Pain at the pump

Times Staff Writer

This spring, nearly every top designer has a “Cinderella” slipper, a shoe priced so high that it should come with a handsome prince -- or an hour with a male escort, at least. Christian Louboutin’s webbed suede and button sandals sell for $1,345, while Versace offers a $1,400 satin pump festooned with nothing more than a few tassels. Dior’s platform slingback with beaded heel runs $1,030, while Balenciaga’s pink and brown braided gladiator sandal goes for $1,375.

Then, there’s the $1,045 Lanvin flat (pictured on the cover) that should land at Barneys in Beverly Hills any day now. Already, women are salivating for this sandal adorned with a couple dozen leather-covered studs. Run, don’t walk. There’s a waiting list.

“Footwear is having its runway moment,” says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for New York market research firm NPD Group. Designers are “raising the cachet of the brand by having one extravagant style, and that one makes the other pairs seem more reasonable.”


In other words, the glass slipper has shattered and consumers have resigned themselves to splurging. Case in point: You pick up a sandal and sigh with relief when it costs less than your monthly car payment. And those sale endorphins surge when you see $1,000 platforms marked down to $675.

Piece de resistance styles aside, the going price for a luxury designer pump has climbed from $350 in 2004 to $500 in the last year. Mary Janes, an “it” style for spring, range in price this season from $575 for a sleek patent leather pair by Gucci to $690 for suede ones with zaftig curves by Prada.

Miuccia Prada recently was quoted as saying, “The obsession with handbags has finished for now. It feels over. It’s about shoes.”

Celebrities such as Kirsten Dunst pout for Miu Miu ads that highlight accessories, and starlets name-check their mules on the red carpet. Christian Louboutin’s iconic crimson undersoles -- as eye-catching as fresh spilled blood on asphalt -- have become status symbols. Every new season brings a new style, and with the reign of jeans and casualwear, a breathtaking shoe separates the chic from the chaff.

That’s not exactly good news for shoe junkies. A pair of sandals could set you back as much as a shoulder bag. Right now, a turquoise Prada satchel sells for $535 on the Neiman Marcus website, and the designer’s wavy ankle-wrap sandal sells for $550.

“I will literally think, ‘Do I spend $600 on shoes or get new plumbing?’ ” says Carlota Espinosa, vice president of online sample sale retailer “They keep raising prices to see if people will pay more. And there’s no law that says they can’t.”


Nor is there any way to justify the steady and exponential boost in price. Cohen traces the trend back to 2002, when everyone was crying foul over $300 jeans. “Denim stole all the attention, so no one noticed that footwear prices were quietly rising,” he says. “The retailers saw that women were passionate about shoes and looked at footwear as an investment.”

Pumping up prices

SUNSET PLAZA boutique owner Tracey Ross felt the sting about five years ago. “When Chloe came on the scene, I remember noticing it,” she recalls. “All of a sudden, every line started designing a shoe collection that was more elaborate and more expensive.” That’s about the time that Lanvin entered the scene.

Simultaneously, the dollar started to atrophy, which drove prices up even more. Because the best shoes are made in Italy, U.S. retailers take a bath when buying and importing European footwear.

“Right now, everything from the price of leather to factory costs are about 20% more because of the euro,” says Neil Weilheimer, executive editor of Footwear News. “The prices have been creeping up, but we’re seeing the most dramatic increases because of it now.”

The dollar is at a five-year low against the euro, but a euro on steroids isn’t solely to blame. Thanks to “Sex and the City” character Carrie Bradshaw -- the patron saint of footwear fanatics -- shoe designers have become demigods. Even bachelors in Duluth, Minn., know the name “Manolo” and certain people can probably pronounce “Christian Louboutin” more easily than “Albert Camus.”

Some blame Louboutin for spiking prices. Even his sequined ballet flats sell for $880.

“He started the trend when he introduced the platform,” says John Rutenberg, who recently retired from Barneys in Beverly Hills after 15 years as a shoe sales associate. “He wanted to pull ahead of Manolo Blahnik, and his platform sold for $395 in 2004. Now, it costs $730.”


Louboutin -- who fetches up to $2,700 for a pair of crystal-studded pumps -- refuses to take the blame for footwear inflation.

“This is not in the hands of the designers,” he says from Paris. “It’s the retailers. If Neiman’s or Barneys decide that people are used to spending $700 on a pair of pumps, why would they lower that price?”

Great question. Not surprisingly, spokespeople for Neiman Marcus and Barneys declined to comment on the great shoe price debate. But Rutenberg says Barneys shoppers aren’t flinching at the prices. “Danielle Steel spends $4 [million] to $5 million a year at Barneys on shoes for herself and her children,” he says, adding that the Beverly Hills store “sells $22 million in footwear per year.”

Evelyn Ungvari, owner of the boutique Diavolina on Robertson Boulevard, says that she would gladly drop the prices on her shoe selection if the dollar rallies back to health.

“I feel horrible when my girls come in here and say, ‘I can’t spend this much on sandals,’ ” she says, seated amid $775 Pierre Hardy peep-toe pumps and $595 Gil Carvalho gold sandals that zip up the back. “They think it’s my fault, but I am paying these high prices too.”

Ungvari has smartly stocked her shop with a variety of styles to suit every budget. Gladiator sandals by Dolce Vita priced at $124 are just a few strides away from Givenchy’s $395 patent leather version.


Other small shoe purveyors are seeking out alternative suppliers to stay afloat. “A boot we had last season for $495 would have to sell for $695 this fall and so we’re not carrying them,” says Beth Whiffen, owner of boutique Il Primo Passo in Santa Monica. She’s looking to Spain, rather than Italy, for more reasonable lines. “Our customers spend up to $495 without any price resistance. That’s the breaking point.”

Still, retailers -- be they sleek behemoths or quaint boutiques -- mark up shoes 2.4 to three times the wholesale price. (On clothes and bags, the average markup is generally twice the wholesale price.) A pair of shoes that wholesale for $200 to $250 retail for $600. Exotic skins such as python, eel and stingray ratchet up costs even more. The same goes for ornate accents such as the mirrored heels on those ballyhooed Balenciaga sandals or the sculpted flower stem heel on Prada’s latest pumps.

But like the real estate market, the shoe market could be in for a correction. NPD Group reports that in 2005, footwear sales were up 11%. That figure dipped to 5% in 2006 and wilted to 2.5 % last year. Now, with a recession looming, the industry can expect some scuffs.

In the meantime, don’t fault Lanvin or the retailers for your financial blisters. “This is a free market,” says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a retail research firm in New York. “The consumers are to blame for paying these prices.”

Who’s up for a revolution? Wear comfortable shoes.