Collector's Corner: Why shoes never go out of fashion

From old boots to high-heels, this is a hot market that shows no sign of wearing out, says Gwyn Jones

Imelda Marcos might be the extreme, but there are plenty of women – and men – who will confess to a shoe obsession. Whilst those who don't indulge in this shoe fetish might think it's a frivolous waste of money, some shoes are in fact highly collectable and indeed they're the best performing area of the growing accessories market.

Kerry Taylor is the only specialist costume and textiles auctioneer in the world. She works independently and in conjunction with Sotheby's. "Shoes really are highly collectable," she says. "Hats perform badly, gloves have to be early, but shoes are extremely desirable. I have museums the world over looking for early examples. They're not so dictated by fashion as there are so many museums interested. I always get a lot of interest from Japan, they are absolutely fascinated by European footwear."

There are two very different areas of the market, the most valuable is the buy-to-collect sector, whilst the buy-to-wear area tends to obviously be more modern shoes. "The most desirable are 17th- and 18th-century pieces, which I sell for thousands of pounds," says Taylor. "I've sold General Tom Thumb's shoe and also a giant shoe c1900 which was 37 inches long and made £1,500. It was bought by somebody who wanted something to put in their hall as a piece of sculpture."

One of the most expensive non-celebrity related shoes sold were a pair of slap-soled ladies shoes, from late 17th-century Italy. They were a ridiculous fashion item which saw the sole slapping up and down as you walked. This pair were snapped up by a museum for £28,000.

Not everything has to be early, shoe museums are interested in designers such as early Vivienne Westwood with her bondage boots, or a pair of her elevated platforms in black patent leather with spikes, from 1993, which recently sold for £1,500. You'd have paid only a couple of hundred pounds for them back then. Something like a Vivienne Westwood would have been cherished from the start because people who bought her pieces did so because they looked at it as being something special even at the time they bought it.

As with any collectable item condition is critical. If you're buying for investment or the collectors' market, then make sure you don't wear the shoes.

There has been solid demand for shoes over the last 10 years with prices going up, and Taylor doesn't feel that anything is particularly undervalued at present. "But I do think Terry de Havilland's beautiful snake-skin shoes from the Seventies, or Vivienne Westwood's elevated platforms from 1983-4 are very interesting," she adds.

The other sector of the market is the buy-to-wear area where you can find some real bargains if you're fashion conscious. Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo shoes can be snapped up at knock-down prices. "The great thing about shoes," says Taylor, "is that if you put on a few pounds they still fit, but clothes don't. Shoes you can just carry on wearing, and a classic pair go on and on."

A quick look at the sorts of shoes being sold by Taylor shows just what bargains there are to be had. In her last sale she had a lot of six pairs of boots including one pair by Ralph Lauren, a pair of black suede Jimmy Choo stiletto boots and a pair of Bruno Magli leather ankle boots, amongst others, which sold for just £110 for the lot. You wouldn't have been able to buy one pair of these for that price originally.

So what is the fascination with shoes? "It's a female thing," says Taylor. "If they've had a bad week, some people will buy a bag or a hair-do, but for a lot of people it's a new pair of shoes. I know loads of people who go weak at the thought of hundreds of shoes, and buying a pair makes them feel great, that's not a bad thing!"

For those who are buying purely to collect and never to wear, they often do so because they see shoes as small sculptural objects. They're interesting as a piece of social history as well as being beautiful, and because they're small you can have them in a cabinet in your home.

The shoe market is unlikely to bring you the best investment return of the antique and collectors' market, but if shoes are your thing, then buying wisely and taking care of them is likely to see you preserve if not raise their value, whilst you get to stare at a pair of beautiful shoes. As for the label-conscious, it's a market not to be ignored, and a great way to treat yourself to bargain designer feet.

Contacts

* Kerry Taylor Auctions: 020-8676 4600; www.kerrytaylorauctions.com

* Passion for Fashion at Sotheby's (13 December): 020-7293 5000; www.sothebys.com

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