The V&A’s upcoming Shoes exhibition seemed like as good a time as any to reveal a guilty secret – I’m Karin and I’m a shoe-aholic. I should explain that my friends call me Imelda and I have a long history with every kind of shoe you can think of – as I sit here writing this I have come to the realisation that in my cupboards, aside from the usual boots, shoes and sandals, I have flip-flops, fit-flops, Crocs, water shoes, walking boots, tap shoes, trainers, jellies, wellies, desert wellies (as we knew them growing up in Liverpool) and slippers (donated by hotels and otherwise). And that’s not counting all the shoe-related paraphernalia that I’ve been given as presents over the years, ranging from doorstops to dinner plates, and a postcard of a lovely pair of shoes recently sent from the Museum of Chicago with ‘I saw this and thought of you!’ on the back.
I have been asked how many pairs I have and am ashamed to say I really don’t know and can’t bring myself to count them all. It’s hard to say when this fascination started but I think my earliest memory of beloved shoes was a pair of black patent pumps with large silver buckles on the front, a design I managed to recapture as a student in Brighton when I found a pair of fabulous black suede boots with a suitably shiny buckle, earning me the nickname Puss in Boots.
We can’t really talk about shoes without mentioning the tricky subject of feet. I’m sure that part of my obsession is down to my Welsh genes that produced size 3 ½, relatively small for my height. I can empathise with the complaints of people who are unusually short or tall as it’s never long before people I’m meeting for the first time start staring downwards and eventually, out comes the inevitable ‘haven’t you got tiny feet?!’
It means that finding shoes in this country requires a persistence and dedication usually reserved for top athletes or virtuoso musicians – the hours of pounding the streets to find the one shop that actually has anything I like in my size, the ringing around other branches to track a pair down, the constant state of alertness around sale racks in case of an unexpected bargain kitten heel or Italian designer slingback…
Imagine my delight on going to Hong Kong and Singapore for the first time and finding that everyone is my size! Oh, the joy of being able to try on shoes straight from the rack; no waiting for hours while the assistant hunts around in the depths of the storeroom and comes back with an apologetic look and ‘we’ve only got them in 3 sizes bigger but you could stuff the toes with tissue’ or something along those lines.
I’ve had my share of shoe disasters too – like the time my friend’s rottweiler took a shine to one and buried it in the garden, digging it up and triumphantly presenting the chewed and slobbery remains three days later. Or the time I put on my comfy brown flip flops for travelling to a business meeting and grabbed a smart pair of brown suede courts as I rushed out of the door, only to discover as I pulled them out of my handbag that I’d brought two left feet from two different pairs. As I explained apologetically to my bemused client (I still got the job!) I realised that many men just don’t get what all the fuss is about and probably wouldn’t have even noticed. Of course there are exceptions and I am slightly concerned about where the snatched photo of my red suede moccasin-clad feet, taken by a complete stranger in the Kings Road who then ran away at top speed, may have ended up!
There comes a time in every shoe-phile’s life when simply being a black belt ninja in shoe shopping doesn’t cut it any more and my journey into shoe nirvana continued with attempts at both designing and making, with varying degrees of success. I realised that neither was a serious career option when I chatted to the energetic 22 year olds who would have camped outside Clarks headquarters without even a tent for a year if it meant they could live their dream, but I had fun and learnt some new skills along the way.
Now I find myself having to think about those dreaded concepts ‘comfort’ and ‘shoes I can actually walk in’, but looking on the bright side, the denim platforms I hid from my mother in my school bag age 11 are now back in fashion. Hmmm, now I wonder where I can get a new pair of those…?