The Intelligent Consumer: Is it worth it? - Sole to sole

At pounds 50 a pair, Polo Ralph Lauren's deck shoes are definately for the fairweather mariner who is more concerned with style than substance

Spring is in the air. It's time for the well-heeled to dust down their yachts, take to the low seas and pose against a taut rope in lots of jaunty navy and white. But what to wear on the feet?

For the part-time, style-conscious mariner, Polo Ralph Lauren is offering a ladies' boat shoe at pounds 50. This is a pleasant item with a navy, canvas upper, a rubber sole, fine laces and eyelets. "Skid-resistant sole" screams the inside of the shoe, immediately drawing a ready customer-base of ladies afraid of landing half-mast on their derrieres. But isn't it a little pricey when you can get a perfectly adequate deck shoe in the high street for under pounds 30?

It was time to test it against the real thing - an authentic Sperry Top- Sider boat shoe from Ocean Leisure at pounds 29.95.

Both have razor-cut, slip-resistant soles, but the Lauren shoe looks less classy than it's cheaper rival. With its canary-yellow piping on the side and over-large Polo logo at the heel, it looks more Hong Kong than Bond Street.

The Lauren shoes are comfortable, if rather flimsy, and fluffy white laces poke through solid-looking eyelets. They are the closest a deck shoe could ever come to being pretty. It is the turn of somebody more practical to offer an opinion.

"Razor-cut soles are okay, but you've got to put your foot down straight to get a grip. You can't slide your foot at an angle or you'll slip," explains Colin Mitchell, ocean navigator and writer for Sailing Today. As we speak, he tests them out rather rigorously on his tiled patio floor and I can see what he means. "Also, you can pick up very fine grains of sand with the soles. You need to wash them out, otherwise you'll rub them into somebody's beautiful, teak, boat-deck." Tut tut, Ralphie didn't think of that, did he?

"There's no real difference between the two," continues the thorough Mr Mitchell. "The Sperry sole is more securely fitted into the shoe than the Lauren, where it's not quite a perfect fit. So, sooner or later, the lining will come out of the shoe. The stitching on the Sperry is more robust, but the Lauren eyelets are tougher and bulkier. The side lining of the Lauren goes right through to the toe, so they look slightly better and will look nicer for longer, and the tongue is padded for comfort. Whether it lasts for longer is another matter."

Neither of these shoes are for the Francis Drake in us. "They're shore accessories," opines Mr Mitchell. "They are made to go with a handbag and undoubtedly do look very nice. Frankly, I can't see pounds 20 worth of difference between them, only that Ralph Lauren have done a bit more `comfort work'."

So, come on Ralphie's lot, justify your existence. "We're not allowed to talk about design aspects," says a spokeswoman. "Only Mr Lauren can and he's not going to talk about canvas shoes. He feels the product just speaks for itself."

Well, if the Polo Ralph Lauren deck shoes do talk, they're saying very little.

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