NEW YORK, United States — When Melania Trump stepped off the plane in Houston last month to visit Texans impacted by Hurricane Harvey, her impractical choice of footwear — ultra-high, pointed-toe stilettos — garnered widespread media coverage for being strikingly inappropriate. “Who Wears Stilettos to a Hurricane?” read one headline.
But the First Lady’s impractical heels were out of touch with Americans in more ways than one: women in the US increasingly favour mid-height heels to towering stilettos. According to NPD’s Retail Tracking Service, heels with heights of 1.5 to 3 inches outpaced sales of heels 3 inches or higher in the year ending July 2017 by 3 percent. In the prior two years, high heels outsold mid heels by 8 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Globally, the number of mid-heel styles selling out at full-price have increased 71 percent year-over-year in the third quarter of 2017 so far, according to data collected by real-time analytics firm Edited. In the same time period, full-price sell-throughs of high heels decreased by 36 percent.
The roots of the mid-heel trend started to form during peak sneaker fever in 2014, the year Adidas reissued its Stan Smith model and everyone from Chanel to Alexander Wang sent their own sneaker styles down the runway. By the following year, the classic Adidas style was a mass-market mainstay and the sneaker’s fashionability started to wane, ushering in an appetite for a more polished daytime shoe.
The New York boutique owner-turned-designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s Roberta block heel arrived at the exact right moment in Autumn 2014, just two years after she launched her line of trendsetting shoes. The low heel was one of several popular soft, slipper-like heel styles released by Phoebe Philo at Céline, Rachel Comey and Argentinian designer Martiniano Lopez Crozet in 2014 and 2015. The appeal was one part comfort and one part ugly-chic, an aesthetic popping up in footwear since Birkenstocks and Texas started coming back into fashion in 2013.
“It’s really easy to make a high heel sexy and covetable,” explains British designer Sophia Webster about the challenge of designing lower-pitch heels. When she launched her namesake brand in Spring 2013, stilettos and platforms ruled the market and her collection was full of 100 millimetre-high sandals. She quickly started expanding her heel height options, and now her pointed Butterfly flat is her best-selling style.
Designer Paul Andrew, founder of his namesake brand and women's footwear design director at Salvatore Ferragamo, agrees about the inherent elegance of high heels, though he thinks the market dominance of platforms and stilettos in recent years got out of hand. It’s a drastic shift from when he worked for Calvin Klein back in the early aughts, when 100 millimetre-high heels were nearly impossible to produce. “I was pushing all of these shoe factories and they all refused,” remembers Andrew. “The highest you could do was 95 millimetres … When I started my brand [in 2012], everything in the market had a tall platform and a stiletto heel.”
Over the last six months, the kitten heel...in the slingback is really giving the flat a run for its money.
Now, he is trying to bring that same appeal to a lower heel height. “I’ve spent so much time and attention in the last few months trying to make mid heels look as appealing and sexy and fashion forward as high heels used to be,” says Andrew. It appears to be working. His flat slingback is the core of his namesake business right now, but “over the last six months, the kitten heel version of that shoe in the slingback is really giving the flat a run for its money,” he says, citing slingbacks and pointed-toe, high-throated mules in a stiletto heel are more examples.
That’s right: the kitten heel, a ’90s footwear staple that saturated the market in the early 2000s before basically becoming a taboo trend, is riding this mid-heel trend back into the spotlight on pointed-toe mules and slingback styles.
Lest we forget, Princess Diana wore the feminine style with a glamour it lost in the 20 years since her passing. Current coverage of her style legacy upon the anniversary of her death is helping fuel the mid-heel resurgence, as is an industry-wide fascination with 1990s trends and icons. “It’s amazing how modern she looked in so many of those images,” says Andrew. "In those days, I remember you could only buy kitten or mid heels.”
Webster, who reads Instagram comments to see what styles her shoppers want at higher or lower heights, is also seeing an increased demand for chunky mid heels. The heel height is currently overperforming to the point that she plans to double the offering in the Autumn 2018 collection to 14 percent.
The current revival of the mid heel in all its forms, however, is about more than a shift in cyclical tends. In Trump’s America, with women’s rights under attack, consumers are less and less interested in impossibly high footwear that restricts their movement. They also refuse to sacrifice practicality for style.
“Socially, an uber-high heel doesn’t feel very empowering, and the shift to flats and a lower heel height reflects the current social and economic mood — a move towards comfort and styles which fit easily into our increasingly fast-paced lives,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director at MatchesFashion.com. She says the luxury fashion e-retailer still sees strong sales in high heels, but has also seen a sizeable shift towards both flats, sneakers and mid heels in the past few seasons across markets. “For us, it is all about the kitten heel right now, with brands including Miu Miu, Prada, Gucci and Balenciaga offering their own take on the trend,” she says. “It also looks set to continue with many more styles arriving soon from Autumn/Winter collections and into Resort.”
Andrew expects the stiletto kitten heel moment will continue for the next 12 to 18 months, especially because the silhouette has only started to really penetrate in open-toed styles. Mid-heeled slouch boots are part of his autumn delivery. “I definitely think it’s going to be around for a while,” he says. “But I’ve worked the industry for 18 years at this point, and it’s interesting how I've seen trends move. Nothing is forever.”