It's a blustery day _ February tends to be that way in New York _ and Marian Kihogo, a fashion stylist and blogger from London, is dashing from one runway show to another, from the tents at Lincoln Center to studios and galleries scattered around Manhattan.
As she strides by on her "architectural heels" by Nicholas Kirkwood for Peter Pilotto, the heels hollowed out for artistic effect, this reporter dares to suggest she might be more comfortable in running shoes.
She laughs. "Running shoes! That would be fashion suicide. I think the fashion powers-that-be would stone me!"
An exaggeration? Maybe just a bit. Kihogo is merely giving a colorful rendition of an unspoken rule at Fashion Week: It's all about the shoes. And we're not talking about the models. We're talking about the audience.
Never mind the snow, rain or sleet. Never mind the subway steps or those dashes for a cab. Never mind the long hours on one's feet. Most Fashion Week regulars wouldn't be caught dead without a pair of statement heels.
It's all a little intimidating for the uninitiated, who may find themselves panicking the first time they sit in the front row of a runway show. For us, the command, "Uncross your legs!" induces something akin to terror.
That's what the pack of photographers at the foot of the runway calls out to ensure their camera shots won't be ruined by a dangling foot. But it's also the moment that all eyes shift downward, and suddenly one's feet feel naked.
Scratch that. Bare feet would actually be better than a scruffy pair of booties with worn-down heels and cracked toes. (Sorry Aerosoles, they were lovely six years ago when I bought them.) Or, the Land's End children's rain boots your 11-year-old has grown out of, but still fit you.
Now, we don't mean to exaggerate. Sometimes you can find a pair of sneakers in the front row. Usually they're studded, perhaps part of an overall grunge look belonging to some handsome and hip young man, or to a woman on crutches. Although, last year, this reporter witnessed a woman on crutches at a fashion show, the injured foot in an orthopedic boot, the other in ... wait for it ... a stiletto.
"Wow," says an admiring Pamela Pekerman, who's covering fashion for AfterBuzz TV, hearing the anecdote. "That's going for it."
Pekerman thinks she's found a happy medium _ a pair of Brian Atwood heels in lavender that she bought on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue and swears are comfortable. "I could run for you right now, I really could," she says. We'll take her word for it.
"I've seen a lot of crazy shoes here that belong in the circus," Pekerman says. "People are wobbling around. But some girls, they just want to stick out." As she speaks, one such woman teeters behind her, stepping rhythmically but gingerly across Lincoln Center Plaza and over to 65th Street, where we pray the traffic light gives her enough time to cross.
Pekerman does have one little secret _ foot petals, basically soft pads you sneak into your shoes to provide a little cushioning. But some women, says one fashion insider, have another, darker secret.
"I know from experience that there are plenty of flats tucked away in tote bags," says Ken Downing, fashion director for Neiman Marcus, with a wink. "And sitting in the back seats of sedans." Let's face it, says Downing, "We all know what a beating Fashion Week can be on the feet."
Downing scans the front row of the Cushnie et Ochs runway show, where we're sitting. There's barely a flat in sight, but he points out a colleague, Roopal Patel, who's wearing black high-top Louboutin sneakers with silver studs. And she's on crutches. She injured her knee two weeks ago.
"It sent me into a panic _ what was I going to wear to Fashion Week?" says Patel, fashion director of the online retail site modaoperandi.com. "Ninety percent of my closet is heels. Ballerina flats? Not my style." But a colleague suggested the Louboutins _ "the perfect solution." She'll be wearing them to the upcoming shows in London, Milan and Paris.
Downing, of Nieman Marcus, says there's a good reason for all the dressing up. After all, the fashionistas who form most of the audience at runway shows _ buyers, stylists, major clients and of course celebrities _ have rather a duty to, well, take one for the team. (Easy for him to say.) "Listen," Downing says, "footwear is a true indicator of style, and where fashion is, and where it's going. We're an industry of image. So it's important that we do our part."
And it's not a burden, offers Patel _ it's a pleasure. "Fashion Week is like going back to school _ you want to pull out your new clothes and new shoes and show everyone," she says. Even better: "You're not the only one teetering on 140-milimeter gold platform heels. Everyone is. It's wonderful!"
At a packed Fashion Week party a few nights earlier, Clement Z., as this stylist from Shanghai calls himself, is chatting with friends. Your eyes gravitate down to his feet. How can they not? They're brilliantly jeweled. He's wearing what he calls his Aladdin shoes.
"They're Armani, from the women's collection," he says. "I can do that because I'm just a size 39." (That's a size 8 for Americans.) Kudos to Clement _ they look great. And he knows it.
"Shoes are the most important part of the whole outfit," he says. "I tell my clients: Buy the most basic outfits, but follow the trends of shoes every season."
Kyle Anderson couldn't agree more. We catch up with the accessories director for Marie Claire at the Phillip Lim show, an especially hip event peopled by indie musicians. He's wearing an extremely colorful pair from Prada. "All accessories, including shoes, are a million times more important than clothes," he says. "You can buy simple clothes, but you can't fake accessories."
On a frigid Sunday morning, on line outside the Catherine Malandrino show with the wind whipping off the Hudson River, is a woman who's definitely NOT faking the accessories.
A fashion outsider might look at the feet of Laetitia Chaix and think she is trying to emulate Chewbacca from "Star Wars." Yes, the Wookiee. That person would be wrong.
Chaix is actually wearing seriously chic Chanel fur boots. They would not be out of place at the South Pole (or on the planet Alderaan.) "I call them my grizzly boots," she says. "They were perfect for today. I don't get to wear them too much, because they are so hot."
In fact, muses Chaix, the boots are so hot, "one could wear them today with only a little bathing suit."
Now, THAT'S going for it.