Sunday, July 09, 2006

Choosing the shoe

I've recently received a question related to how one can select high-quality dress shoes. How does one avoid the price trap? What are the brands that consistently deliver quality? How is one able to say, with a measure of objectivity, what sorts of things one should look when buying shoes?

This is a difficult question and I'm still learning about that, but I'll gladly share my experience to date. The problem is, how can one select the best shoe for the money, since, obviously, not all of us can afford to walk in Manolo Blahniks and Prada all the time.

Although I'm loath to say that high-end brands ALWAYS equal quality, I will have to say that most of the time that is true: a higher price ($3-400 and above) usually signals a few things: 1) quality raw materials; 2) good design; 3) good craftsmanship; 4) high quality finish. I'll have to second what The Manolo always says--avoid the cheap shoes and save your money for the expensive ones, where "expensive" indicates quality on all fronts.

As a rule, empirical research is priceless. A savvy shopper should be able to browse and look at the high-end shoes before she moves on to the more reasonably priced ones for three reasons:
- she will see what that kind of money buys in terms of all 4 categories listed above
- she may be lucky to get some of those brands at a fraction of the price if they're on sale
- she will be able to compare these expensive shoes with the lower priced-ones in terms of quality, and decide whether the lower-end shoes are acceptable or not acceptable.

I cannot stress the importance of looking for a good fit--(more tips here). After all, this blog is all about comfort--as long as you do it in style, of course. You all know better than let your shoes chew at your toes or heels, flap unflatteringly in the back, or squeeze your foot into unattractive and painful bundles. The most important thing you need to know is that the shoe should fit right from the start--don't kid yourself that you're going to break them in later. If they feel wrong when you try them on, there are 90% chances that they won't be entirely comfortable later. Of course, the reverse might be true (a shoe that fits right in the store might prove unbearable later), which is why you should allow yourself some time to wear them around the house before taking them outside, so you could return them.

Fit is kind of personal and one should be well acquainted with one's level of comfort and make no compromises on that. But what about quality? How does one distinguish a good shoe from a bad one? If you don't have the big bucks to spend on shoes ("Carrie Bradshaw genes"), and go for the sensibly priced ones, here are some of the things you may want to look for:

- the sole is firmly glued together to the upper part of the shoe (there are no visible gaps or irregularities, no glue marks etc.).
- the shoe is fully lined, preferrably in leather
- the seams are even and perfect (no stitches are falling apart or are irregular, etc.)
- the ornaments are of good quality (e.g., no rhinestones are falling off the buckle, the bows do not show signs of early disintegration and feel sturdy, etc.)
- the leather is of high quality--well finished and smooth (same goes for suede)
- the colors are vivid and even (no bleeding, fading, etc.)
- the other accessories (velcro closures, shoelaces, zippers, elastic bands, etc.) are sturdy and well aligned
- if you can choose between "made in China" and "made in Italy" choose the latter. Portugal and Brazil would also be good choices. German and France-produced brands are less common, but preferrable.

Because of the large number of high-end brands I've seen, some of which I own, I also prefer a leather sole and a stacked heel. However, in certain pricier brands like Arche, this is irrelevant, since they often use a rubber sole.

There is no good way of telling whether a certain shoe will fall apart with use (unless the craftsmanship is so poor it's immediately visible), so one has to rely on word of mouth and market reports whenever one can. Online retailers like Zappos offer user comments rating shoes; such comments kept me away from certain brands since they indicated that a certain model fell apart after two weeks, for example, or that they were cut so narrow they would certainly not fit a regular size.

"Inferior" is a relative term, but I'm making a constant attempt at educating myself as a consumer when it comes to inferior shoes. I usually find that such shoes employ one or more of the following:
- inferior materials (poor quality leathers or synthetic leather)
- inferior plastic instead of leather or rubber
- poor quality glue and/or craftsmanship
- copied design
- poor-quality accessories (you know, the metallic finish basically rubs off your hands, the colors bleed, etc.)
- partial or no lining, and fabric or synthetic material instead of leather lining
- fabric or synthetic insoles

This is not to say that all synthetic leathers are bad--in fact, they are one of the few choices for people who have adopted a vegan lifestyle, for example. But the difference between good and bad materials is often visible with the naked eye. Use your judgment.

Salespeople will praise certain shoes for certain qualities and conveniently forget shortcomings. For example, I got a pair of Born shoes that I found quite well-made and comfortable at the time, for what I considered a higher rather than lower price ($95). The salesperson praised their comfort (which she was right to do), and I needed them at the time so I bought them for the full price. I wore them this past winter, and by the end of the season the nubuck had stained to the point that my nubuck and suede care kit (a special rough eraser and a brush) could not deal with it anymore. I expect I'll wear them much less from now on, and I believe they won't last for more than another season or two, which is disappointing for the price. Furthermore I saw the same shoes on somebody else, and they looked really bad--the nubuck had lost its color and any of its beauty (after only a season or so of more extended wear, I learned). While they were certainly very comfortable, I suspect they require more maintenance than I'm willing to give for a casual shoe.

I fared much better with a pair of Born sandals, but that's because 1) I wear them much less; 2) I got them 1/2 price, which kind of absorbs the potential shock of shoe-disintegration. To further avoid that shock: by all means, rotate, rotate, rotate! That is, try not to wear the same shoe two days in a row. That depends on the size of your shoe wardrobe, of course, but you should strive to have enough pairs for every season so that you don't overwear a certain pair (even if it's your favorite!). I would not wear the same shoes more than twice a week. Your shoes will last longer this way.

I still think you can't get away with shoes that initially cost less than $90-100--anything under that, to me, represents some company cutting corners in some way. I think the smart shopper can buy the most expensive shoes for less than $150, granted she does her research and knows where to look. After researching the market, the Philadelphia and New York stores, and all the online outlets I could find, I am FIRMLY convinced one should never have to pay full price for a pair of shoes (well, unless one MUST have them on the spot to satisfy an itch--a shopping strategy I don't recommend).

Of course, if you just want a seasonal espadrille you know won't be around next season, or gardening shoes, or trend-of-the-day shoes, or flip-flops and such, by all means, buy the cheap ones. But if you want to put your best foot forward, if you want shoes that will last and will make you feel more beautiful, more confident, more comfortable--then you have to do a little bit of work and a little bit of saving, and with the money you'd use to buy 3 cheap pairs that won't be around for long, get the high-quality one. You won't regret it.


At 9:31 PM, Anonymous johnny said...

I think this is what makes purchasing shoes online difficult, but I also see why people shop for brands they know. If I have difficulty getting fit for shoes, but finally find something after a long shopping search, then I am likely to shop for that brand over and over. I am inclined to think that shoe manufacturer is going to be consistent in their shoe design.

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At 6:57 AM, Anonymous Glenda said...

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I've been fun of rubber shoes, mostly by Nike, Puma, Converse. I can't wear or buy ordinary brands because some women shoes won't fit on my size 9 feet. I also want them to be light as possible because heavy shoes will damage your food and bring muscles to your legs.

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