Designed by Patrick Cox, the simple square-toed shoe which costs £85- £160 and is available in a multitude of fabrics and colours, is responsible for fights breaking out, desperate callers ringing daily to check if new stock is in, feet being forced into the wrong sizes, and a bouncer called Junior.
"It is a weird job," he said, as he stood guarding the door of the Patrick Cox shop in Symons Street, near Sloane Square in London, while Danny, Anna and about 25 others waited outside in an orderly queue which snaked its way past restaurants and other shops, nearly spilling on to the King's Road. "They hate the fact that they have to line up at the door to get in, but they want the shoes, so what can they do?"
The Patrick Cox shop, the only one in this country (Cox opened a shop in Paris last year and is planning a second outlet in London this summer), opened in 1991, has dark blue walls, is furnished with 19th-century French antiques and looks more like a salon than a shoe shop. It has a maximum capacity of about 20 customers and six sales assistants, but it can still take half an hour to get served. New stock is delivered once a fortnight and it is quite common for a whole range to sell out the same day.
The black Mocroc (fake crocodile) is the most popular style, followed by the Python (real snake). Shoes cannot be reserved in advance because demand always outstrips supply and the shop operates a strict first-come first-served policy. Consequently, customers will stop at nothing to try and beat the rest. The delivery man is regularly offered money to siphon off pairs, as is the shop's repair man.
"I even had my dad calling me last Friday at 10pm saying a friend of his had a daughter who knew I worked here and who wanted to know if I could get her a pair in black," said one sales assistant. "I'm doing a degree and just work here part-time and yet the only thing people want to talk about is the shoes."
The Wannabe range first hit London in the autumn/winter 1993 collection and by spring/ summer 1994 about 70,000 pairs were sold wholesale all over the world. Last season more than 100,000 pairs were sold. The queues, mostly on Saturdays, started around Christmas time and copy-cat, cheaper versions, from Office, Jones and the like, are walking the streets - although purists can spot a wannabe Wannabe a mile off.
"The Gucci loafer suffered the same fate in the Seventies," said Colin McDowell, fashion historian and writer. "It was adapted by everyone." And the Wannabe mania is similar to the Gucci phenomenon: "They had to lock the doors of the Gucci shop in Rome because there were so many people trying to get in."
As with Gucci enthusiasts, Wannabe fans are obsessive. Stock numbers are quoted with train-spotter-like precision and people come back for more and more. Lisa, 28, a Birds of a Feather blonde, wanted to collect the whole set. "I first came a couple of years ago," she said, sitting by the display of Wannabes, eyes scanning for an assistant to help her with the mottled ones she just had to have. "I've got black and white ones, velvet ones, yellow ones, linen ones, ones with buckles, boots. I've got about 12 pairs now."
Lisa's mother had come to buy a brown pair. Lisa's sister was wearing a pair of Pythons and holding a fluorescent orange pair with buckles. "We've all got them," she said, "my uncle, brother, the whole family. At least three pairs each." Lisa's daughters, aged six and four, were also in tow, playing with a pastel-pink pair.
So why is this shoe such a success? "They're so comfortable," said Danny; "Easy to wear," said Stephen; "Great shape," said Anna; "Good value for money," said Lisa's mum. Hard to grasp at £95 a pair, but when compared with the Patrick Cox mainline collection (which costs anywhere between £120 and £400) and other designer shoe labels such as Ferragamo and Manolo Blahnik which go up to £500, Wannabes do almost look like a bargain. And because of demand, the price is actually going down.
But there has to be more to it. After all, Clarks slippers are cheap and comfortable and the likes of Junior are not seen guarding them. People buy Wannabes not only because they have attained cult status, but because they have that indefinable something which turns fads for those in the know into enduring mainstream classics. People at the forefront of fashion are notoriously fickle and normally move on to something else as soon as the rest of us catch on, but in this case they have not. Wannabes and their imitations will probably still be around in 10 years and worn by Chelsea ladies and disco babes alike.
Patrick Cox, 8 Symons Street, London SW3 (0171-730 6504). Open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Wed until 7pm.
Jones Bootmaker £59.99 These are a classic shape, with a sensible low heel, but the metallic sheen adds a fashion angle. They come in a number of pastel shades: green, pink, blue and pearl. Available from Jones Bootmaker, Fouberts Place, London W1 and East Street, Brighton. Inquiries on 01323 649 408
Photographs: Bert Cross
Stylist: Charlie Harrington