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High Heel Sales Have Dropped 71% — Will We Ever Go Back?
Credit: Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Getty

I recently opened my closet and was shocked to see so many now-unfamiliar pairs of shoes. There they were, the glorious mix of Michael Kors pumps, David Tate booties, and so many others. It was like looking at an archeological exhibit.

The only footwear currently in my rotation — pink Nikes and old flats — had migrated to the entryway during the pandemic. Looking down at the polka-dot slippers on my feet, it hit me. I'd forgotten about my babies: the heels.            

Sales of dress shoes, including heels, went down 71% in the second quarter of 2020, according to fashion site Glossy. As the world approaches the one-year anniversary of working from home, will women really go back to teetering around an office in stilettos? And, perhaps more importantly, will they be required to in order to be taken seriously and get ahead in their careers? 

High heels were on the decline before the pandemic. 

Uncomfortable footwear was losing popularity before the pandemic, says Beth Goldstein, an analyst of footwear and fashion trends for New York's NPD Group. Millennial and Gen Z professionals revolutionized work culture by rotating Golden Goose high-tops and No. 6 clogs into their wardrobes, completely redefining the term "business casual." 

The rise of athleisure — which coincided with the simultaneous rise of streetwear in high fashion — has upended our entire belief in what is or is not "appropriate" or "respectable" in a traditional environment like the office. While some designers like Lanvin and Celine are partially responsible for this shift,  many others are scrambling to accommodate rapidly changing tastes. 

Even with the COVID-induced recession, comfort shoes are killing it, says Goldstein. "Doc Martens, Crocs, Uggs, and Birkenstock were [2020] bright spots," she notes. And with Broadway shows, red-carpet events, and traditionally dressy occasions like weddings (mostly) canceled for the second year running, the need for a special pair is gone. 

Globally, demand for designer shoes was down a whopping 21% in 2020, Bloomberg News reported, causing Parisian department Galeries Lafayette — a store synonymous with an elegant French style that used to include dresses, pumps, and a designer trench just to ride the Metro — to remodel to make room for more sneakers

The case for dressing up at work (if that's your thing): 

Of course, not everyone is convinced that 2023 will find you huddled around the office break room in comfy Converse and ponytail. "My wardrobe isn't going to change at all when I go back [to the office]," retorts Nicole Lueddeke, 31, a litigator with international law firm Paul Hastings LLP, whose self-described "uniform" is vintage Bebe pantsuits along with high-heeled Zara mules or Louboutins. Her collection includes 50 pairs of heels in all.

"Our firm is traditional — and I love it! Dressing up gets me into character," says Lueddeke. "I know the style now is messy hair, baggy jeans. It looks youthful, but at a certain point, get it together." While die-hard heel fans like herself are still shopping (Lueddeke's eyeing Gucci pumps), she admits with nowhere to show off purchases, it's harder to be excited about them. 

Some entrepreneurs think our sweatpants-fueled style slide means it's the perfect time to go into fashion. Melissa Kiguwa, 30, is launching Obanj, a luxury jewelry rental site, betting that a new Roaring '20s is ahead. "There'll be a bit of a bacchanal when the world opens up," confides the former TV development manager. "Women have been home a year, not feeling sexy, some juggling work and children — there's [built-up] FOMO. I don't believe dressing up is over."

Many designers are bridging comfort and style, like San Francisco-based etailer Everlane, whose popular "Day Heel'' pump is wearable even for wimps. "When designing products for 2021, we wanted to make customers fall in love with getting dressed again," notes VP of Design Sonia Martin. "We were inspired by heel heights without the wobble, and elevation through chunky and flatform soles in sneakers and sandals."

"People are at their best when they look their best," jokes celebrity stylist Jill Lincoln, who, with partner Jordan Johnson, dresses Margaret Qualley, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rachel Brosnahan.  "We can do better than 24/7 in elastic waistbands!" 

"Most [stars] will easily switch back into high-fashion gear," adds Johnson, noting that heels and full-glamour vibes won't go away for celebs. Fashion offers a fantasy that people will want to indulge in after such a stressful period, the stylist adds. 

But high heels are no longer a requirement — and can sometimes be a safety hazard: 

Maybe dressing for a special event will always be a thing. But younger women still aren't willing to feel foot pain for professional or romantic gain. Think back to Sarah Jessica Parker and her Sex and the City gang strolling in their LBD's and sky-high Manolos; it's hard to imagine today's SJP-esque friend group willing to risk New York City potholes for some idealized feminine look.

"There were norms of what's expected of women, but the pandemic is challenging all that," says Chanel Kenner, 36, of Los Angeles, who, pre-COVID, left an entertainment marketing career in part because heels-filled evenings weren't to her liking. 

"High heels are dead. I threw out half my shoes, good riddance," says Kenner. She's currently finishing a master's degree to work as a registered dietician with a more relaxed dress code of boots, jeans, and sweaters. "Fashion is just a reflection of societal ideals," she adds. "[Our generation] wants to do our own thing."

If heels do cycle back, it will be as a "retro trend, like for costume or dress-up parties, not every day," predicts futurist Faith Popcorn, whose Manhattan-based BrainReserve foresaw gluten-free eating and the rise of bottled water. 

Today's unpredictable world has left women aware they need to defend themselves, explains Popcorn, whose statement brings to mind Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez's admission that she fretted over the fact that she wore high heels the day of the Capitol riot.

"Where I think it's going is shoes that allow you to be mobile — tracking your steps, or running away from threats, whether it's criminals, or people without masks. Women want to be safe and comfortable. High heels were a version of [old beauty standards], like foot-binding," the futurist details. 

What's next for the business of high heels: 

Shoe industry expert Goldstein admits "consumer behavior is hard to predict." And consider this: Parker signed on to renew the role of Carrie Bradshaw. Will it be a future indicator if today's Carrie has ditched her catch-a-man pumps for Jimmy Choo's diamond sneakers?

The past year really could be the final nail in the coffin of the shriveling high-heels biz, which to many represents a tired paradigm in which women, literally, couldn't keep up. Rigid rules (say, pantsuits on Wall Street vs. a sheath dress and stilettos at Beverly Hills talent agencies), seem to be gone for good, and more choices, and more fashion freedom, is at the very least a step in the right direction.