Best foot forward
"I've got one question," said the publisher (and you’ll have to imagine a broad Queensland accent here). "Why did you use an overripe banana?"
It’s fair to say he wasn’t the target audience for Shoe of the Week, but on my first day as Sunday magazine editor, it was the last thing I expected to be debating.
"Um," I replied, thinking quickly. "The speckle. It echoed the leopard print."
For the record, my assumption about the yellow-heeled, animal-print pump was correct. But it would not be the only time I, like Sunday magazine editors before me, would field a question about Shoe of the Week. It which has been loved – and loathed – from the beginning.
When Sunday launched in June 2004 (cover story: How men are coping with their high-flying mates), we featured a mid-blue $790 Marc Jacobs butterfly sling back. We followed with Pedro Garcia pumps ($443) and Louis Vuitton wedges ($1340). By October, we’d racked up $7150 of shoe porn and a number of letters complaining about the cost of said shoes.
"The idea," says Lauren Quaintance, Sunday’s inaugural editor, now based in Australia, "was to tap into a growing obsession with shoes – especially high-heeled shoes – among New Zealand women."
This week, that obsession hits new heights. On our final cover of the year is the most expensive shoe ever created in New Zealand: a Kathryn Wilson pump encrusted with half-a-million dollars worth of diamonds. The collaboration, with Orsini Fine Jewellery, launched Wilson’s 2013 autumn/winter collection, and starred in a charity auction for Ronald McDonald House.
Passed in at $1000 under reserve, Sunday snapped the chance to give it Shoe of the Week treatment. How do you style a $500,000 shoe? Less is more, says fashion editor Karlya Smith.
"It was very intricate. All those diamonds, attached by hand, that had taken nights and nights of work. I didn’t want to take any attention away from the shoe. With that image, I was just thinking about Cinderella, and maybe a performer of some sort, which is why I went with the curtain backdrop. I picked the blue, to complement the silvery shade of the shoe, but also because I was thinking of ‘’50s theatres and shantung silk. I went with a vintage curtain – and I put a ring on the toe. Just to add a little sparkle.''
It’s almost a year since Smith started "styling" Shoe of the Week – elevating it from an element on our fashion spread, to a full-page signature statement. Her work has inspired responses from unlikely quarters.
"My name is Pia Thompson and I am eight,” said the letter from a little girl from Hokitika, back in July. "Today my little sister got to go to a party and I had to stay at home with my mum so I got some shoes and some fruit and some other stuff and I got my mum to take some photos after I had arranged them. I did it because I like looking at the shoe of the week . . . If you want you can copy my design."
So far, Smith has not resorted to stealing the eight-year-old’s ideas. But she has frozen shoes, stuck them on cakes, filled them with flowers and sprawled them on silverware. She’s paired Vans patterned with Hello Kitty graphics with toy mice, soaked the labels off spaghetti cans to create display stands for silver, open toed, Marc Jacobs court shoes and complemented purple Dr Martens with shiny fresh aubergines. Her personal favourites: Sylvester "little lobster" woven slippers emerging from a bag of prawn crackers, and a pair of Ziera loafers set against origami paper cut-outs.
"I’m really interested in pictures that make you look twice, or things that make you laugh, or just tell a story. Sometimes I have funny ideas and I keep them in the back of my head until I see the right shoe. Like last week’s flower sock, which was particularly kooky; hideous and cool at the same time. That idea has been in my head all year."
The frozen shoe shoot, she says, had to wait for a synthetic sole. "I’ve shot shoes underwater before, and noticed how they swelled and warped, if they were leather. Those were synthetic, so they were perfect. But also, they incorporated clear PVC, which echoed the ice. I had to go and buy a bin specially. I stood in the $2 shop for ages – it’s my usual haunt for props – thinking of how they needed to sit. I pulled all the shelves out of my freezer and cellotaped one of the shoes so it looked like it was walking.''
The hand holding the knife on the shoe-on-the-cake is hers, says Smith. But there’s more to that photograph than meets the eye. Smith requested an iced, polystyrene base from the cakemaker, and was delighted when what looked like a ‘real’ cake arrived.
"Belinda Merrie [photographer] and I are notorious sugar hounds. Belinda says, 'We’ve got to do a shot with a slice out', and I was thinking to myself, 'great, we won’t have to return the cake...''
The pair sliced the cake. Picked at the icing. And then they took a bite. "I said to Belinda, 'I think this has got blue cheese in it,’ and then the cogs started turning in my head...it turned out it was a really, really old display cake that had been re-iced for our shoot!''
Smith thinks of the Shoe of the Week as a still-life, bordering on art, but says it still has to show a shoe that people can wear and buy – though heels (and high prices) are less of a focus than in the early days.
"I think everyone wants to, at least occasionally, see something they would wear on the page. And I think it would annoy people if they couldn’t, at least occasionally, afford to buy them.
"I have retailers call me up saying they’ve been phoned by husbands wanting to buy the shoe they saw their wife looking at. The prawn cracker one, they didn’t have heaps of pairs in store, and it started all these fights over who was getting them.''
Shoes matter, says Smith, ''because they can make or break an outfit''.
''You can have the nicest clothes in the world, but if you’ve got ugly shoes, people will notice. Women have a really strange relationship with their shoes and their feet. Lots of women don’t like their feet; lots of women love shoes – they’re always going to fit, they’re always going to look good. It doesn’t matter what your hair’s doing.''
She recommends a mix of heels and flats. ''I’ve segued into lots of lower shoes. I’m running around a lot of the day, and I don’t have any interest in twisting my ankle. Flatter shoes are definitely fashionable for the coming winter. There are lots of 60s silhouettes and lower boots. I think heels have gone as giant and ridiculous as they can, and there’s a polar opposite on the horizon.''
Heel heights come and go, but the one constant of Shoe of the Week, is its ability to rile readers.
''Who in their right mind pays $750 for shoes,'' wrote Helen Culver in September, 2007 (cover story: 'Licence to Grill', how our restaurant scene came of age).
''Who in their right mind would pay $795 for this pair of shoes,'' wrote Brian Wilson in September 2012 (cover story: 'Floor Play', how dance got more popular than rugby or netball).
In a word? A man we’ll call Gordon who, back in June took what he called ''a bloke’s shot'' at describing what he thought might be called a court shoe, in a pattern he thought might have been called hound's tooth that he’d seen his partner admiring in Sunday. ''I would like to find out the stockist and surprise my lady with a pair on her birthday.''
Back to Quaintance, who says when Shoe of the Week started, Jo Pearson had just opened Ponsonby Road’s temple to fine footwear, Mei Mei. Suddenly Christian Louboutin, Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo were available to ladies who lunched and office workers on lunch breaks.
''Yes, the prices were sometimes eye-watering, but since we'd devoted half a glossy page to the column, and we were shooting the shoe as a still life, it was as much about showcasing shoes as art as it was about something you could schlep down to the shops in. They were different times...''
Quaintance notes Mei Mei switched its focus to hand-made artisan shoes during the economic downturn and eventually closed a few months back.
''But I think the fascination with shoes remains. There's probably an entire thesis in why women like high heels, since, as AA Gill has said, it's like 'having your toes forced into a blunt pencil sharpener,' but a good pair of heels offer glamour, confidence and sexiness in one package. They also elongate your legs, which when, like me, you are 5"3, is certainly a great help, and more fashionable types than me say a seasonal shoe can instantly update your look if you don't want to splash out on a new outfit.''
Because, said Christian Louboutin in a New Yorker article last year, "A shoe has so much more to offer than just to walk.'' The designer whose signature red-lacquer soled shoes sell in store for between $600 and $12,000 and whose custom-made foot couture starts at $8000, said wearing gorgeous shoes was a form of self-enrichment. ''The shoe is very much an x-ray of social comportment.''
Megan Nicol Reed, former Sunday editor turned columnist, recently trawled the back catalogue to calculate the total cost of the shoes featured under her seven-month stewardship.
''$15,803. It’s a disgusting figure when you look at it like that really. But having said that, I’ve never particularly put much stock in all of those bleaters of Balclutha and whingers who write in protesting the price.
"Good, intelligent, ethical design often costs money. And this is true of everything from houses to heels. Of course, bugger all people can afford to buy any of the Shoes of the Week and no one is pretending otherwise. But you can still admire, be inspired.
"Having said all that though, after flicking back through those 30-odd issues I put out, it wasn't the most expensive ones - a pair of Louis Vuitton satin sandals for $1400 - which that I most desired, but some ruffley, flamenco-y black suede heels for $169 that I was most tempted to purchase.
"Maybe it was the price that rendered them more attractive. As with men, I've never been one to lust after the unattainable."