Europe, most likely in France because of the shortage of leather and the availability of polyvinyl chloride, PVC. Back then, jellies came in a bevy of flat styles.

In the 1980s Grendene Shoes, the parent company of Melissa, brought the PVC footwear to the United States and they quickly became a five-and-dime fashion special. Cheap-looking, yet cute, the shoes sold for $1 to $4.99. Each summer my grandmother would present me with a brand-new pair of pink or red jellies and a new hula hoop. I was styling with both.

Although these days you'll pay significantly more for a pair of high-fashion jellies, designers whose shoes often cost upward of $350 are using jellies to lure customers who crave labels, Mincks said.

Another selling point for the shoes, this time around, is their eco-friendly charm. For example, Ruparell said, Melissa's jellies are made from a recyclable plastic called Melflex, which is toxin-free, hypoallergenic, and contains no animal products. Melflex also wicks away moisture - no slipping, sliding, or sweating.

Zappos plans to introduce a line of jellies by Italian vegan shoe designer Rebecca Mink.

"We are sure these are going to be pretty popular," Mincks said about the collection. "They are trendy and people like to feel like they are doing something good for the environment. That's a recipe for success in today's fashion."

Not able to resist the lure of the classic plastic shoe, I bought a pair of gray open-toed Melissa flats and walked 10 blocks in them from Rittenhouse Square to our new offices at Eighth and Market. Nothing pinched and the soft aroma of strawberry jam stayed with me the whole day.

Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, "Mirror Image," at philly.com/mirrorimage.

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