The Sex and the City stereotype of the shoe enthusiast as a fashionista with a passion for high heels is seriously out of date. Today's shoe collector is probably buying sneakers and is quite likely male. Shoes may have as much glamour as ever, but it's not the kind Christian Louboutin would recognise.
If current trends continue, men's US shoe sales will soon surpass women's. At A$35.1 billion in 2016 versus A$40.1 billion for women's footwear, "men's is closer in size to women's than it's ever been," says Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear and accessories analyst at the NPD Group. Women's sales are shrinking as men's continue to rise, in both revenue and number of pairs sold.
Behind the sales figures is a cultural shift. As dress becomes more casual, habits are converging, with women buying more versatile styles while men expand their shoe collections.
The wearability factor
Traditionally, men got more wear out of any given pair of shoes. "If you're getting a pair of desert boots or brogues, you can wear those every day, all day, all year," says Andrew Luecke, a New York-based menswear writer and co-author of the new book Cool: Style, Sound, and Subversion. "A pair of Louboutin stilettos? Not so wearable."
That's changing, however. Instead of picking up sandals in the spring and boots in the fall, women are buying shoes they can wear year-round, such as ankle boots and sneakers. Their purchase patterns now look more like men's. That's bad news for retailers who count on seasonal lines to drive purchases.
Meanwhile, the rise of sneakers as all-occasion footwear is encouraging men to build their wardrobes while depressing women's sales. "Men have the tendency to collect things," observes Luecke. "Once it was baseball cards. Now it's sneakers. If you're collecting, you can't have too many sneakers." And if you're not into sneakers, you can buy shoes to go with your favourite pastime – camping, fishing, rock climbing, snowshoeing, whatever. They aren't frivolous fashion; they're serious gear!
A slowing down
For women, however, less formal footwear means fewer purchases. If you're sneaker shopping, you don't have to buy several different pairs to find one that feels comfortable after more than a short stroll on the shoe department carpet. (Even retailers with generous return policies frown on scuffed soles.) Instead of closets full of barely worn rejects, women can build smaller wardrobes of shoes they actually wear.
Women could in theory stock up on sneaker styles. But shoe companies don't make it easy. "Why should women's colour ranges be limited to pinks, purples, and pastels?" lamented sneaker lover Anna Bediones in a 2013 article. I wonder the same thing whenever I venture into a sneaker store: Why are the styles I like only on the men's side? Why can't women get good-looking shoes? It's role reversal.
Although women's offerings have gotten a bit better in recent years, petite sneaker heads like Bediones still resort to the kids' department to get the styles they want. Women with larger feet buy men's sneakers, so at least some of the growth in "men's footwear" is actually sales to women.
We less-determined shoppers simply hold onto our money. After all, no one really needs dozens of pairs of shoes. We buy them because they move our imaginations – with their beauty, their novelty, their comfort, or their associations. Shoes promise to transform us. That promise is what makes them glamorous – whether Manolo Blahniks or Air Jordans.
"They're architectural," observes Luecke, who wore desert boots to his book-release party. "There's something really powerful and special in that. Plus they're the one part of your outfit you really get to check out all day: I'm wearing cool shoes. I feel cool. It's transformative."
That feeling has driven many a purchase of beautiful, impractical stilettos. To recapture female customers, retailers need merchandise that offers the same sensation in less formal styles. As men already know, shoes don't have to hurt to be glamorous. They just have to make you feel special.