Millions of aging boomers, including me, have worn and loved stilettos their entire lives. But as I note in my recent post, “Confessions Of An Aging Footwear Fashionista,” some of us who can’t endure the pain any longer aren’t ready for the dowdy alternatives. There’s a huge opportunity for shoe companies to serve consumers who are starved for less pain and more pizzazz below the ankle.
Very few women consider shoes simply protection from the elements. Instead, they are jewelry for the feet or a form of personal expression. “When a woman puts on a pair of shoes in the morning, she’s making a commitment that’s going to last all day,” Kenneth Cole recently told Elle Magazine.
Just because our feet have aged doesn’t mean we stop loving shoes. If you grew up wearing beautiful high heels, giving them up is a grieving process and the comfortable options age us by a couple of decades, at least. It can be more than disheartening to head out for that Cinderella experience and come up empty handed (or barefoot, as the case may be). Manufacturers of pretty designer shoes have largely forgotten or ignored the fact that baby boomers have disposable cash and are ready to spend.
Ideally a shoe would have a wide toe box and a narrow heel, says Eugene (“Pepper”) Toomey, a Seattle orthopedic surgeon. But few shoes that are cosmetically attractive will make sense for a woman with any real foot problem. Shoes with a wide toe box and narrow heel are undeniably ugly, he adds.
And here’s the shoe-shopping rub: If we buy shoes that fit in the heel and are tight in the toes until they are broken in, they do more damage to our feet. On the other hand, if we buy shoes a size too large so that they are wide enough in the toes, the heel slips out, which can be annoying or even dangerous. Meryl Streep lost her Jimmy Choo pump as she climbed the stairs at the 2012 British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, to claim her statuette. And New York City police are reportedly investigating the death of a young woman who died after falling down a flight of stairs in “really high heels.”
For convenience, my wardrobe is almost entirely black and I mix things up with a collection of shoes acquired over years and continents in a rainbow of colors. Now when I finally find a pair that fit and look good, I often buy two pairs–one for now and one for later. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to, in the words of Justin Timberlake, “Bring Sexy Back”–at least below the ankle.
Find foot-friendly features. Certain brands, at every price point, have started to incorporate more comfortable features into their shoes. Wedges, platforms and lower chunky heels can give the appearance of height with more cushion, because they spread out the impact of each step, causing less pain without being frumpy.
Some higher-end brands have adjusted their manufacturing process to make them more comfortable. Taryn Rose, designed by a podiatrist turned shoe designer, produces foot-friendly, high end but comfortable high-fashion shoes. Ferragamo has also ventured successfully in the less sky high but more comfortable market. Still, neither company is using it as a selling point. In fact, when contacted about their plans to design shoes with more comfort in mind, Taryn Rose did not respond. And Trisha Gregory, director of public relations for Salvatore Ferragamo replied by e-mail, “If the nature of your piece is based on comfort and shoes for professionals in the baby boomer sector, we must decline.”
Consider flats. Many of us think we need a little more heel and a little more punch to draw attention away from our aging calves, knees and whatever else isn’t quite as perky as it used to be. Maybe so, but flat shoes are in style. Carla Bruni looked great in them standing next to her husband, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. (Though admittedly she would look great in a burlap bag.) The key is to avoid flats with a toe box that’s too narrow, those that lack arch support, or have exposed seams inside that rub and cause blisters.
Stuart Weitzman’s “Giveable” flat comes in an assortment of colors, and some stores offer exclusive versions in textured leathers. The Michael Kors flat, while pricey, comes in a range of cute colors with a padded footbed and plenty of support and shock absorption. Jessel Taank, the public relations manager for accessories of Michael Kors, declined to comment, but the company has made it clear that the older demographic isn’t its target client.
Buy boomer brands. Brands historically known for comfortable functional footwear include Ecco, Birkenstock, Mephisto, Born and Clarks. Recently, these brands have recognized the opportunity in the market and have also gone out of their way to develop more stylish, elegant and sophisticated choices without compromising comfort.
Dansko makes the most reliably comfortable shoes, Toomey says. These are the shoe of choice for those on their feet all day, including doctors, nurses, cashiers and food service workers, who appreciate the anatomically contoured and cushioned footbed, arch support and shock absorption, with just enough style. Still, Toomey adds, “You wouldn’t wear these with your Vera Wang wedding dress.”
Naot, an Israeli brand, is known for comfortable shoes. Some are purely comfortable with little effort to be stylish. But they also have higher-end designs, many in a Mary Jane style that is adjustable yet attractive, and several have chunky but high-enough heels, in metallic or pearlized leather.
Stuart Weitzman is one of the brands of choice for fashionable aging baby boomers. I say this based on my experience being on my feet — in a law office, in the courtroom, and, as a speaker at conferences. (I have no vested interest in any of the brands mentioned in this article or the accompanying slideshow.) The company has started using a softer tanning process for the upper part of the shoe and flexible soles, which allows them to make even higher heels tolerable. A spokesman said Weitzman designs beautiful sexy shoes for women of all ages but also pays attention to comfort, especially for older women.
My other picks include La Canadienne, a 45-year-old company in Montreal that makes the best waterproof, but sexy footwear for the winter months. Attilio Giusti Leombruni, a 50-year-old Italian company, focuses on fit and softness without compromising style.
For those with unlimited shoe budgets, Manolo Blahnik – a favorite of Martha Stewart – also has padded insoles and offers a variety of heel heights, including its famous kitten heel.
Shop online. Internet shoe stores, such as Zappos and Endless, have opened new worlds. Both allow shoppers to review the comments left by other buyers as to how shoes fit and whether they are comfortable. The key to making these comments useful is to look at the age of the commenter. I am not interested when a 24-year-old says she wore the shoes right out of the box and danced all night. But if a 58-year-old writes that she stood, pain-free, in a courtroom all day, it is much more likely that I will add them to my online shopping cart.
Another advantage of shopping online is that you can try on shoes in the comfort of your own home without pressure from a hovering salesperson. The best time to do this is at the end of a long day, when your feet are tired and swollen.
Sometimes a pair of shoes just needs the toe box stretched, which can be done by a good shoe repair for about $15. (Queen Elizabeth II reportedly has someone to break in her shoes so they fit like a glove.) But this is a bit risky because if it doesn’t work you will have wasted your money on an expensive shoe purchase.
When in doubt, step away from the boxes and make choices closer to the ground. And let’s hope that shoe designers recognize that aging baby boomers hold the checkbooks. We are starving for stylish and comfortable footwear to fill the void in our closets.