Manolo Blahnik recently returned from Moscow with news that would have been unthinkable even a year ago: Russian ladies – who famously love very high heels – are beginning to love flats even more.
“Any flats that I showed them they wanted immediately!” gasped Blahnik. “I’ve been doing flats since I started, every season, but so far heels have always been the winners. Then, two seasons ago, I started to notice a change. As well as certain heels, whatever flat styles we did almost always sold out.”
This is not only true in Russia: Blahnik’s red or blue striped linen “Esodo” Capri sandals have sold out everywhere from Liberty in London to Plum Concept in Beirut this summer, and he is expecting great things from his “Bath”, a patent leather brogue (£480) that comes in red or black for autumn/winter. And Blahnik is not the only footwear maestro to be experiencing the, well, heights of flats.
“This spring/summer a number of designers showed their collections with flats on the catwalk, notably Christopher Kane and Stella McCartney,” says Ruth Chapman, director and co-founder of the London luxury boutique Matches. “There is this effortless cool vibe about flat shoes that our clients are responding to, and we are starting to see perceptions shifting.”
Specifically, general consumer wisdom no longer dictates you have to be tall to be taken seriously. Triggered more by motherhood than perhaps fashion, even Beyoncé is buying what she calls “shorter heels”. “[Jay-Z] loves it when I wear flat shoes,” she said earlier this year.
Simply consider the mind-boggling statistic compiled by Havaianas – the Brazilian company that sells six pairs of flip-flops a second – that if you lined up each pair of flip-flops sold in the past 50 years, the chain would go around the earth 40 times. Indeed, last year Havaianas sold 190m pairs. Meanwhile, e-tailer Net-a-Porter has introduced an entire section devoted to ballet flats – 82 variations in all – while rival Luisaviaroma has 117 in its “flats” section. This is not counting the 151 types of “designer” sneakers its sells – average price about £300 – and 41 styles of loafers.
No wonder many trendy shoe designers once famous for their heels, such as Charlotte Olympia and Tabitha Simmons, are championing flats for autumn/winter. See, for example, “Kitty”, Olympia’s gentleman’s slipper style, first launched last autumn, which comes in velvet or satin with a cat’s face picked out in gold embroidery (£545), and Chloe’s loafer, which is decorated with gold tips which resemble false nails on supersized snaffles (£505).
These join a growing number of flat styles, including Lanvin’s iconic ballet slippers (£325) and androgynous loafers (£470, Net-a-Porter); Maison Martin Margiela’s distressed gold brogues (£565); Manolo Blahnik’s goes-with-anything Chelsea boot “the Chelsina” (£700); and Nike’s dazzlingly bright 6.0 Zoom high-top sneakers (from £62) as footwear staples.
When brands renowned for teetering stilettos become as famous for no-heel styles – examples include Christian Louboutin’s neon-yellow Havana patent brogues (£425, Net-a-Porter) and Jimmy Choo’s metallic leather monk-strap loafers (£595, Net-a-Porter) – clearly something is going on. Especially given the fact that flats can actually cost far more than heels.
Giuseppe Zanotti’s studded flats cost £809.99, versus his burgundy peep-toe suede pumps with six-inch heels for £450. Christian Louboutin’s classic glossy black leather “Pigalle” heels are £375, but his Havana patent leather lace-ups are £425. Suddenly, Marc Jacob’s Pilgrim buckle flat is no longer looking like the wild card it did back in March.
Autumn/winter waiting list certainties include Jil Sander’s maroon penny loafers (£415) and Marni’s Teddy Boy-style crepe-sole loafers (£350). In truth, flats had been so under the radar for so long (“the last time that I remember a flat being significant was when Lanvin launched ballet pumps, around 2007/08,” says Ruth Chapman) that the mere appearance of them at Christopher Kane’s show in London Fashion Week last September made headlines. And not only were Kane’s shoes flat, they had the clinical whiff of the podiatry clinic about them. A sighting of Victoria Beckham carrying her baby daughter Harper in flat pumps soon after was surely not a coincidence.
But does the rise of the flat herald the end of the heel? Or can the two co-exist equally?
At a private dinner to launch a Tom Ford fragrance in Milan, a glance at the floor revealed staggering heels attached to the well-shod feet of fashion’s finest, including Anna Dello Russo, who permanently walks with a Marilyn Monroe wiggle because of signature stack-heeled footwear. “With very high heels you get a sort of theatrical gesture; you put them on and you walk differently,” says Blahnik.
Ruth Lockwood, head of buying at New Look, whose best-selling style is currently a nude ballerina (£7.99), says: “What’s changing is that flats are no longer being solely bought to keep in handbags for a quick change. As studded styling and sports influences come in this winter, flats will be seen as edgy and a genuine alternative, which hasn’t been the case in several seasons.”
Matches’ Chapman says, “Internationally and nationally, we sell flats and heels to the same clients for different occasions. I wear a Lanvin flat for the day and Balenciaga trainers to travel. Then when I want to change into heels I reach for Pierre Hardy. When I want to run around all day in a heel I love wedges from Chloé, or Gianvito Rossi mid-heel suede courts. I would say women wear both, and it’s the occasion that dictates.”