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One man’s epic journey into women’s footwear

Bed of shoes

A bedfull of shoes at the Western Canadian Shoe Association’s Footwear Buying Market 2009.

One man’s epic journey into women’s footwear

– text and photos by Michael Kissinger

Last month, my “lady friend,” as my dad likes to call her, moved back to our hometown Nanaimo to open a shoe store. Called Shoefly, it caters to the small but growing demographic of Nanaimo-ites who don’t wear white Velcro runners from Costco or Walmart.

This past weekend I accompanied her to the Western Canadian Shoe Association’s Footwear Buying Market at the Metrotown Hilton in Vancouver. Although it can’t be blamed entirely for the unfortunate rise of Uggs and Crocs, the WCSA shoe show is where the movers and shakers of the footwear world gather and make decisions that will affect your and my feet for years to come.

Western Canadian Shoe Association's Footwear Buying Market badge.

Western Canadian Shoe Association’s Footwear Buying Market badge.

What will be the next trend in shapeless suede boots? Why do some shoes smell better than others? How close could I get to the epicentre of shoe fashion without doing serious damage to my ruggedly handsome 37-year-old dudeness? Here’s what transpired over nine intensive but enlightening hours shopping for shoes with my lady friend.

The colour purple Acting as a conduit between the shoe companies and the lumpen masses’ gnarled feet, hundreds of shoe reps descend upon the Hilton every year so retailers can peruse the latest styles and order stock for the coming season – in this case, the fall.

Right off the bat, it’s a little strange. Occupying several floors, the shoe reps set up shop in hotel rooms with shoes lining the beds, window sills, television sets, the floor and portable shelves they’ve brought with them.

Boots in a window at Western Canadian Shoe Association's Footwear Buying Market.

Outside each room, a sign tells retailers the name of the rep and the brands of shoes he or she represents. The doors are left wide open, so you wander the hallways of the hotel inspecting the various rooms and their displays, kind of like a footwear version of Amsterdam’s red light district.

Retailers can either book appointments with the reps in advance, or show up unannounced. Sometimes the reps will have a person on hand to model the shoes for you, or you can try them on yourself – that is, if you’re the standard display shoe size six for women or men’s eight, of which I’m neither.

There are roughly 10 women’s styles of shoes for every men’s style. There’s also a number of celebrity shoe lines, such as Paris Hilton, Fergie’s Fergalicious, Gwen Stefani, Jessica Simpson and, um, Carlos Santana. Apparently he makes a gladiator sandal that’s just as self-indulgent and bland as his music, if that’s even possible.

Andrea and boot at Western Canadian Shoe Association's Footwear Buying Market.

Andrea and boot at Western Canadian Shoe Association’s Footwear Buying Market.

A few more shoe-related facts I learned: The average mark-up on a pair of shoes is between two-and-a-half and three times the wholesale price. People in the business prefer to call this the shoe’s “price point,” as in “the price point on those Hush Puppies is great.”

Actually, I have no idea if the price point on Hush Puppies is great, although you’d think it would be with a friendly name like Hush Puppies. Also, some established brands, such as Clarks or Camper, “tell a story.” I have no idea what this means exactly, but judging from the price points, stories don’t come cheap.

“Purple is very hot for the fall.” I must have heard this mentioned no fewer than half a dozen times. Mark it on your calendar. Purple is going to be hot in the fall. If only I had kept those purple creepers I bought at Fluevog in 1989 after a Grapes of Wrath concert.

Apparently moccasins and mukluks will also be smokin’ next season, which explains the dozens of suede slippers, boots and loafers I noticed shamelessly appropriating First Nation fashion forwardness. I wouldn’t put it past McDonald’s to come out with a McPemican by 2010.

Purple boot

*Swag hag* If wall-to-wall shoes weren’t enough, many of the reps and shoe companies like to celebrate their shoe-ness with shoe-related promotional swag and enticements. Shoe-shaped flower vases, plush basset hound key chains from Hush Puppies, sweet ballpoint pens from Clarks. The rep for Tsubo even had a friend bake and decorate dozens of high-heal and boot-shaped sugar cookies, which are as emasculating to eat as it sounds.

The nicest smelling hotel room I visited was Fly London’s. “Portugal leather,” a swarthy man wearing what could best be described as a riding jacket and trousers told me in a monotone voice, barely hiding his disdain for my Adidas. In the next room a woman caressed a $950 pair of knee-highs and exclaimed the oft-heard phrase of the day: “This is one serious boot.”

Michael Kissinger and boot at Western Canadian Shoe Association's Footwear Buying Market.

Michael Kissinger and boot at Western Canadian Shoe Association’s Footwear Buying Market.

Down the hall, there was a line of shoes that had cinnamon-scented soles, which was really quite pleasant. Why cinnamon? Why not cumin or wasabi? I guess that’s another shoe story I wasn’t privy to. The story over at stylish and eco-friendly El Nalturalista was a little easier to understand.

Handsome French Canadian shoe rep not-so-subtly flirts with lady friend in front of lady friend’s ruggedly handsome dude, and then lady friend orders 36 pairs of shoes from flirty French Canadian. The end.

When all was said and done, nine foot-filled hours flew by like eight-and-a-half. More importantly, we had booked all the necessary shoes for the fall season, with not a single white Velcro runner in the bunch. Sorry Dad.

Not only that, I had become increasingly confident offering my deepest insights into heel construction, suede vs. patent leathers and the seriousness of certain patterns, textures and hues. In other short, I had grown as a dude. And come fall, with the right pair of purple mukluks, I’m going to be the hottest dude ever.

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