Life and loves of a shoe devil
ELEANOR COWIE November 29 2006
One of my most potent memories from childhood is playing in the shoe cupboard beneath the stairs, even though it was dark and dusty.
Its shelves groaned, laden with my mother's shoes. Heels and boots of all shapes, sizes and shades lined the walls like rows of sweets in the local paper shop – colourful and tempting, but by and large out of bounds. On a rainy day, I would meticulously arrange and rearrange my mum's shoes and when she was out, my sister and I would take turns to strut down the hall wearing a pair of her finest. Fifteen years or so on I suppose I am still doing the same, except now, 70 pairs of shoes are all mine.
My obsession with shoes sees me in good and plentiful company. Anne Hunter, an interior designer in her late 30s from Edinburgh, is a self-confessed "shoe-aholic". Three years ago, her love of footwear reached such heights she that started her own shoe business. When asked about the origin of her love affair, which has spawned close to 200 pairs of shoes and boots, she responds in the all-too- familiar refrain of the shoe-aholic: "It has always been there.
"I suppose it started with dressing up and trying on my mum's shoes and clothes when I was little," she says. "Whenever I'd get money for a Christmas or birthday I'd go straight out and buy boots or shoes."
Today research from Mintel, a market researcher, reports what many of us shoe-crazed fanatics, and perhaps the odd husband and boyfriend, has long suspected. One in 10 British women own more than 30 pairs of shoes – one for every day of the month. And a further 20% of women own between 16 and 30 pairs. Moreover, in the past five years, sales of shoes have grown faster in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. Spending on footwear has risen by 38% since 2001 alone, to reach just over £6.5bn this year. What's more, the market is expected to see continued growth, with sales increasing by 17% between 2006 and 2010 to reach £7.6bn.
Now, the obvious question in all of this – and one the shoe-lover frequently hears – is this: why shoes, and why so many?
"Yes, it is weird," says Hunter. "It is definitely hard to quantify what it is about shoes that appeals to women. I like clothes and fashion, but the shoe thing is different. Shoes can completely make an outfit. You can be more outrageous with shoes, in height, heel or colour, and whatever your mood, they will always cheer you up. Shoes are accessible – they're not restrictive in terms of your size or shape, and they're seasonal and more and more affordable."
Hunter's shoe collection would make the most committed shoe-lover flit between envy and respect in equal measure. Gucci, Prada, Jimmy Choo, Versace and Kurt Geiger varieties are all in there, mingled with the best of the high street from the likes of Topshop, Zara and Faith.
"The wonderful thing is that you can mix couture shoes with high-street clothes and vice versa – it is a question of how you work it," says Hunter.
Belinda Robertson, Scotland's "Cashmere Queen", who also happens to be a shoe queen, agrees with Hunter's summation. "Shoes have a huge impact on an outfit and anchor how good you look. I'd be embarrassed to say how many pairs I have. Because I live in more than one house, I don't have to face up to the reality of it. But it also means I can justify buying a pair of similar-styled shoes more than once, as I don't have them at home in Edinburgh or London. Shoes fit many purposes, and a girl needs a lot of shoes to fulfil them all."
Shoes convey a woman's mood and tastes and, in some instances, hopes and aspirations. But, as highlighted in yesterday's report, women's shopping habits are also changing. The once traditional specialist shoe shop is, according to Mintel, losing ground to high street fashion retailers such as Office and Dune. The percentage of the footwear market held by specialists has fallen from almost 70% in 2001 to just 57% this year.
But where the high street goes, the internet follows and shoe websites are popping up as fast as women can procure their merchandise. At the top of the online shoe-retailer pile is VivaLaDiva.com. It has been recently joined by shoe-queen.com. The brainchild of Merryn Corcoran and Sarah Watters-Carver was established little over a year ago and, as well as offering an online and shoe-party service, its bespoke products are exclusively stocked at Robertson's cashmere knitwear stores in Edinburgh and London.
"We wanted to give people a high- quality shoe at a reasonable price," says Watters-Carver. With prices starting at £65, shoe-queen.com's clientele is more likely to be seen going to the races or the opera than the cinema or clubbing.
"The people we sell to appreciate quality and comfort. Our customers tend to be those who perhaps live in the country and don't have ready access to shops. It is scary how much the market is growing," she laughs, "but we love it. There's something very special about a new pair of shoes. The way they make you feel is quite beautiful. You know that if you pick your size, it is always going to fit, no matter how you feel about the rest of your body. Your confidence never gets knocked when you're trying on shoes," she adds.
But is it really any wonder females are so drawn to shoes? After all, the first stories we hear are fictional tales involving footwear, and their role in rescuing protagonists from trouble, despair or a life of penury.
There's Cinderella and her glass slipper, the elves and the shoemaker, the old woman who lived in a shoe, (surely every shoe lover's fantasy), Puss in Boots and Dorothy's magic red shoes in the Wizard of Oz … and, of course, the wonderful Imelda Marcos.
The pick of the pairs
Our top five choices for the best shoes this Christmas:
Coffee-coloured, peep-toe Mary Janes with jewelled detail from Jigsaw, £68. Stockists: 0141 552 7639/ 0131 225 4501.
Black patent wedges with suede bow by Beverly Feldman at Russell & Bromley, £165. Stockists: 0141 248 6031.
Cherry-red patent stilettos with square peep-toe detail by Miu Miu at House of Fraser, £180. Stockists: 0870 160 7243.
Brown patent court shoe with leopard-print wedge,Kurt Geiger, House of Fraser, £159. Stockists: 0870 160 7243.
Knee-length black leather boots with pointed toe at LK Bennett, £169. Stockists: 0131 226 3370/ 0141 221 5500.