NEW YORK -- Shoes are having a 21st-century moment as they've pushed from mere accessory to the center of the fashion stage.
Sexuality, social status, fashion IQ: The reasons for our shoe obsession are many, but one thing's for sure: more, and more avant-garde, designers are taking on the feet.
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"There has been a big emphasis on high designer shoes in the past 10 to 12 years, so more women are certainly willing to spend more money on high-end shoes, but there's also been a real focus on shoes as art pieces," said Colleen Hill, assistant curator of accessories for The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The museum went directly to the source -- a Who's Who of shoe designers and some high-profile collectors -- for "Shoe Obsession," an exhibition that runs through April 13.
Outlandish beer heiress Daphne Guinness lent some of her favorites. So did jewelry designer Lynn Ban, who owns roughly 800 pairs and says, "I've worn them all, at least once."
The exhibition shows off 153 specimens, mostly from this century, including Ban's silver-platform Chanels with handguns for heels (They came with a warning against packing them in carry-on luggage when flying). From the eerie, bone-white Exoskeleton made of resin and produced through 3-D digital printing by Janina Alleyne to the disco-ballish silver sparklers without a heel by Giuseppe Zanotti (also Ban's); nary a style is left unrepresented by FIT.
Hill and Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the museum, have cowritten a book, "Shoe Obsession," to accompany the exhibit. During a recent walk-through, the two spoke of designer shoes as the new millennium's "It" bag, which has not gone unnoticed by major department stores.
The flagship Macy's in Manhattan expanded floor space for shoes by 10 percent, boasting 250,000 pairs. Saks Fifth Avenue enlarged shoe departments in about a dozen stores around the country, with the Manhattan store's department 40 percent larger, spanning the entire eighth floor and hosting the first Louis Vuitton shoe shop within a department store.
Shoes by established designers and design houses -- Manolo Blahnik, Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Vivier, Chanel, Prada, Christian Louboutin -- remain popular -- obvi! -- but quirky stars have arisen as quickly as heels have gone so high that 4 inches is the new "low," the two curators said.
The new design generation? Modernists Kei Kagami, with art pieces that take on an almost orthopedic terror, and Noritaka Tatehana, working in stamped leather, spikes and tall toe platforms absent a heel, stand out in a strong contingent from Japan.
Brazilian shoe designer Alexandre Birman lent the exhibit three pairs done in painted reptile skin.
"Shoes have a psychological, sociocultural and seductive significance to our culture, from the Hollywood celebrity to the everyday woman, which goes beyond a materialistic obsession," he said in an email.
The centuries have spawned many beautiful shoes, but the masses joining in a more recent phenomenon known as the "Sex and the City" effect continues to ripple in fashion.
Shoes are so popular, in fact, that Hill cited recent data noting the average American woman owns nearly twice as many shoes as she did a decade ago -- about 17 pairs.
"What we're seeing in a way is a kind of democratization of the kind of phenomenon that we saw in 'Sex and the City,"' Steele said. "At first it was just sort of some people who were really obsessed with high-end designer shoes. This has now spread."
Shoes, she said, have moved from accessories to fashion's main story "to BEING the main story, in part because designer clothes have gotten so expensive. So even if you're spending $900, $1,000 on a pair of shoes, something insane, that's less than you'd be spending by far than if you were getting a dress or something, and people seem to feel that it's more worth it."
Height, Steele said, "has reached this great moment," when compared to a decade ago. "We've gone about as high as most people can walk in shoes, unless you're Lady Gaga. That's about 6 inches, but some people can do higher."
Ban is one of them.
"I can go maybe 10 inches, but that's, like, standing at a cocktail party not moving. Anything for fashion," she laughed.
While a high toe platform to match rear height remains popular, with Ban and millions of other fashionistas, "we're starting to see a new trend toward what people are calling sexy shoes, by which they mean single-sole shoes instead of a platform, so I think that implies that the heel will get a little bit less vertiginous, and instead the emphasis will be on interesting materials and decoration, and different shoe shapes," Steele said.
There's no way to categorize popularity in shoes today. There's a range of heights, shapes and embellishments -- feathers, crystals, beads, spikes, human hair made to look like the tails of ponies, molded and painted resins, painted python. All are included in the exhibition.
Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, said in a New York Fashion Week interview that shoe trends are like fashion trends in general -- you can find whatever you want: pointy toes, stiletto heels, high platforms, fancy flats, more masculine shapes.
"Everyone likes buying shoes. You don't have to take your clothes off or be a model size to wear them," Wells said.
Overall, Steele said, "high heels have really become the prime symbol of erotic femininity. However high it is, but the concept of the high heel, that's really important. It's such a powerful trope for women and for men."
Shoes, Steele said, are "fierce," but also feminine, high and often striving for that "Cinderella factor" that can transform the wearer. It's all "quite delightful," she smiled. "It just makes you want to run out and go shoe shopping."