I was looking at some shoes today with a 10cm-high heel," says Rupert Sanderson, the shoe designer. "Four years ago that was pretty high, but now it almost looks slightly frumpy."
This season, indeed, shoes are so extreme that to qualify for so-called "statement" status it helps if your footwear is a crippling 15cm high, shaped like a Le Corbusier building or laden down with tassels, fringes, studs and beads. Shoes with half-crescent heels like protractors appeared at Ferragamo, and if Dali had designed engine parts then sprayed them red and purple, they might have looked something like the gleaming metallic styles that appeared at John Galliano.
Last season, costume jewellery was tipped as the hot new accessory, following on from shoes, and bags before that. However, thanks to the ingenuity and sheer drama of the latest designs, footwear has managed to stay firmly on its pedestal as the accessory that really sends fashionable pulses racing. As the opening of a new shoe shop by influential London boutique Browns last Saturday suggests, the appetite for high heels with high prices to match hasn't yet been reduced by the credit crunch.
"Sales of our shoes online were up 200 per cent last year," says Brown's buying director, Erin Mullaney. "They are still selling really well – despite the state of the economy we haven't seen a slowdown." Holli Rogers, buying director at Net-A-Porter, says that "last season, sales of towering high heels were very impressive. Over 50 per cent of the 16cm-high Christian Louboutin Alti leather pumps sold out within 24 hours of going live on the site." Harrods also report strong shoe sales, particularly of skyscraper heels.
Mullaney believes that the continued enthusiasm has been driven by the exhilarating exoticism of the latest creations. "Handbag sales have flattened out in the last two years," she says, "and shoes are the new 'it' item. They are becoming more trend-led, and I think that will continue for a few seasons, as everyone has become more willing to push the boundaries. They are like a fetish."
Mullaney is also confident that strong sales will survive the recession, because designer shoes offer an entry-level price to a designer brand. Shoe prices may have been rising, in part due to increased manufacturing costs, but at around £500 for a pair of, say, Chloe shoes, compared to more than £1,000 for a Chloe dress, they are still more affordable than designer clothes. Mullaney says it is not just wealthy customers buying – students from the nearby London College of Fashion will gaze covetously at shoes then snap them up in the sale.
The new shop came about because the Browns team had the opportunity to take over the former Browns Bride space (now moved to Hinde Street), with its prime location across from Claridges, and they felt that shoes were the most dynamic area of fashion. With its 1970s glass chandeliers, antique furniture and shoes housed in bookshelves, the new boutique features a women's floor with around 210 different styles by labels such as Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana and Balmain, as well as independent shoe designers such as Rupert Sanderson and hot newcomer Nicholas Kirkwood, and they will have exclusive styles for the opening. The men's floor will feature a coffee bar and around 65 different styles by the likes of Lanvin, Balenciaga and Dries Van Noten.
The new space may only just have opened but there is already a waiting list for several of this season's key shoes. Around 20 people have put their names down for Balmain's strappy gladiators – due mid-February – and for YSL's cage-effect boots. Since shoes became a focal point of the catwalk shows, fashion fanatics have been keen to get their hands on the exact styles that appear in them – the Browns team tried to buy the dinosaur-like shoes that appeared in Christopher Kane's show, but they didn't go into production. Nicholas Kirkwood's designs in the store include a pair of gold buckled sandals, and some beautiful high black courts that look as if they are floating on a ring of pearls around the sole. "The idea is that the shoe looks as if it's balanced on this fragile, precious thing," says Kirkwood, who is helping to drive the trend for fantastic footwear. "I like to balance toughness and femininity and I'm inspired by sculpture and architecture. I use abstract shapes, rather than set shoe styles such as the Mary Jane."
Why are so many designers on such far-flung flights of cordwaining fantasy? One reason, of course, is to seduce people into buying new accessories, producing shoes that stir subconscious desires through their surreally curved heels and arches, or pander to more basic wants – namely, making the wearer look taller, thinner and more fashion-forward than everyone else. Fashion Week is a crucible of competitive heel wearing, seeing who can survive racing from car to show to party in heels so fierce that they look as if they might bite.
Another reason for the trend could be that we need escapism and innovation during times of recession. Perhaps, however, there is a simpler explanation. Says Rupert Sanderson: "It's great fun designing really high shoes. When women come into the shop and try on 12-13cm heel shoes for the first time, they seem to get a real thrill out of it." Marc Jacobs seems to feel the same. Of the tribal-inspired, tassel- and bead-embellished styles at Louis Vuitton, he said: "The shoes are fantastic... Shoes are a favourite of mine, and they are such fun to work on. We all got involved, and made masks, or little scenes, and kept on layering. We were very passionate about it."
But have heels peaked? Have models falling off their shoes at the last round of shows provided a dose of realism about their impracticality? Daphne Guinness, whose highest pair are 8in Alexander McQueen platforms, takes a broad view of the rise and fall of the heel over time. "Shoe trends have always been cyclical, constantly moving from flats to very high heels," she says. "Historically, extreme fashion in shoes, such as in France and China, has always been followed by political and economic upheaval, and it's interesting to see things going a similar way now. Perhaps it is the beginning of the end for high heels. Having said that, I am going to carry on wearing them!" Nicholas Kirkwood may design his first flats for next autumn/ winter, and Rupert Sanderson says that although the extreme shoe trend has a way to go yet, some of his coolest customers are bucking it by opting for flats. The backlash has already begun.
Browns, 59 Brook Street, London W1 (020-7514 0000; www.brownsfashion.com)