FOOTWEAR Comfortable shoes alleviate agony of da feet

Stylish stilettos step aside for comfortable, dorky footwear.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The first sign, for me, came when my sophisticated Manhattanite sister pulled me over to her closet one summer afternoon last year to show me her new shoes:
The flat-heeled, cushioned sandals were kind of appealing. Almost cute. I'd never had a nice thought about Naturalizers before. I had thrown them into the same category as expandable-waist pants: If I ever wore them, I would be officially Too Old to Care what I looked like.
But a funny thing has happened in the world of foot fashion. Forces have converged and planets have aligned, and suddenly, comfortable shoes are hot. As we slide into 2003, fashionistas are just saying no to Manolos, eschewing their Choos, giving up Sarah Jessica Parker as their high-heeled patron saint, and putting their hard-earned cash into soft, cossetting innersoles.
In short, dorky shoes are in.
It all started, as many sartorial trends tend to do, in Europe -- specifically, in Italy. Prada began making flats that looked utilitarian but boasted fine lines, lovely leather and you-gotta-be-filthy-rich-to-own-these prices. Trendy Europeans began flocking to comfortable shoes, and half a dozen years ago began sporting once-geeklike fashions such as the bowling shoe. Kenneth Cole picked up on the idea of clunky comfort, brought it to his trendy footwear line, and some American women finally began to consider what men have known all along: It's a lot more pleasant to walk when you're free from the agony of da feet.
The comfort trend picked up speed in the past year or two.
Technology takes over
First, there was the development of the poly bottom, as John Zappa, women's shoe buyer for Nordstrom in Texas, affectionately calls it. The early clunky-but-comfortable shoes from Europe had arch-support foot beds, a la Birkenstock, but heavy, luggy one-piece soles that Sabrina-heeled American women couldn't stand. But technology zoomed forward. Attractive new cork and rubber and polyurethane soles began to "lighten up those bottoms," says Zappa, a self-professed shoe-lover. Now, he says, it's gotten to the point where "it's hard to find a leather sole out there."
At the same time that soles were becoming a salvation, things were happening at the toe end of the shoe. "Franco Sarto and Donald Plinercame out with oblique toes a few years ago," Zappa says. "When that became fashionable, it became more widely accepted." Women began knowing what it felt like to have room in their shoes for their toes to wiggle. It wasn't life-changing, but it was good.
The folks at Naturalizer saw the signs of comfort becoming cool and took a chance. Of course, they didn't have much to lose. In 1996, the 71-year-old company had hit rock bottom after a nine-year decline in which its styles had aged with its customers. Its parent company, Brown Shoe, opened a design center in Florence, Italy, and began copying European shapes. By 2000, Naturalizer was back with new lines and an edgy advertising campaign targeting younger, hipper women. It worked. The average age of its customer shot down 25 years, and the brand's fastest-growing market segment became women in their 30s.
Firms get in step
Meanwhile, other shoe brands began blending fashion and comfort, combining Lycra stretchy uppers with wide toes, cushions and squishy light soles. Nine West developed a Cloud Nine line. Cole Haan, whose parent company is Nike, began putting Nike Air technology into its prep-set loafers. Capitalizing on the success of its All-Weather Mocs (featuring the trendy molded sole, a padded collar and an EVA orthotic), this year Lands' End recently added All-Weather Clogs (with similar orothotic elements) to its catalog offerings. And last fall, after a quarter of a century, Earth Brand negative-heel footwear, designed by a Danish yoga instructor, was back on the market.
Vern Aisner, director of marketing for Earth shoes, sees the successful reprise of the hippie-icon shoe as the result of three converging trends: retro styling, comfort and yoga.
For some, the major leap toward comfortable shoes is nothing less than a sign that women have finally grown out of the centuries-old, tired notion that tortured feet are sexy feet.