High and mighty: the truth about shoe sales

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As Tamara Mellon quits Jimmy Choo, Harriet Walker wonders whether women will kick their addiction to expensive heels

Her tenure took in economic collapse but the 15 years Tamara Mellon spent at the helm of Jimmy Choo also saw a change of consumer mindset, and a boom in sales and following, that means even the most ordinary wardrobe now resembles that of Imelda Marcos.

The footwear mega-brand, which announced Mellon's departure on Sunday, has, along with Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik, become a household name. And the cult of footwear just keeps growing with the increasing Sex-and-the-City-fication of our lifestyle.

It isn't just the high-end labels that have done well from it. A pair of Choos can cost more than £1,000 but there are countless colourful and crazy designs across the board, with styles costing upwards of £60 or £70 on the high street.

There are several theories for the emergence of our footwear fetish: you don't need to diet to buy shoes; they'll fit regardless of water retention; they feel like a treat. But one thing is unarguable: the fact that normal people – not just the fashionable élite – would now countenance spending upwards of £200 for things that get dragged along the floor all day is telling of a cultural acceptance of what might at first seem like sartorial excess.

And don't assume that people are spending all this money on sensible brogues or a nice pair of winklepickers – the shoes that Mellon and her ilk have made us fall in love with are frothy and fantastical creations, bedecked with ribbons, beads, curlicues and furbelows. They are tall, pointy, platformed and uncomfortable. We teeter, stagger and clutch at handrails – but still we buy. On the face of it, it's the biggest waste of money known to man, or rather, woman.

Is it further proof of the evolution of aspiration? High heels have become the Habsburg chin de nos jours; they're a fashion statement, of course, but they're also a social one. A woman who wears heels so opulent and extravagantly high is a woman who doesn't need to run for the bus because (ideally) she has a chauffeur. Victoria Beckham, who was recently seen shopping with her nine-week-old daughter in seven-inch Louboutins, hasn't been seen in a pair of flats since 1998.

High heels have always had a certain allure – they make legs look longer and bottoms seem perkier. But they're now almost ubiquitous in a landscape where celebrities are papped on the way to the supermarket. For those in the limelight, being seen in flats is like being seen without make-up. And it perpetuates the myth for the rest of us that it is possible to exist at a 45-degree angle. We watched Carrie Bradshaw run through Manhattan in her Choos and we assumed we could do the same – but we don't see the part where she takes them off for five minutes and weeps.

There seems no decline in popularity: Jimmy Choo this summer released an "Icons" collection featuring some of the most popular styles from its 15-year history; Louboutin is currently wrangling in the courts for the lucrative copyright of his signature scarlet soles. There was a brief whisper of a return to flats in the autumn of 2008, when designers such as Alexander McQueen proposed pumps on their catwalk (a nod to the austerity of the early credit crunch, perhaps), but this trend was all but seen off by ever-more outré styles and vertiginous designs.

Department store Selfridges opened its Shoe Galleries last year, taking the prize for the largest footwear department in the world. Since then, it has sold more than 7,000 pairs of shoes in 5,000 styles per week. Our appetite is insatiable: the average woman owns 19 pairs of shoes, Jennifer Lopez has more than 300 and novelist Danielle Steele boasts 6,000. Even Marcos had only 1,060. Tamara Mellon takes with her a personal fortune of £85m and leaves us with an expensive addiction.

Well-heeled: The men behind women's shoes

Christian Louboutin

Paris-born Louboutin is known for his overtly sexy designs, admitting that he makes shoes for men to admire women in. He also introduced the now-ubiquitous concealed platform shape, which adds sturdiness as well as height. All Louboutin designs come with a lacquered crimson sole, the copyright to which he is currently claiming, making them all the more conspicuous on the red carpet.

Jimmy Choo

The label's namesake left his company in 2001 to set up a shoemaking institute in his native Malaysia, where students can learn the techniques that got him to the top. He was born into a family of shoemakers and cast his first at the age of 11, before going on to study at London's Cordwainers College and setting up a bespoke shoe company in the 1980s, and going into business with Mellon.

Manolo Blahnik

Truly the king of shoes, Manolo Blahnik's spindly styles have been on the best feet in town since the Sixties, when he bucked the trend for chunky platforms and reintroduced more classically elegant styles. His name became a byword for fashionable fabulousness in the TV series Sex and the City, in which main character Carrie regularly maxed out her credit card in his shop.

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