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Big Shoes To Fill

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The money-fueled era of McMansions and S.U.V.'s may be as dead as the dinosaurs, but America's lust for the outsize lives on in Big Gulp drinks and triple cheeseburgers, in the Starbucks Venti -- and now -- in jumbo high heels.

Skyscraper stilettos, platforms as thick as bricks, straps winding up the leg, caged insteps and vamps bulging with elaborate hardware are all the rage. The monster shoes first hit the runways last winter, the apotheosis of a craze in extreme footwear that started two years ago. From Karl Lagerfeld's pistol-heeled sandals to John Galliano's surrealistic metallic styles and Alexander McQueen's double decker platforms that recall the clobbering chopines worn by 15th century Venetian whores, designers fell all over themselves to create this season's Most Outrageous Shoe.

Teetering down the catwalk in the towering footwear, some models actually did fall. Nevertheless, the insanely big shoes won raves from the fashion press. Celebrities such as Beyoncé, Victoria Beckman and Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen were among the first to wear them.

Now, the shoes have hit America's stores. Footwear has always been associated with sex - why else would we tie shoes to the cars of newlyweds? But, today, women's shoe racks suggest the fetish business: seven inch stilettos, platforms with bondage straps, needle heeled sandals drenched in black leather and chains. It's nearly impossible to find a pretty, feminine shoe with a normally high heel, say three and a half inches.

Sales people in shoe departments across America are begging for less extreme models, says Roseanne Morrison, fashion director for Doneger Group, a retail consultant for more than 200 stores. "They're all saying, give me shoes I can sell, especially to the older customer. But the designers will have none of it. These [extreme] shoes build cachet for a brand - it's something that's different and forward thinking, even if it's not something that a lot of people will wear."

Still, young women, particularly twenty-something fashionistas, are buying them. Shoe sales this season are strong, especially compared to poor sales in other areas of fashion. Gladiator style sandals in moderate price ranges are selling particularly well.

In the 1960s, when I first started wearing high heels, shoes were so secondary to clothes that models often had to provide their own footwear for fashion shows. Whether due to the oversexualization of our culture that has made feet the last frontier for sartorial eroticism (bustiers are so passé) or an embracing of female aggression (nothing says "I'm dominant" like a pair of big black stilettos) shoes now are fashion's focus.

It follows logically, then, that footwear has replaced handbags as today's "It" accessory. Industry analysts say handbag sales are flat, while shoes are the luxury brands' new cash cows. "It's the shoes that are selling [the clothes]," says Brooks Tietjen, director of sales and marketing for Iris North America.

There are even waiting lists for some models, as there once were for designer handbags. Others can't be found at all, for example, the Spicy shoe by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, a vertiginous, high-heeled sandal with an African mask-like decoration cluttering the vamp. Perched high on a platform and smothered with animal skin, feathers, rope, beads and semi-precious stones, the Spicy is clunky, unwearable, and - at $1,300 to $3,000, depending on trimmings - unaffordable. Like Paul Poiret's hobble skirt of 1910 - so-called because it was cut so narrowly around the ankles that its wearer could walk only with tiny geisha- like steps - the Spicy shoe is one of those ridiculous designs that becomes wildly popular, despite its impracticality. Celebrities from Madonna to Chloë Sevigny and Hedi Klum have been photographed in it. The shoe cannot be ordered online through the Louis Vuitton web site, and in Chicago, where I live, only two pairs, in enormous sizes, are left at the Michigan Avenue Louis Vuitton store. The shoes very scarcity has created a frantic desire for it and sparked an explosion of knock-offs.

Though Spicy's focus is its cluttered vamp, most extreme shoes are all about heels, a style throwback to the 17th century and Louis XIV. The Sun King started wearing high heels as a way to show off his long, curvy legs, sparking a craving at Versailles for similar footwear. The King's heels sometimes soared to five inches and were often decorated with miniature battle scenes. He particularly loved red heels, which became a symbol of his power, and he forbade anyone but the highest nobles to wear them.

Thanks to technical inventions allowing hidden platforms, shoe designers are encouraged to scale the heights. Manolo Blahnik, who for twenty years never went higher than five inches recently introduced a six inch heel, and Christian Louboutin will soon debut a record breaking eight inch height. The higher heels also offer designers a perfect playground for creativity. Among this season's designs are hour glass heels, spike studded heels, mirrored heels, heels covered in fur, caged heels, and heels gathered and pulled together with pearl pins.

The edgy shoes coordinate with today's edgy fashions - skinny jeans, motorcycle jackets, asymmetrical tops and skintight minis. Not to mention that the perilously high heels, as Tiejen notes, "reflect our perilous times."

After all, the higher a woman's heels, the farther she has to fall.