Shoes: Women over 40 have around 19. We spend £5.2bn on them a year. Here we try the hottest heels for size (with a little help from style guru Peter York)

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The love affair gets more pointed, and complicated, by the day. Hot on the heels of the revelation that the average woman owns 19 pairs of shoes, comes word that the "Imelda Marcos syndrome" - after the decadent Philippine consort who was addicted to footwear - is spreading like expensively stretched and beaten leather.

Once it was the shoes of Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo that women lusted after, but a new pretender has entered the arena. Christian Louboutin is knocking them off the red carpet with one kick of his peep-toe platforms. Celebrities such as Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman have been flashing their little red undercarriages, and where they go every fashionista follows, happily parting with £430 for a 4in court shoe that gives "toe cleavage".

Such is the desire for Louboutin's footwear that his sales have risen by 60 per cent every year for the past three years. He has so much work that he refuses to stock any more department stores than the ones he is already committed to.

According to the style pundit Peter York, ownership of a pair of Louboutins marks you at as "part of a small group of fashion insiders. You know your stuff and other fashionistas will clock you."

While Blahnik's shoes, Mr York says, appeal to "deep fashionistas", Roger Vivier wearers "understand the axis between retro fashion and art". He dismisses fans of Jimmy Choo as "celebrity-obsessed. I would expect Victoria Beckham to wear them."

Last year, Britons spent £5.2bn on footwear, compared with £4.37bn in 1995. Most buyers were women. The average woman aged 40 or over has 19 pairs, and 5 per cent own more than 100, according to a survey by Woman & Home magazine. Forty per cent said they would rather buy footwear than any other fashion item; a third admitted to lying to their partners aboutshopping sprees.

The TV show Sex and the City is largely credited with making red-carpet shoes desirable to mere mortals. Blahnik even named one of his designs after the show's star Sarah Jessica Parker.

As women's appetite for these shoes has increased, so have prices. Lorna Hall, the executive editor of Drapers, the fashion industry's weekly, said: "Five or six years ago, you could buy a pair of designer shoes for about £250. Now you're looking at £300 plus ... They realised they can generate a much higher margin because women are prepared to invest in footwear.

"It's partly a knock-on from the fact that we dress much more casually than we did a while back. But if you have the money, you still want to show off your status and the way to do that is with great shoes."

Stefan Lindemann, the shopping editor for Grazia magazine, says shoes are the most important part of your ensemble: "If you have money to spend, spend it on shoes and buy a cheaper outfit. People can tell if you wear cheap shoes, but no one can tell whether a black rollneck is from Zara or Prada."

A new shoe purchase can instantly cheer up a woman, as you are never too fat for new shoes. James Sherwood, a fashion author and commentator, said many women simply hoard them. "I know a girl who displays her Manolos almost like a Picasso. They are beautiful shoes, almost too good to be worn. A good shoe is verging on being a work of art, especially a heel. These are evening shoes, so if they are worn, they come out on very special occasions. Putting your Manolos on is like taking a tiara out of a bank vault."

Ms Hall has also come across obsessives. "Shoes bring out the geek in a woman in a way that different types of MP3s might in a bloke." And top designers are targeting their addictions. Many luxury houses are creating limited editions. Not only do they achieve high margins, but also a huge amount of PR. Louboutin, for example, has produced a gold snakeskin platform exclusive to Selfridges for £590. The exclusive stock hasn't yet arrived, but all 18 pairs have already been sold.

How does a brand become a red-carpet star? According to Mr Lindemann, shoes are just posted to the stars. "People want to copy what celebrities are wearing. All the designers send free things to celebrities. They never buy them. With dresses you have to return them, but with shoes you can usually keep them. They are sent to the celebrities who they know are going to wear them and will be photographed," he said.

"It's a fairly cynical exercise," said Mr Sherwood. "I would imagine it was a group of creatives sitting round in a room and thinking 'How do we make Louboutin into the next Manolo or the new Jimmy Choo?'"

However, Louboutin strongly denied sending his creations to celebrities. "When something is associated with desire I think it's really offensive to give away things," he said last week from his Italian warehouse. "Whether you're a celebrity or not, buying something that you love is an act that you want to keep for yourself. It's exciting. I respect women too much for that. Some people who have everything for free aren't excited by anything after a while. For me to send anything to someone who didn't ask for it is very offensive."

Why does Louboutin think women have fallen so hard for his shoes? "I think it comes from my background," he said. "I was raised in a harem: I was really raised by women and I have four sisters. I've seen all my life what women like and don't like. When my sisters were trying on shoes the first thing they would look at was their legs."

His most expensive creation so far has been a pair of hand-painted, knee-length crocodile boots, which cost a Czech customer £25,000. He believes they were worth it. "I remember being in my shop in Paris and watching a woman trying on some shoes and her saying to her girlfriend: 'Look! It's like a face lift, but much less dangerous and cheaper.'"

Christian Louboutin

THE MUST-HAVE SHOE OF THE SEASON: Very Privé (peep-toe platform)

COST: £420 to £460


Sarah Jessica Parker

Nicole Kidman

Lily Allen

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT YOU: 'You really relate to fashion.'

Roger Vivier

THE MUST-HAVE SHOE: Belle Vivier (10cm heel pump)

COST: £360


Rachel Weisz

Jennifer Lopez

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT YOU: 'You are in a small but international group, which is very, very sophisticated.'

Jimmy Choo

THE MUST-HAVE SHOE: First (patent-leather platforms)

COST: £450


Halle Berry

Jennifer Lopez

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT YOU: 'You are a big-spending bling-lover. You may well be a footballer's wife.'

Manolo Blahnik

THE MUST-HAVE SHOE: Dukessa (chopped-toe sandal)

COST: £400


Kylie Minogue

Uma Thurman

Kate Moss

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT YOU: 'You are a deep fashionista, a hectic glamour girl. You are pretty confident'