For most of the last year, Margaret Bonaparte, 29, rotated between white slip-on Vans from Madewell, white plastic Birkenstock slides and leather Nike sneakers. After receiving her first dose of the vaccine, she’s ready for a breath of fresh air. And some new shoes.
”I feel like we’re finally emerging from this cloud of darkness,” she said. “But I’m thinking about my shoes, and [it’s like], ‘Do I even like these?’”
Millions of Americans are ready to dress up again as they receive their vaccines and venture out to restaurants, outdoor concerts and weddings. The billion-dollar question for the fashion industry: what will they wear? The pandemic drastically altered consumers’ lifestyles. And while some brands are betting consumers are sick of their sweatpants, others fear getting stuck with piles of unsold party dresses and handbags if visions of a new roaring ‘20s fail to materialise.
The future is particularly cloudy in footwear. In March, the best performing brands emphasised comfort over glamour. Crocs, Sanuk, Teva and Toms were among the shoe and sandal sellers that saw the biggest jump in online sales that month, compared with February, building on strong business during the pandemic, according to Earnest Research.
I’m thinking about my shoes, and [it’s like], ‘Do I even like these?’
Edited, a research firm that analyses marketing data, found that brands are catering to consumer demand for wearable shoes. Mentions of “comfort” in retailers’ footwear emails to consumers increased 63 percent in the past three months compared to the three months prior, according to Edited, while flat sandals with “sports” and “hiking” in their product descriptions rose 69 percent year-over-year.
In other words, while consumers may be ditching their T-shirts and leggings for something more glamorous, what they wear on their feet will continue to serve comfort over style. Dresses, after all, can be paired with sneakers or flat, foam-bed sandals and still be a put-together look.
“I want to burn the tie-dye sweatsuits I’ve been wearing,” said Dina Fierro, an executive at a beauty company. “But these days, I don’t want to compromise on comfort either.”
Cute and Comfortable?
In reevaluating her wardrobe for a post-pandemic world, Bonaparte decided that she wants to “continue with comfortable shoes but bring cute back.” Last week, she went out and bought leather woven mules from Freda Salvador, a brand native to her city, San Francisco.
Hybrid styles — comfortable yet stylish, like Bonaparte’s new mules — are an emerging category, according to Bloomingdale’s Stacie Borteck, the general merchandise manager of shoes, accessories and beauty. She points to Gucci pool slide sandals and the Tory Burch “Miller Cloud” sandals as best-sellers within this trend: flat, easy-to-wear shoes with recognisable luxury branding, a combination of form and function.
Fierro, the beauty executive, also recently bought a pair of “compromise” shoes: Arizona Love sandals that have a flat rubber sole and nylon straps adorned by pearls.
Everybody may be wearing dresses again but that doesn’t mean everyone will be wearing stiletto strappy pumps too.
And the analysts agree that consumers are looking for a compromise. Clogs and mules too fall under this category and are seeing popularity this spring, according to Edited analyst Katharine Carter.
“The idea of dressing up now is different because in the pandemic you put on a pair of jeans and that counts as dressing up,” said Beth Goldstein, footwear analyst at NPD Group. “Everybody may be wearing dresses again but that doesn’t mean everyone will be wearing stiletto strappy pumps too.”
The Case for “Revenge” Heels
Still, stiletto strappy pumps are beginning to mount a comeback.
According to Goldstein, sales of high heels are still down double digits compared to 2019 levels. It’s part of a wider trend that’s been happening for years, Goldstein said, pointing to the boom of activewear and sneakers well before the pandemic.
But formal footwear may see a special boost this summer as social events come back with a vengeance.
“Especially in bridal, [dressy] sandals are coming back in a big way,” Borteck said. “A lot of special events that were postponed during Covid are happening soon.” (A bellwether for consumer optimism regarding live events, entertainment company Live Nation saw its stock price hit an all-time high last month.)
I don’t think there’s any going back to wildly uncomfortable clothes.
Borteck added that she believes the “revenge” heel will be a notable category in the coming months. She points to Saint Laurent’s logo strappy heels and Valentino Rockstud sandals as recent best-sellers. Carter, of Edited, said when party season picks up, she expects square-toed strappy sandals to be popular, especially those with a chunky heel.
Ultimately, comfort will reign supreme — especially when it comes to what we wear on our feet.
“I’m definitely someone who enjoys expressing myself through clothing and shoes and makeup, but I need to find that middle ground,” said Fierro. “At a certain point, I don’t think there’s any going back to wildly uncomfortable clothes.”
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on May 4, 2021. An earlier version of this article stated that the leather woven mules were from Freda Salvadore. That is incorrect. The brand’s name is Freda Salvador.