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Red-carpet shoes are having a serious moment. Here’s why

The SS21 Elif Stiletto in Blue Atoll from designer Ruthie Davis.
Shoe designer Ruthie Davis has been leaning into bright colors, to add a jolt of positivity in an otherwise bleak time.
(Michael Keel)

The right shoes are essential on the red carpet. “Shoes complement the look and bring it all together,” stylist Apuje Kalu says. But they are often overshadowed — literally — by dresses and other clothing. “Ninety-five-plus percent of [the time], women are wearing long dresses, and the shoes are hidden,” stylist Madison Guest says. “You feel so bad, because there’s these amazing shoes under those gowns.”

Red-carpet fashion is changing, hastened by virtual and semivirtual awards shows during the pandemic. Traditional red-carpet images have been replaced, temporarily, with pictures via at-home photo shoots and outfits that range from full-on gowns to sweats and pajamas.

These shifts are a big opportunity for footwear, stylists say.

Take the 2020 Emmys, for example. Tracee Ellis Ross showed off her glam look on a DIY red carpet in her backyard — her gold Jimmy Choo heels making a statement alongside an Alexandre Vauthier gown. Samira Wiley paired Olivia von Halle pajamas with Sophia Webster shoes, taking the look from comfy to chic.

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Are virtual awards shows allowing celebrities, stylists and designers to be even more creative in their footwear choices? “A million percent; there’s no doubt about it,” stylist Andrew Gelwicks says.

Case in point: Gelwicks styled Catherine O’Hara for the 2020 Emmys, and instead of pairing her tea-length Valentino dress with heels, Gelwicks and O’Hara opted for combat boots. “It was this edgy, chic, kind of unexpected moment, which is what fashion is all about,” Gelwicks explains. “I don’t think we really would get away with doing combat boots on a regular Emmys carpet.”

Stylist Andrew Gelwicks styled Catherine O'Hara for the 2020 Emmys
Stylist Andrew Gelwicks styled Catherine O’Hara for the 2020 Emmys, and instead of pairing her tea-length Valentino dress with heels, Gelwicks and O’Hara opted for combat boots.
(Ana Sorys)

Kalu points to the curated nature of at-home photo shoots as part of the reason shoes are enjoying some extra time in the sun this awards season. He styled Yvonne Orji for a virtual appearance at last year’s Emmys, pairing an Azzi & Osta gown and Christian Louboutin heels.

On Instagram, the details of the shoes were on full display — more than they otherwise would have been on the red carpet. “Sometimes you may not get that detail on the carpet of the shoe, like you may not have seen that little bow,” Kalu explains. “By [the awards show] being virtual, it allowed us to really curate more of the experience and tell the fashion story from head to toe.”

Shoe designer Ruthie Davis has felt the sea change, too. She’s been leaning into bright colors to add a jolt of positivity in an otherwise bleak time. “If I can put a smile on a woman’s face because she has a pretty blue shoe for spring that makes her happy, that’s my job,” Davis says. “So, when I planned my spring ’21 collection, I decided to make color really important.”

This trend will probably be seen on the red carpet, Davis says. “Historically, at award shows the shoes are not colorful; they’re usually very muted tones. And I think this year you’re going to see a lot of colorful pops of color in the shoe.”

Laverne Cox’s stylist has shown particular interest in Davis’ “blue atoll”-colored shoes, Davis says, and may let the shoes determine the rest of Cox’s look, rather than the other way around. “I showed the color to [Cox’s] stylist. And she was like, hold the front door ... all of a sudden, she’s gonna find a dress that works with my shoes.”

In addition to bright colors, “you’re going to see some people really letting loose,” Davis predicts. “You’re gonna see chunky sneakers with a gown, you know? It’s actually going to be a great season for footwear.”

Ruthie Davis Trophy Deluxe silver platforms worn by Lady Gaga.
(Michael Keel)

And, even if we move away from the pajama photo shoots of the summer, comfort will probably remain a priority in red carpet footwear. “People are not into frivolous things,” Davis says. “Whether it’s something very avant-garde or something more casual, it’s going to be comfortable and functional.”

Guest agrees, predicting we’ll see chunky heels and lug soles this awards season. “If we have any form of a traditional red carpet, I think you’re going to see shoes that look a bit more comfortable and less ‘beauty is pain,’” she explains.

An emphasis on comfort — without sacrificing style — makes sense, given the past year. And it dovetails Davis’ philosophy. “My shoes give height, they fit well, they feel like you’re held in tight.”

With pride in her voice, Davis remembers a time Lady Gaga wore her shoes: “Look at how she’s walking, so proud, so tall and so comfortable. And that’s because she’s got my shoes.”


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