Every morning in every city you can see them. Smartly dressed women, wearing suits or separates paired with incongruous sporty trainers as they hurry to work.
Invisible but obvious to the observer are their proper shoes, presumably heels, secreted in a handbag or tote, ready for a quick swap before starting a day of work. So many of us seem to have a "can't live in them, can't go without them" relation to our formal shoes these days.
Meanwhile, in business news, there seems to be a direct correlation with the height of the heels and the profits trajectory of the company, when it comes to footwear brands. Jimmy Choo posted a 200 per cent increase in profits this January; Christian Louboutin is expanding by opening shops as far away as Brazil and Japan, and Kurt Geiger reckoned it sold ten pairs of shoes a minute in 2010 – with five-inch heels proving the most popular choice.
As women buy into ever more towering styles, precluding the chance that the female foot should evolve Darwin-style, what are the developments in shoemaking technology to ensure that followers of fashion can still move from A to B without the use of sedan chair, or at least, a large handbag containing flats? Does a comfortable high heel exist, or is the idea much like "anti-wrinkle cream"– an impossible proposition, yet one too tempting to dismiss entirely?
Jessica Bumpus of Vogue.com, speaks for many when she explains how she rotates her footwear to minimise aches and pains: "It depends on how much you vary them. I find if I wear high heels every day but change which pair, I'm fine and they're comfortable, but if I wear the same pair the whole week long, they won't be as comfortable. It's good to mix it up and give your feet a break from time to time." She also adds that she finds the safest bet is "either a wedge or a pair with in-built platforms".
Helen Attwood [no relation], the buyer manager of shoes at Selfridges (whose London store houses the largest shoe department in the world, stocking everything from River Island to Prada), has noticed: "Shoes are getting higher and higher and more extreme these days. But the other side of it is that people tend to wear flats most of the time – because they are running around. Then when they do get into these skyscraper heels, they're not going to feel comfortable because it's such a huge difference. In a way, if you wear high heels every day then you're probably more comfortable than the rest of us who swap and change, because you've got used to it.
"As far as different styles go, wedges sell fantastically well, and they are very much in fashion at the moment, and people like them because they are comfortable while still giving you that height. Another comfy style would be a covered platform pump – again, you still have that height but, due to the platform toe, the angle your foot is placed at is not as steep, so the amount of pressure is less. At the moment we have Alexander Wang's summer shoes in. They are high but have so much cushioning and padding in the inner that you feel as though you are walking on clouds. Often you can tell whether a shoe will be comfy or not just by looking inside it."
Another expert looking inside shoes is French shoe designer, Raphael Young. Unusually among designers with their own labels, he doesn't have one signature "look" but spans the fashion spectrum, from Barbarella-type boots in metallic leather at one end, to elegant court shoes at the other. He became obsessed with the craft of making shoes while watching his uncle Alexandre Narcy at work in Yves Saint Laurent's shoe studio, crafting each last [the wooden "foot" shape, which the shoe is built around] and heel by hand. For Young, the design of each prototype comprises two phases. "At first I just think about the style and it's the artistic phase, nothing else than the aesthetic and style. The second phase concerns the [coming together of] all the components and at this point it's all about comfort and practicability. It's constant: how can I increase the comfort and longevity of the shoes, how can I modify components and materials to improve the quality and comfort?"
It led him to take out a patent on one particular range of his shoes, the R-Flex, which are smart high heels with a flexible rubber sole. Young said he first had the idea 12 years ago, visiting a shoe factory "that was manufacturing comfort shoes, almost orthopaedic shoes, where the owner explained that he was looking for a solution to make the shoes more flexible, which could give real comfort if the shoes could accompany the natural movement of the walk". Young pondered this question for years, and when his company received some extra investment they put it to use solving the old problem. "After trials and tests in the factory, I found the technical solution to make shoes as flexible and comfy as a ballerina [pump]. We patented it."
Kay Barron, Grazia's fashion news and features editor, is a self-confessed high heel connoisseur, and one who is so well known for wearing "skyscraper" heels all day, has even written a first-person piece detailing the challenge of wearing flats for a week instead. Barron is enthusiastic about the R-Flex range. "The Raphael Young shoes are supremely flexible and comfy – surprisingly considering how high they are. I wore them for a whole day during London Fashion Week and there was no burning pain, or numb toes!" As an expert on high heels, Barron is precise about her shoe-buying tips. "It's not to do with the height, a wedge or otherwise, or the brand. It's all a question of balance and distribution of weight. A well-made shoe that allows your weight to be spread evenly will be more comfortable to stand in for longer, than one where the pressure is all on the ball of the foot. And believe me, I had to wear many toe-curlingly painful shoes before I found the perfect pair."
Helen Attwood of Selfridges has one mitigating piece of news for those intimidated or otherwise unconvinced by the five-inch trend. "This season, as well as the extremely high shoes, the other story is completely flat flats, like loafers or brogues. There's not much in the middle ground but flat shoes are trendier than ever."