An Enquiring Mind, the recent exhibition of Manolo Blahnik’s work at the Wallace Collection in London, featured half a century’s worth of the designer’s best shoes showcased among the gallery’s splendid paintings. These included The Swing by Fragonard, with its infamously seductive flying pink slipper, and Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour, where the eye is drawn to a tiny, seemingly fragile white shoe emerging from beneath an extravagant, full-skirted gown. The paintings highlighted how Blahnik has, time and again, taken influence from these dainty 18th-century styles, evidenced by the archive of his own low-heeled, ornate shoes sitting alongside them.
This autumn, with bourgeois looks dominating the new collections, shoes with an elegant Victorian touch seem just right. Even for eveningwear, towering stilettos were replaced with more modest, low-rise heels rendered in luxe velvet or satin and no short supply of embellishments. According to fellow maestro of the small heel Rupert Sanderson, “It’s all about balance. A shift in what is expected can look fresh and perhaps more sensual than the default high heel and, dare I say, often far more graceful.”
Blahnik agrees: “Any heel can be transformative, but that doesn’t mean it has to be 105mm. It could even be 30mm and would still have the same effect. Besides, it means you can dance all night.” Built for comfort and style, his current designs interpret those 18th-century shapes for today. The 30mm-heeled vivid satin Hangisi with baroque crystal buckle is a glamorous, low-rise evening option, while the red satin Yolamu is a boudoir-style beaded mule with the same flared heel. Sanderson modernises bourgeois shapes with his signature pebble detail – either an abstract organic form in lieu of a buckle, as on the Sabine, or an oval made from angular little gilded nuggets and coloured crystal, as shown on the Promise.
This astute fine balancing act between comfort and elegance has been mirrored by other designers and is driven, according to Harrods’ head of womenswear Maria Milano, by fashion’s infatuation with trainers. “They’ve become so popular in recent years we’ve come to expect the same comfort from all our footwear. A kitten heel like Balenciaga’s Knife mule or Malone Souliers’ Maite is cut or embellished so elegantly that it elevates a simple evening look into true glamour.” To make it zing for today, its decoration must, as Blahnik points out, “be compact because of the smaller space to play with, but high voltage and high impact in terms of sparkle and brilliance”.
Even Christian Louboutin, who has long created soaring stilettos, has now embraced the small heel. The secret of an alluring shoe, he says, is not so much the heel but the way the vamp is cut at the toe. His V-front, glittering gunmetal pump with its set-back cone heel is a case in point, alongside a strappy style where embroidered sequins combine with Perspex studded with crystals and a slender kitten heel.
Smaller heels have become a Roger Vivier signature, with creative director Gherardo Felloni noting that women want shoes they can move in – kitten and block heels, sneakers and boots. His favourites include the Courbette, which is like an extra-curvy, cut-out Louis heel “inspired by the Polichinelle that Monsieur Vivier created in the 1960s” and the black satin Broche Vivier pumps.
Other lower evening heels include Dior’s delectable tartan kitten-heeled slingbacks with ornate crystal pins; Ferragamo’s refracted-heel Mary Janes; Gucci’s embellished, minimal aqua slides; and The Row’s Coco mules, rendered in black suede and gold moiré. There’s also Sergio Rossi’s tiny-heeled elaphe mule with subtle crystal trim; Aquazzura’s pearl-encrusted slingback in black leather; Prada’s black pointed mules with embellished crystal strap; and Versace’s Chartreuse green satin kitten heel with jewelled bow. Le Monde Beryl’s satin Venetian slippers, which have a cult following, come in a 45mm-heeled style, as well as a chic, flat version.
In the early 2000s, Jimmy Choo was known for its towering satin and crystal stilettos; the sparkle is still there today, but creative director Sandra Choi has other priorities. “The way women dress has changed – there are no hard boundaries and contradictions are celebrated,” she says. Of the brand’s collection for autumn/winter, she notes a pointed, low-heeled pump made from sober grey flannel and elevated with a black bow and gold hardware as a favourite, as well as flat evening styles such as the slingback Mahdis with a detachable crystal strap. “It’s about dressing to make yourself, rather than someone else, feel good and about knowing your style and feeling confident.”