Manolo The Shoeblogger On Why People Love To Talk About Shoes

When I was researching this Bloomberg View column on why people love to talk about shoes, I interviewed Manolo the Shoeblogger via email. His answers were great, but they didn't make it into the column. So, with his permission, I'm posting the interview here:

Q: Why are people so interested in shoes?

A: Because shoes have magic in them:  Our fairy tales are filled with stories of fantasy shoes: glass slippers, hundred league boots, ruby slippers, shoes in which old women reside, boots for sword fighting cats, shoes made by elvish cobbles at night, red ballet shoes which cause the wearer to dance incessantly, and on, and on.

Every child knows that shoes are magic. It is one of the first things you learn. Shoes are magic.

To be barefeeted in literature and in life is to be the pitiable creature. To have the shoes, even the most humble, is to be the person of some substance. When you put on the pair of the beautiful, well-made shoes that fit, you are filled with satisfaction and contentment; you look better, you stand taller, and you are more confident. Thus shoes work transformative magic. We all know this to be true, because we have all experienced it ourselves.

Even our modern shoes, in which the magic is usually latent, can be frequently beautiful. And when we buy beautiful shoes we believe we can imbue ourselves with some of this beauty. Pants are pants. Dresses are dresses. But it is only with the shoes on our feet that we are fully dressed. The ball gown, no matter how beautiful, is not complete until the dancing shoes have been put on.

Shoes are the one item of clothing that allows the widest range of personal and artistic expression. You would perhaps look foolish wearing the blue, bejeweled, suede dress. But give that same material to Giuseppe Zanotti and you would have shoes fit for the queen of the world.  Outrageous colors (purple!) and material (snakeskin!) can be made into the most captivating shoes. And shoes have structure and architecture, and can molded into fascinating wearable forms that other types of clothing cannot be. Yes, hats are similar. But hats are optional, shoes are mandatory. 

Finally, shoes are the one item of high fashion that does not discriminate based on size or age. The stylish plus-sized lady can wear Louboutins if she can master the heels. The elderly woman of spirit can be at home in the pair of Blahniks.   

Q: Why are they so interested in shoes now?

A: For whatever reason, we are in the Golden Age of Shoes. There are more talented designers than ever before; women are more adventurous in what they will wear than ever before; and the market is able to deliver beautiful shoes to more places than ever before.

The question is, why now?  The best answer is that we are the impossibly rich society, and that even despite the Great Recession we still have plenty of money to spend, and much of it, for the first time, is in the hands of women, who are working at greater rates and earning more money than ever before.  

And because of the rise of the internet, and concurrent democratization of fashion, shoes, which are the easily sized and quickly transported commodity, were at the forefront of the shopping boom that followed these two trends. The aspirational woman in Montana can now buy Louboutin pumps from Saks online, and have them on her feets in two days (one, if she pays for overnight shipping). This is the dramatic change in how we live our lives. In the past, our Montana lady would have had to go where to find her shoes? Salt Lake City?  Seattle? And when she got there, after great effort the selection of styles would have been limited, the sizes haphazard.  And for all of this world, we owe Zappos the enormous debt of gratitude, for pioneering this way of shopping, for it is as radical as anything the internet has done.

Boots Were Made For Talking, About Who We Are

Bigstock-Shoes-Shop-31017755Thanks to everybody who answered my shoe survey. It played a small role in my latest Bloomberg View column.

If you have been reading newspapers or websites, listening to the radio or watching TV over the past few weeks, you have probably heard the news: “You CAN judge a person by his shoes.” Beginning in mid-June, word of a psychology article titled “Shoes as a source of first impressions” began circling the globe.

Describing an experiment by researchers from the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, many reports declared that shoes alone reveal just everything about the wearer’s personality. “Overly aggressive people wear ankle boots,” proclaimed a Los Angeles National Public Radio host.

What psychologist Omri Gillath and his team actually found was more modest. Without the cues of facial expressions and context, college students could guess basic demographic characteristics from looking at photos of other college students’ footwear: gender, age and income. They could also detect the personality trait known as agreeableness, as well as something called attachment anxiety, which is connected to fear of rejection and was correlated with dull-colored shoes. That was all: not political affiliation, not how extroverted the wearers were, not whether they were overly aggressive.

The study made a solid contribution to research on first impressions, but it was hardly earthshaking. By getting so much attention, however, it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes. Even those who dismissed the research as silly often felt compelled to call radio stations or comment on websites, providing details about their own choices. Why this fascination with footwear?

Like cars, shoes combine function and aesthetics, the promise of mobility and the pleasures of style. As apparel, they offer not only protection but transformation; as autonomous objects, they serve as “bursts of beauty that defy the mundane,” writes Rachelle Bergstein in Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us. Unlike cars, shoes are also inexpensive enough to permit people to build diverse wardrobes, changing footwear with season, circumstances and mood.

Whether Jimmy Choos, Pumas or Toms, shoes let us stand out as individuals while fitting into similarly shod social groups. The complex relationship between the social and the personal is why it’s so hard to tell much about a shoe’s owner from a photograph alone -- and why shoes are so interesting. Their meanings require, and sometimes reveal, broader cultural context. Bergstein tells the story of a Texas high school that in 1993 punished students for wearing Doc Martens, falsely assuming that the boots signaled white racism when in fact they merely reflected students’ musical taste. A shoe, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, “is an accessory that can carry a lot of cultural meaning.”

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

[Shoes shop illustration courtesy of BigStock.]

How Many Pairs Of Shoes Do You Own?

Please help me with an experiment. First estimate how many pairs of shoes you own. Then go count them. Post the two numbers below.

High Fashion: How Amazon Can Make It Work

Amazon apparel

My latest Bloomberg View column suggests some ways Amazon might overcome fashionista skepticism about its plans to move beyond its traditional apparel offerings into higher-end fashion. Here's the opening:

When I caught Jeff Bezos's eye at the press preview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Costume Institute exhibit, which Inc. sponsored, his face burst into an enormous smile. I'd like to think this was because the Amazon chief executive officer likes me so much. (We see each other socially on rare occasions.)

But I suspect he was mostly glad to see anyone he recognized. We were probably the only two people in the room who could tell you who Linus Torvalds is, or Myron Scholes: two nerds, however grown-up and pulled together, in a crowd of fashionistas.

Amazon is an unlikely sponsor for a Costume Institute event, and Bezos an exceedingly unlikely fashion advocate. "Before we got involved, this event wasn't on my radar at all," he said of the museum's celebrity-filled annual gala.

But his company is trying to get into high-end fashion retailing, and sponsoring the Met exhibit and the fashion world's party of the year is a good way to get attention. If nothing else, it gets Bezos and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour speaking on a first-name basis.

A cultural gap remains, however. "It could never be cool to shop for fashion at Geek cooties will come attached to your clothes," an early commenter said about Monday's New York Times story on Amazon's foray into fine fashion. Another wrote, "Do you want to be cool or pay the lowest price? Your decision." The Times story ended with a jab at Bezos for not knowing the brand of his own shirt or shoes -- and for letting a tacky ID badge dangle from his Prada jeans.

Net-a-Porter has already demonstrated that you don't have to be a flash-sale site to sell high fashion online. So have the websites of department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In the specialized vintage market, so has 1stDibs. The problems of presentation and fit can be overcome.

The real question is the cultural one: How can a middle- brow company like Amazon become a credible source of fashion rather than merely apparel? Here are a few ideas the company might consider:

Read the rest on Bloomberg View. Shop Amazon Apparel.

Desert Glamour: A Location Scout On The Many Faces Of Palm Springs

In this video, which accompanies a local newspaper interview, location scout Sylvia Schmitt talks about why the variety of locations available in the Palm Springs area make it so appealing for fashion shoots. The windmills are popular, of course, as is the midcentury modern architecture--and the automobile props that complement it. But so is the rugged beauty of Joshua Tree National Park. And Schmitt's Locations Unlimited website promotes even more desolate spots, including an abandoned mine, an abandoned prison, and an abandoned railway, as well as a couple of salt flat locations. Photographers apparently like the emptiness, which allows them to construct their own fantasy environments. Desert ruins also provide a contrast that heightens the vitality of young fashion models--an encounter between the beautiful and sublime.

Photographer Lillian Bassman On Glamour: "I Project What I'm Not. What I Would Like To Be."

The great fashion photographer Lillian Bassman has died at the age of 94. Here's the NYT obituary of this extraordinary woman. Here's a selection of her work from the Peter Fetterman Gallery. The clip above, from which I took the title quote for this post, is from a documentary on her life and work. You can see the full documentary, which lasts about 28 minutes (in two parts), and comments from Fetterman and Bassman's daughter, photographer Lizzie Himmel, here.

Justified Lust

Olyphant1Many women (including my wife) enthusiastically agree that actor Timothy Olyphant is incredibly hot. As Marshall Raylan Givens in FX channel’s Justified, he is as dangerous as a heart-throb as he is with a gun.

When portraying Marshall Givens in dangerous situations, Olyphant uses his eyes and sly smile to convey the feeling that Givens is coolly sizing up the opposition. Marshall Givens usually seems less prone to rage than the sheriff Olyphant played in Deadwood. Nonetheless, Olyphant makes us feel that Marshall Givens will kill without a moments hesitation, if justified. And since Justified is set in a contemporary rural Kentucky environment filled with dangerous criminals, guns, and drugs, Givens’s expertise with a handgun does frequently come into play.

Olyphant2A number of things seems to make Olyphant particularly attractive to women. He is tall and lean-muscled, with a body like a fashion model. He is boyishly handsome, with a lush head of hair. As Marshall Givens, Olyphant’s intense, dark-eyes sometimes narrow into threatening slits as he looks out from under his cowboy hat. But a sideways glance from those dark eyes, combined with a sly smile, seems to make many of his female fans go weak in the knees.

Olyphant has been talked about as one of the new male actors who have a notable flair with style. GQ magazine recently named his Raylan Givens character as the most stylish man on TV (their site has a great photo of Olyphant in costume). In a December 2011 GQ article Sarah Goldstein wrote that even some men have crushes on Marshall Givens. And Olyphant himself admits that he enjoys playing a badass character like Raylan.

Ayn Rand At Lululemon And Bloomingdale's: Individualism, Inspiration, And Self-Improvement

Ayn Rand quote at BloomingdalesThe yoga-pants crowd is apparently huffing and puffing (mindfully, I imagine) over the "Who Is John Galt?" shopping bags being handed out at Lululemon. (There's a good photo, with both sides of the bag, at the bottom of this blog post.)

“Galt would not likely have proclaimed, as Lululemon’s bags once did, that 'what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves,'” notes the NYT's Ian Austen--a deadpan understatement that demonstrates just how often (the right kind of) politics goes unnoted on shopping bags.

But, he reports, the company's website relates Ayn Rand's celebration of excellence to the company's philosophy: “Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity. We all have a John Galt inside of us, cheering us on. How are we going to live lives we love?”

Or, as Molly Worthen writes on Slate, “Yoga and Rand have both spawned subcultures of devotees not because Americans are either pantheistic mystics or objectivists but because they are individualists who belong to the church of self-improvement.”

Worthen's observation is borne out by another Rand sighting, this one in Bloomingdale's (click photo for larger view), where a Rand quote appears alongside similarly inspirational lines from Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Diana Vreeland, Betty Friedan, and Raquel Welch: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplacable spark....The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” Oprah couldn't have said it better.

[Photo by Virginia Postrel. You are free to use it with a link back to this post.]

DG Contest: Win A Modern Classic, The "Darcy" Shirt From Electra Lang

ShopperTo celebrate Black Friday, our friends at Electra Lang, interviewed in the post below, are offering DG readers a chance to win one of their modern classics: the Darcy shirt, with its flattering Edwardian collar and adjustable length.

Don't worry, you don't have to show up at 6 a.m. and fight the madding crowds. To enter, just leave a comment below before midnight Pacific Time on Friday, December 9.

The winner will be picked using Contest open to U.S. residents only. Pattern and color of shirt will depend on availability. DG reserves the right to delete comments deemed to be commercial spam.