In the pursuit of cheaper shoes, yet infinite variety, shoe companies and fashionistas seem to have gone awry. Recently I went to the “Shoe Mega-Store” at Marshalls to look for a pair of new business-y shoes. There was certainly no lack of quantity or variety of shoes. The Mega Store was really mega. But it was like the line in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Shoes everywhere, but there were almost none that I could actually survive in for even an hour without crippling myself. Stratospherically high heels that I absolutely could not tolerate. OK, I’ll admit that I am the daughter of a podiatrist who made me wear Buster Brown tie shoes as a kid. Maybe my feet never acclimated to fashion. And many years of running have taken their toll on my feet. But is there something wrong with the shoe industry?
According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, 98% of footwear is now imported. The U.S. lost over 1.6 million footwear manufacturing jobs to offshore manufacturers in the past 35 years. The U.S. shoe manufacturing industry is gone. American footwear companies now design, market, research and develop, distribute, source, warehouse, and sell shoes, but what’s missing is make. I recently met a purchasing executive from Brown Shoe (yes, the old Buster Brown of my childhood). He was able to rattle off a dozen brands that are marketed under their banner, including the shoes I was wearing at the time. But U.S. companies can’t compete with offshore suppliers to make shoes any more, despite a history of heavy tariffs on footwear designed to protect American companies.
Shoe companies have attempted to remedy the discomfort of women’s high heels by making inserts designed to make you feel as if the shoe’s heel is several inches shorter. And the inserts were even designed by an MIT-trained rocket scientist. Now I wonder if a rocket scientist invented stilettos?
So why are well-fitting, comfortable and fashionable women’s dress shoes impossible to find? Is it just fashion trumping comfort? Does terribly cute mean seriously uncomfortable? Or is it something about the way shoes are now made — more cheaply and at a lower quality level? Is it the materials, mostly synthetics instead of leather? Can one blame it on the loss of American shoe manufacturers? Do offshore suppliers use a different last? Or is it a combination of these factors?
The women wearing fashionable shoes today are the podiatry patients of tomorrow. Actually, my father used to say that. For now, I’m choosing to be less fashionable, but still ambulatory.