A tall, debonair, dark-haired man in a pinstripe suit with a pink handkerchief peeking from his front pocket and a tall blonde fashionista by his side, is speaking to a cluster of eager young women.
He is talking about the ballerina and the gladiator, two shoe styles he is famous for, and then says something about how Steve Madden copied him. Then he tells a story.
“When I was young, like your age, I worked for Ralph Lauren,” recounts Sam Edelman. “I went to Italy with him. He was a really small designer at the time. He’s still small [in stature], but he’s rich [laughs]. He spent the trip looking in the windows of all the old shoe stores and taking notes, so he could copy them. Everyone copies. I often see the same shoes back-to-back at Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik. Fashion is about looking backward.”
The dozen trendy twenty-somethings are listening like disciples. Minutes before they had been all over the floor like frenzied children when a piñata bursts open at a party. Candy-colored shoes, opened shoeboxes and tissue paper scattered across the carpet as the girls frenetically tried on pair after pair. Edelman kindly let them each take home a free pair and autographed the soles with a Sharpie.
They are advanced footwear design students from The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles— an elite three-year advanced degree program and the only full footwear design program in the country. The fashion-minded gaggle are at the World Shoes and Accessories (WSA) show on a weekend field trip, chaperoned by their program director, to get an overview of the shoe industry and an idea of which brands they’d like to work for upon graduation.
The Mandalay Bay Convention Center and the Sands Convention Center at the Venetian - two vast spaces occupied at other times by the latest in technology and pornography - are for three days, twice yearly, taken up by the best footwear brands and their best wares, sales reps and models for the WSA. Besides this group of students, the tradeshow attendees are shoe designers, exhibitors, sellers, buyers and fashion editors.
In a three-way symbiosis, the editors survey the designers’ new collections, pick a few styles to feature in upcoming issues (they are already working on fall issues and shoot three months in advance) and look at what the buyers are purchasing to stock in stores like Nordstrom’s, Dillards, Bloomingdales and Saks, while the buyers take note of what the editors are planning to highlight in their magazines. The editors dictate the fashion trends, but they still want to know what the masses like, while the buyers want to know what the editors feature, because this will largely impacts sales.
When I enter the convention the first shoes I encounter are black, green, purple and red combat boots decorated with hearts, skulls, animal prints and tattoo-like paintings of pin-up models. The gothic-looking sales-rep tells me her target market is “alternative.”
Next door are pretty displays of little girls shoes, all glittery and pink and flowery, couched in beds of pink feathers. The company, Lelli Kelly, is the number one girls’ brand in Italy, where, company director Suzanne Hood says, they like “very embellished, vulcanized, hand-beaded footwear; footwear that makes little girls feel like little girls.”
After Hood, I find a rugged, outgoing man who excitedly explains how his leather shoes are handmade in Leon, Mexico. Phil Pruett grabs a black men’s boot off the shelf and shows me the nails in the bottom of the sole.
“They are handmade in Mexico with traditional techniques that have been lost over the years. We’re trying to bring back the cobblers', rustic style of footwear. Each one is unique, and we’re trying to champion that.
“Leather and wood are partners in life and especially lemonwood and leather,” he continues, seemingly in love with the shoe he is palming. “They expand and contract. That ebb and flow is not the same between metal and wood. Also, we use a vegetable tar to treat the leather, an organic process that preserves the imperfections in each product, because at Bed-Stu we find that makes the product more genuine.”
And expensive: $795 for the style in his hands.
Further along four walls are plastered with colorful shoes from pink cowboy boots to sneakers. Stuck into the cement like a mosaic or a house made out of cement and shoes, It’s the Christian Audigier/Ed Hardy display, those twin rhinestoned, über-trendy champions of the “look-at-how-hip-I-am” aesthetic.
Next are rows upon rows of multi-colored and patterned Havaianas flip-flops pinned onto medically white walls like a rubbery butterfly collection, plus two live Barbie-and-Ken models to show them off. Havaianas brand was launched in 1962 in Brazil and now manufactures 500,000 pairs a day and sells 2 million pairs a year in 85 countries.
And there’s Groove, a line from Orange County. Employee Leah Bollier describes it as a “fun, vibrant, youthful line” and tells me that the average age of Groove’s employees, both designers and sales reps, is 24 (she’s 26), “So they are shoes for girls by girls!”
Her counterpart, another good-looking young woman in a miniskirt, shows me a towering patent and plaid creation. “It’s ‘Manhattan Preppy.’ It’s based on plaid, and ‘schoolgirl’ is a big influence.”
I continue on and bounce around between big names, like Chinese Laundry and Michael Antonio, and smaller independent boutiques, often from overseas. Damiana Braco of Shellys from London tells me about her colorful collection in a darling accent: “It’s a bit different, but of course is on trend. We don’t want it to be a boring winter collection, especially with the recession.”
Poetic License, also from London, features satin gem-colored high-heeled pumps adorned with frills and bows and is fueled by a similar philosophy. “It’s something that you don’t already have in your closet and makes you feel good when you purchase them,” says president Lori McDermid. “Great shoes for girls of all ages.”
One of the footwear design students, Ariana Potter, her shoulders draped in layers of dark curls, a maroon scarf and a long beaded necklace, is cradling a box of Edelman’s shoes. She tells me she prefers high-end design, because there is “more freedom.” Someday she wants to start her own line of footwear.
“The artistry and the craftsmanship is something that few people know how to do. It’s a lost art form. You can see something through from start to finish, from your idea to a 3D product, and it’s really exciting.”
Shoes, while logically just a practical covering for your feet, have a magic draw, an intangible power. While walking through the minimally supervised shelves upon shelves of gorgeous stilettos, flats and wedges the term “kleptomania” comes to mind, a certain summery red espadrille catching my eye.
I’m nowhere near the level of the real WSA-ers (think men in argyle sweater vests and women who lug huge shopping bags and observe over champagne, “There weren’t that many patents this season.”). They probably looked at me like Ugly Betty or Anne Hathaway’s hapless character in The Devil’s Wears Prada as I shuffled around with my sometimes untied, unimaginative black chucks. I do love shoes, but in a shoe world this overwhelming and expensive, and especially if I’m walking through a miles-long footwear convention, I’d almost rather be barefoot.