Extreme Shoes: What Women Will Dare to Wear -- and Pay For

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Extreme high heelsNever mind the Great Recession. Women are still willing to pay more than $1,000 for a pair of designer shoes. The crazier, the scarier, the stranger, the better.

"Women's luxury footwear sales have been phenomenal," says Bluefly.com home and accessories buyer Andrea Oguz, who notes that luxury footwear is currently the strongest category within women's accessories. "Not only is the customer there, they're incredibly active. It's as if women have lost all their shoes and they need to replace them."

Market research firm, Euromonitor International, says sales of designer shoes fell 8.7% to $9.77 billion in 2009. But that number is expected to rebound 3.2% this year -- and climb by as much as 20% by 2013.

Standing Out in the Crowd


Designers have been happy to oblige shoppers. Luxury shoes this season are more sculptural and artistic, and women aren't blinking an eye at the hefty price tags of $1,000 or more. "If it's really bold and trend-driven, it will sell," says Oguz.



This fall, female shoppers have a smorgasbord of choices: sky-scraping platforms; metallic belt-buckle over-the-knee boots; shoes that resemble the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; shoes that look like bloated armadillos; cowboy boots that threaten to topple you over backwards; torturous spikes; stilettos festooned with feathers; and garter belt-like lace-ups.

"We've been selling fall for a couple months now already," says Hu's Shoes owner Marlene Hu Aldaba, pointing out that even in relatively conservative regions like Washington, D.C., the statement-making shoe is having a moment. "Women are going for something that's really special as opposed to a staple black pump." Hu's sells shoes priced up to $1,200.

According to the Luxury Institute, which polled high-end female shoppers this year, Christian Louboutin is the brand that women consider to be most worthy of a price premium, from $400 to $4,000. Manolo Blahnik and Zac Posen (who is better known for his clothing), ranked second and third, respectively.

A Psychologically Thrifty Splurge

The rise of luxury footwear has coincided with the decline of handbag sales, says Hana Ben-Shabat, a retail consultant and a partner at A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm. "Between 2004 and 2008, handbags were growing double digits," she says. "There was a new 'It' bag every day. When the recession hit, we saw both a decline in the average price point as well as in the introductions of new handbags." These designer shoes, at an average of $1,000 a pair, cost less than handbags that are priced anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000.

Mike Berry, director of industry research at MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, agrees. "We've seen big ups and downs in the apparel sector this year, but if apparel was down, footwear wouldn't be as down," he says. (SpendingPulse estimates total U.S. retail sales, including cash and checks. It's not a measure of MasterCard's financial performance.)

Says Ben-Shabat: "Psychologically, [buying shoes] feels like the more reasonable thing to do."
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