Ah, the relief! To arrive home from a party – involving standing for hours and a little light dancing – without burning soles and mashed toes is bliss indeed. I am well used to the flat-shoe aesthetic by day, from ubiquitous dainty ballerinas to snub-nosed, fringe-tongued, jolie laide sandals (thank you, Consuelo Castiglioni of Marni, for making this shape cool) that allow me to stride through the working week.
But as catwalk shows abandon the principle of highest is best, so flats are extending to eveningwear, a tall order when many still equate parties with vertiginous heels. Of course, pairing flats with formalwear isn’t unfamiliar – little chiffon dresses have been grounded by flat boots for years, and long dresses with brogues (seen at Erdem, £755) or canvas pumps (seen at Temperley, £265) are one comfortable step further.
Pumps and trainers were early drivers of the look, particularly the sparkly tweed or metallic ones shown with every ensemble (including a wedding dress) at Chanel’s spring 2014 haute couture collection. These were swiftly followed by a smash-hit ready-to‑wear version (from £705), and then by Dior’s ultra-feminine slip-on style (from £740), with grosgrain bows and beading inspired by the brand’s eveningwear. Both have become non-seasonal classics.
However, the original impetus for the new movement goes back to Christopher Kane’s 2012 spring show, which featured just one shoe style – a chunky pool slide with a thick black sole. Most of the clothes were in metallic brocade or flower-appliquéd organza, and the shoes – in silver, gunmetal or brocade – made the look informal and fresh, a slant that captured imaginations everywhere and helped cement Kane’s reputation as an original thinker. It also gave us the term “flatform”.
Not that others hadn’t been there before. Giorgio Armani has always believed in evening flats, especially paired with his ethnically inflected aesthetic. “Flat shoes allow for a lighter step, resulting in a very graceful movement,” he says. “They suggest a delicate femininity and, with a long dress, create a sensual contrast.” This spring’s styles excel themselves – striped silk ballet flats (£530) and Emporio’s light, cobalt blue cut-out sandals (£435), both with an ankle strap. At Chanel, gold metallic sandals (£680) have an ankle strap and open toe for extra elegance.
Valentino’s design duo have made flats a key element of their stately, Renaissance-influenced eveningwear. The latest include elegant knee-high gladiators (£745) with ultra-fine straps, and sandals (£700) with gilded sea motifs that are also beaded on gowns for spring.
A chunkier look is Marni’s signature and one on which Consuelo Castiglioni did not compromise with her evening collection last year. Her beloved walking sandals developed bold encrustations of crystal, which looked wonderful; I spotted a pair worn with a sleek, calf-length Prada dress by a woman at a grand Paris dinner and she looked more elegant than many a heel wearer. Castiglioni warms to her theme with her spring collection, which includes sandals (from £430) appliquéd with 1970s-influenced leather orchids, and Perspex ones (£530) with bright patent piping and big baguette crystals. “They work with a long dress because of the unexpected contrast,” she says, “and are especially interesting when paired with wide tulle skirts abundantly touching the floor.” Charmingly feminine, this look is a favourite new classic at Brunello Cucinelli, where long silk or tulle skirts and casual silk and cashmere sweaters are worn with metallic trainers (£760) or natural leather sandals embellished with leather fringing (from £820) or fine feathers (£890).
Summer provides easy entry to the evening flat. Roger Vivier creative director Bruno Frisoni says: “Flats are now on a par with heels for evening and exceed them in hot summer months”. His airy silver Mask sandal (£485) and low-cut Décolleté U (from £520) ooze elegant comfort. Jane Winkworth, founder of ballerinas-based brand French Sole, says her styles “work in summer with different outfits: glittery (from £95) or patent-leather (£180) brogues with wide silk trousers; sparkly pumps [from £95] with a full taffeta skirt; or metallic sandals (from £12) to balance a floaty chiffon, mid-length skirt”. Rupert Sanderson loves giving sandals a jewel-like quality for evening. “We’ve put beaded motifs of artists’ faces on plain black sandals (£565) that are dressy yet casual enough for a summer’s evening,” he says, “while a contemporary, pointy flat (£545) with a gilt-edged “bracelet” across the foot is the perfect partner for wide-leg evening trousers.” Tod’s creative director Alessandra Facchinetti also riffs on the jewel theme: “Flat shoes are the contemporary go-to for women dressing for daytime through to evening, and our espadrilles (£515) with crystal strass combine the current verve for denim with evening sparkle.”
The most intriguing question is why – apart from the more relaxed season – women should now be happy to adopt the evening flat. Part of it is high-heel fatigue, literally and metaphorically, but designers see a change of attitude. “Many women are coming to realise that the right flat gives a modern edge, downplaying an important dress,” says Edgardo Osorio, creative director and co-founder of rising brand Aquazzura. Its sell-out flats are as chic as its heels: jewelled (from £330) or vibrant animal-print (from £385) sandals, and versions with delicate ankle straps (from £310) or fine leather ties (£385).
Wearing flats also reflects confidence. “It’s true that heels make a woman’s legs appear longer and more slender, and can be a tool of seduction,” says Armani. “But pairing eveningwear with flats expresses a different kind of sensuality, one that is more subtle and intriguing.” Creative director of Bionda Castana Natalia Barbieri, whose highly crafted silver and mesh flats (£495) are hot sellers, agrees. “Women like Alexa Chung and others on fashion’s front row have long signalled that flats are far from inelegant. Why shouldn’t that extend to eveningwear?”
Retailers are confident this catwalk look will translate into sales. According to Selfridges buying manager Helen Attwood, this spring’s evening flats by Tabitha Simmons, which include delicate broderie anglaise-trimmed pumps (from £445), a pair of sparkly Mary Janes (£435) and daisy-strewn sandals (£495) “are among the most flattering – being very low cut on the toe – along with styles from Nicholas Kirkwood (£625) and Charlotte Olympia (Ana,£495). These are the easiest ways into the new look. For tougher versions there are Victoria Beckham’s floral appliquéd flats (Clown, £1,150).”
All of which makes it hard to visualise ever returning to the constraints of the killer evening heel. At a recent Louboutin sample sale it was easy to ignore the massed stilettos and fight for the one remaining pair of light, sparkly jazz shoes instead. Because, as Frisoni says, “Flats convey a different dynamic, less sex bomb and more relaxed cool. They exude a confident, cerebral sensuality.” And who doesn’t want to feel like that?