Women's Fashion

Slimline tonic

Ever the height of ladylike elegance, the skinny heel is back on trend with both new and established designers, says Elisa Anniss.

December 05 2009
Elisa Anniss

Love them or loathe them, over the past year or two “shouty” runway shoes featuring vertiginous chunky heels and clumpy soles have been stealing headlines and dominating fashion pages. Aggressive and statement-making at best, the most extreme silhouettes look like they’re about to take women into battle.

But now a calming sea change in shoe fashion is occurring. Platforms and wedges certainly won’t disappear any time soon – designers and devotees adore them far too much, and it’s true that many a catwalk show would lack a vital theatre and edge without them – but back in the real world you can almost hear the “aahhhh” of relief accompanying the news that slimmer heels are back on trend. And this season, a flurry of exciting new footwear talent has joined established designers, such as Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Roger Vivier and Rupert Sanderson, in favouring a more demure, sophisticated silhouette.

Kurt Geiger, for example, is so confident of this turnaround that this autumn it launched an own-branded Stiletto collection (from £160). “The world had become full of statement, ‘look at me’ shoes, the ‘It’ shoe had replaced the ‘It’ bag and sometimes shoes felt more suitable for the mantelpiece than for the foot,” says Rebecca Farrar-Hockley, Kurt Geiger’s buying and creative director. “There seemed to be a lack of classically elegant stiletto heels – an iconic style that is both timeless and super chic. The stiletto has the same significance for a woman’s wardrobe as the staple white shirt has for a man’s. It’s a classic that looks just as good worn with boyfriend jeans as with a pencil skirt,” she says, adding that this doesn’t necessarily signal the extinction of the bolder and braver heel any time soon.

Alongside producing its own collections, Kurt Geiger operates the shoe floors in many top department stores, such as Harrods and Selfridges, and thus buys from such a huge range of designer brands that it has become a footwear bellwether. “I was struck by how often the bestsellers were not the ‘It’ shoes teaming with feathers and chains,” continues Farrar-Hockley, “but more the classic styles – the slim heels of Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo and YSL.”

But just because something has sold well doesn’t mean that it will automatically be continued. And this gives rise to an all too common scenario: you’ve found your dream shoe – the perfect stiletto sandal or court – and, of course, you love it so much that you’ve worn it to death. You’re desperate to find something similar in terms of style, heel and fit, in maybe a different colour or material – but can you find a replacement? Absolutely not. For unless it’s a complete classic – read boring – low and behold, fashion has swiftly moved on, leaving last season’s looks behind.

Thankfully, Jimmy Choo is addressing the problem with the January launch of its aptly named 24/7 collection (from £250). It comprises 28 staple styles based on bestsellers that will only undergo minor seasonal changes in terms of material and colour. “The Choo 24/7 collection marks an evolution of these timeless classics,” says founder and president Tamara Mellon. “There’s a range of flat to mid to high heels, including the modern Ciggy heel and a refined elegant silhouette of our original iconic heel, to perfectly suit and balance every women’s wardrobe needs.”

From the pencil-thin stiletto to a slim heel that’s more shapely, skinny heels in varying heights play a crucial role in the collection that Bruno Frisoni designs for French fashion house Roger Vivier. “The silhouette is both feminine and graceful. We have always used curved shapes that are both distinctive and witty, and continue to do so,” says Frisoni, who has been tasked with quite a legacy. After all, it was Roger Vivier himself who actually created the stiletto in 1954, as well as the shapely “comma” heel. “The slenderness of the heel, delicate and couture-like in essence, is synonymous with absolute elegance,” he continues.

Other fabled shoe designers, namely Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Rupert Sanderson, have risen to their star status thanks to the skinny heel. Sanderson is first to admit that he hasn’t made his name producing what he calls “big old whoppers”. Just take his latest shoe, Estelle, in frayed satin with a slim 115mm heel (£495). However, he also believes that women still have an appetite for directional concealed platforms that come with skinny heels. He points to Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2010 catwalk shoes with platforms and heels that were a lofty 24cm: “In terms of volume, big shoes are still around.”

In recent years Louboutin has dabbled in platforms, especially those of the “island” variety (with a “shrunken” platform under the ball of the foot). But it is pencil-thin heels with which his trademark red soles have come to be associated. “We’ve always had skinny heels. The general focus has changed, not me,” he explains, adding that his heels will be getting even skinnier for spring.

Meanwhile, Blahnik is probably the only designer who is actively vocal about his hatred of heavy platforms. “For the past three years it’s given me a headache seeing all these ‘furniture’ shoes,” he exclaims, visibly relieved that fashion is moving back towards more familiar territory. He’s planning to do more of what he’s famous for – slender silhouettes – and new heels with a teetering 6mm circumference (from £360). “This time I’ve really gone crazy with skinny heels because they’re timeless beauties.”

Undoubtedly, a genius such as Blahnik has proved inspirational for countless would-be shoe designers. This is certainly true of New York-based Tabitha Simmons, who launched her much acclaimed collection this autumn. “The first shoes I ever invested in were a pair of pointed Manolos in black patent with an ankle strap that showed plenty of toe,” she says. A model-turned-stylist and a US Vogue contributing fashion editor, Simmons expresses her fashion pedigree in unfussy but striking shoes. Her first collection, a mix of elegant wedges and skinny heels, was picked up by top international stores, and her stunning, laced and buckled shoe Baillee (from €1,030) will arrive in stores just in time for the Christmas party season.

“Fashion has taken a complete turnaround, with a softer feeling and neutral colours moving away from an emphasis on black,” explains Erin Mullaney, Browns’ buying director. “A daintier heel is needed to match the softer feeling, not an overpowering chunky shoe,” she explains, noting that as well as styles by Simmons, her favourites are a beige lace-fronted stiletto by Azzedine Alaïa (£1,050) and Estelle by Rupert Sanderson, which Browns is carrying in natural-coloured lizard skin (£665).

A softer shape, however, doesn’t rule out sparkly finishes, as is the case with Brighton-based Thomas Murphy’s metallic heels (from £350), which develop an unusual patina over time. “The subtle glint of my copper stiletto heels is the perfect antidote to the more obvious chunky heels,” says Murphy, who launched his epony­mous collection earlier this year.

There’s also a flurry of other new and not so new international names specialising in fine, and slender, Italian-made footwear, such as Milan-based Max Kibardin (from £480) and Paris-based Vouelle. As well as fine evening sandals (from €300), Vouelle offers couture wedding shoes in four heights (from €320).

Another newcomer is Aperlai, whose slim-heeled “island” platform soles will soon be available in Harvey Nichols. Allessandra Lanvin (whose husband’s great aunt gave birth to the fashion house) came across her partners, Srdjan Prodanovic and former Giambattista Valli and Givenchy designer Burkan Uyan, in her role as a headhunter. In October the trio launched a collection that Lanvin describes as “fresh, interesting and feminine without being girlie”.

But it isn’t just the newcomers who are making all the noise. It might have a new management team (put in place by Robert Bensoussan, one of the brains behind the stratospheric success of Jimmy Choo), a new creative director and international ambitions, but LK Bennett isn’t about to ditch the kind of designs that have made it a favourite of British females for over 18 years. “Skinny heels are the true essence of glamour and femininity; they create a sensual and elegant silhouette to which all women aspire,” says creative director Annick Gorman, who joined the company recently from Cacharel. Indeed, last year, slim heels (from £150) accounted for 60 per cent of all LK Bennett’s shoe sales, while founder Linda Bennett was once crowned “queen of the kitten heel”. But then, that’s another story.

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Shoes