I usually blend into crowds, but today I'm standing out. Standing a few inches higher, in fact – and the impact is noticeable. As I sail into a packed room full of fashion
people at a cocktail party for a swanky e-commerce site, they stare. Later, someone pulls me aside for a photo when I'd normally languish in a corner trying to observe the scene. You see, for a week, I've been wearing a pair of leopard-print AGL block heels that elevate me to 6ft tall.
As I watched heels stomping down the AW16 runways this past winter – the needle-thin stilettos at Miu Miu, the Forties-style wedges worn over argyle stockings at Prada, the Marc Jacobs platforms that elevated even Lady Gaga to model height – I had, it must be confessed, a sinking feeling. After all, for the past few years comfortable trainers, clogs, and even the once-reviled Birkenstock have become sartorially acceptable. We've been walking on clouds, our toes spread, our arches lovingly supported, and ready for running everything from errands to a marathon. But just as trainers once felt fresh and subversive, it now feels deliciously rebellious to break out from the lockstep of the Stan Smith-loving hordes and put on a massive pair of heels, to stride into a room full of people in athleisure wear.
It now feels deliciously rebellious to break out from the lockstep of the Stan Smith-loving hordes.
The Carrie Bradshaw power shoes of 15 years ago – spiky Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos bearing five-inch heels and four-figure price tags – were edged out in SS13 by couture sneakers and Céline's 'furkenstocks' (the mink-lined Birkenstocks). Even more prosaic styles like adidas Stan Smiths and Nike Flyknits became street-style catnip, with sales of sneakers spiking in the last three years.
According to the analytics company Edited, online sales of women's trainers more than doubled between January 2013 and January 2015. In 2013, 93 styles of trainers sold out as opposed to a whopping 977 last year. Meanwhile, 2014 saw the highest number of new trainers in UK stores in recorded history. But while women have embraced practical footwear – Kanye West might as well have been talking about my daily shoe rotation when he said, 'Some days I'm in my Yeezys, some days I'm in my Vans' – designers seem ready to move on.
Welcome to the return of the high heel.
Towering styles of all shapes are already flooding shelves, but are women ready to leave their beloved trainers behind? I have to admit, I'm struggling to master the art of high-heel endurance. Growing up in Eighties and Nineties New York, I've always favoured practicality and safety over everything else.
And at 5ft 9in, I'm far from eager to tower over everyone more than I already do. But if 5ft 11in Taylor Swift can wear Vêtements' platform boots without feeling like she's the star of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, then maybe I can too. Since fashion has been in a holding pattern of nondescript minimalism and normcore looks, there is something exciting about shoes that get you noticed.
But why are designers embracing heels now? Sure,
Gucci's Seventies-style metallic platforms and Aquazzura's fringed heels, among others, have whetted the collective appetite for lofty heels among shoppers. But there's more to the shift than the simple up-and-down of the fashion barometer. For the record, there's no such thing as a hemline index for shoes. Heel heights don't rise and fall with the global economy.
Perhaps the return of heels speaks to our desire to be freer and more fun in our fashion choices. Designers like Gucci's Alessandro Michele, Maison Margiela's John Galliano, Mary Katrantzou and Marc Jacobs have fanned the flame with autumn collections that bring maximalism and embellishment back into the fashion conversation. And what better to go with their glittering garments than some major shoes?
Roberta Benteler, founder of Avenue 32, attributes the return of height to the exaggerated shapes on the runway: 'Flared sleeves and trousers need to be balanced with the femininity of a high heel.' She's betting big on Sonia Rykiel's glittery glam-rock wedges and Malone Souliers' outrageous pom-pom pair. Meanwhile, Laura Larbalestier, Buying Director of Browns Fashion, agrees that the heel 'feels fresh again' and advises starting with the block heel or platform. 'My favourites are Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Gucci for the perfect heel and Rochas for platforms.'
Hannah Weiland, founder of cult faux fur label Shrimps, never gave up on heels ('I need the height!'). For AW16,
she collaborated with Rupert Sanderson on fuzzy stilettos that were coordinated with her colourful pelts.
'There is something so luxurious about a high heel combined with soft faux fur,' she told me. Meanwhile, Aurora James, Creative Director at Brother Vellies, says she finds her five-inch styles empowering. 'I'm all about leaning in while wearing heels and that click-clack sound down the hallways of office buildings,' she says. 'I think it's powerful and inspiring to hear our presence.'
Yes, there is a risk factor associated with wearing these shoes; factor in my clumsiness and I certainly feel like I'm about topple over throughout the first week I spend navigating the streets in them. The platforms on show at Marc Jacobs this past season, for example, were ankle-breaking high (there's a reason he had to call in old hand Lady Gaga to model them). Not to mention heels can hurt.
I'm all about leaning in while wearing heels and that click-clack sound down the hallways of office buildings.
But there's a frisson, too; high heels of the Miu Miu AW16 variety are unabashedly sexual (have you ever seen a Helmut Newton photo featuring flats?), with a fetishistic appeal that even the biggest sneakerhead couldn't deny. Other variations, such as the stompers on show at Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen, can make you feel as though you're clomping down those halls of power Aurora James talked about. Not only do I feel imperious wearing taller shoes, but people seem to regard me that way as well.
Sandra Choi, the Creative Director of Jimmy Choo, reminds me that shoes are a commanding way to channel our inner selves. 'Heels have always had the power to transform, both emotionally and physically,' she tells me. Choi is partial to Choo's Mass boots, which she owns in various heights. 'They change your posture and make you feel more confident and empowered, while adding height and flattering the leg,' she says.
Can a few inches really change that much? I'm dubious. But, true to her word, when I walk into an intimidatingly posh hotel, I breeze through the door. The staff, surprisingly, greet me as though I might plausibly be a guest, rather than with the usual scorn I encounter in such quarters in my scuffed Stan Smiths. I feel as though I'm operating on another level, literally. As Choi puts it, 'Confidence is key. If the shoes make you feel good, this will show.'