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Stepping Into Something, Um, Ugly : * Fashion: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the latest in clunky but comfortable shoes put the feet, not style, first.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you wear them, you already know. If you’re about to start, be prepared. Complete strangers will burst out with opinions pro and con, mostly con, on “health” shoes.

“Whenever I’m wearing my chunky, ‘70s-style shoes (people) come up to me and say ‘Your shoes are ugly,’ says Los Angeles fashion designer Maggie Barry. “I think they are offended because they’re not feminine. The shoes look aggressive. Funny thing is, no one ever says that when I wear my motorcycle boots.”

At Fred Segal in Santa Monica, employees say that not just the Birkenstock label but the Birkenstock “look” is banned from the store.

Despite such disparaging reviews, a growing number of men and women dare to wear a new generation of clunky, comfortable shoes with names such as Mephisto, Dr. Marten and Birkenstock. Somehow, ugly has become hip.

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“They’re so ugly they have to be comfortable or no one would ever wear them,” says Holly Claman, actress and assistant to Shari Lewis and Lamb Chops, who wears Birkenstocks constantly. “They make me feel indestructible, tromping through town. My husband’s even gotten used to the look.”

Appreciation for comfortable shoes has its roots in the counterculture ‘60s, when “all natural” and “pro health” were top priorities in fashion as well as food. No high heels or toe-pinchers for the flower-power advocates who first made Birkenstocks a sort of status symbol.

Health shoes got the boot in the ‘70s but their spirit was revived in the early ‘80s when businesswomen started walking to work, wearing athletic shoes with their stylish power suits. That led to renewed interest in the thick-soled, bluntly contoured shoes, usually worn with bulky socks, that put the foot, not fashion, first.

In what is already shaping up to be the no-nonsense ‘90s, people seem to appreciate the durability and longevity of the shoes.

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Birkenstock, a 200-year-old German company, is probably the best-known label. Company sales have increased as much as 25% in the past two years, says Louise Lanning, who owns three Los Angeles-area Birkenstock shops.

Mephisto, a slightly more stylish counterpart, is made by a French company with a store in Beverly Hills. Owner Jeff Smith says his sales are up 50% over last year.

And Doc Martens, as wearers refer to them--those fierce-looking street-combat boots favored by “punks” in England and girls in sweet flower-print dresses in Los Angeles--have been popular with teen-agers for several years. Maria Mahoney, manager of fashion-conscious Na-Na boutique in Santa Monica, says she can’t keep up with the demand.

Producer/director Brian Hutton says he has been wearing ugly shoes for 30 years.

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“I used to watch my father wrap his feet in gauze because they were so injured from the shoes he wore,” Hutton recalls. “That inspired me.”

Hutton’s custom shoes are made by Peter Yagdjis at Valley Oaks Orthopedic shoes in North Hollywood. A pair costs about $400, compared to $60 to $198 for Birkenstock, Mephisto and other off-the-shelf brands.

David Unger, chairman of the Antioch University psychology department, offers a profile of Hutton and his fellow ugly-shoe advocates: “They’re saying, ‘I believe in wellness for myself.’ ”


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