The Marketing of Ugly Men’s Shoes

I once saw a pair of shoes that I have spent my whole life trying to buy. They were low-slung, with a pointy toe and Cuban heels and they laced up the side. You can just picture that shoe in your mind right now, can’t you? I’m not normally much into fashion-a pair of Levi’s and a T-shirt with a good political slogan is enough to take me anywhere I really need to go-but I do have a weakness for a nice shoe. Not that I’m into Imelda Marcos territoryâÂ?¦or even into just your standard female territory when it comes to shoes. (That’s not meant to be sexist, just my own personal observation that most of the females I have known have had far more shoes than they need.)

As you can from see from the picture there I have a great affinity for the classic black and white 40’s wingtips. And during the eighties I mostly eschewed (good pun there) sneakers in favor of some nice pointy toe shoes. But I never could locate my low-slung, pointy toed, Cuban heeled shoe that laces up the side. The contemporary shoe market is a difficult time for a guy like me who prefers shoes that come to a point. I swear shoes today are about as ugly as they have ever gotten; every model seems to made with the misguided idea that all toes are the same length. I suppose I might have a unique case since I was born with the mark of a genius: a second toe that is longer than the big toe. You didn’t know that deformity is a mark of genius? Look it up.

As a result, my feet kind of naturally rise to a point. I guess you could say I’ve got an arrow-shaped foot. More information than you needed to know, I’m sure, but stick with me. I am going somewhere with this. So you can see how I have nothing but disdain for the recent trend toward shoe design in which every men’s shoe, no matter what the style, looks like it was designed for someone who has had their toes amputated. It’s almost frightening. Even cowboy boots, the last vestige of the pointy toed shoewear, have introduced the flat toe look. (Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to wear cowboy boots.) You can buy that flat, broad shoe whether you are looking for something to wear while jogging or something to go dancing in. There are three things that get me about this. One, they are so incredibly ugly. Two, they are so omnipresent that there’s no room for a pointy toed alternative. And three, why do the flat toed shoes even exist?

I like to think I’m relatively well-informed. I keep up with what’s going on in the world, even when the actual subject of the news isn’t necessarily of interest to me in particular. I like to know what’s happening so I can examine it’s importance from a broader cultural perspective. But I’ll admit this: I never heard the outcry from men across this country that they desperately wanted no shoe option but the flat toed option. Yep, I missed that Million Man March.

With good reason. It never happened. If I had trouble finding my low-slung, pointy-toe shoes with a Cuban heel that lace up the side back when they actually made pointy toed shoes, imagine my problem now. And it got me to thinking about why flat toed shoes for men are not just dominating the shoe market but saturating and overwhelming it. They are ugly, let’s face it. I mean compare any of today’s flat toed shoes to any even relatively pointy toed shoe-even just a natural curved toed shoe-and I think it’s safe to say nine out of ten men would say the flat one is the ugliest. So why are they so popular then?

You know that phrase that gets thrown around a lot whenever a piece of junk becomes incredibly popular? About whoever made the junk is “just giving the public what it wants?” Well, it’s time to call that particular bit of wisdom junk. A company doesn’t invest millions of dollars conducting market tests to see what the public wants. All that test marketing and polling and opinion taking is designed rather to find out what it takes to sell whatever product the company is committed to making. Consider this scenario:

A meeting is taking place at which the test marketing for a new product has revealed the public doesn’t like it. One of the newer execs-a hotshot not long out of college-suggests changing the product based on the answers given by the consumers. There is a brief moment of silence and then many in the room burst into laughter. After the laughs subside, the new guy-still perplexed-receives the answer to his unasked question of just what was so funny. “Son, we’re not here today to figure out how to change the product so it will sell. We’re here today to figure out how to change the consumer so it will sell.”

True story. And to give you an indication of just how successful those people were, the product that the consumers weren’t happy with at the time is now the fifth biggest selling brand in its product line.

Here’s my theory. I assume that the pointy toed and curved toed shoe had achieved maximum market saturation and sales had begun dipping. Shoe companies needed something new to spur interest. A difficult thing to do with men’s shoes since we haven’t yet reached the point where we think we need a different shoe with each outfit the way so many women do. Most guys have a pair of sneakers, a pair of dress shoes and a pair of work shoes and that’s pretty much it. But guys just weren’t buying shoes the way the shoe industry wanted and needed them to. And since, unlike with women’s shoes, there is only so much you can do to a shoe design and still expect them to sell, a massive reorganization of design had to take place.

The shoe designers in all their infinite creativity took one look at men’s shoes and realized there really was only one solution. They couldn’t try to sell guys on platform shoes again since Saturday Night Fever was still making the rounds on TV and no heterosexual male in his right mind wanted that look for himself. So with a change in the heel out there was only one part of the shoe left to botch. The toe. That’s it, they must have cried. We’ll change the toe, give a whole new look, a jazzy, hip-hip, punk, grunge, Goth look that the kids today will love.

But would they? I’m betting not. I don’t know where the trend toward thinking flat toed shoes were cool came from, but I have a pretty good idea how it started. I’m thinking the shoe industry got together and hired some big name trendsetters like maybe Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or Diddley Squat or whatever his name is this week. Maybe hired some athletes, movie stars and other celebrities known for their sartorial splendor. Paid them an obscene amount of money to wear these-to paraphrase OJ Simpson-butt-ugly shoes. Then, for a lot less cash, they hired viral marketing trendsetters to start wearing them around town, talking them up. And before you know it, they’ve got a big enough market to begin flooding shoe stores with the new breed.

And me? I’m left still looking for my low-slung, pointy-toed shoes with a Cuban heel that lace up the side.

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