When Roseanne Morrison was scouting new street looks in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District late last year, she spotted a young woman sporting brown lace-up boots, blue jeans and an attitude.
“It was kind of insouciant, ‘I just rolled out of bed and threw my boots on,’” said Morrison, fashion director at New York retail consultant Doneger Group. “I knew this was something different and that it was going to drive a new look.”
That freshness has pushed even luxury designers such as Christian Louboutin to market so-called combat boots, with peep-toe platform versions going for $1,495. Women are pairing them with shorts, miniskirts and floral dresses, helping to make boots the fastest-growing part of women’s fashion footwear in spite of scorching weather in cities like New York and Miami.
U.S. boot sales surged 37 percent in the year through March, bolstering a rebound in luxury spending as the economic recovery strengthens. Stars Miley Cyrus and Chloe Sevigny are wearing styles from military to motorcycle, prompting retailers Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and Barneys New York to stock Louboutin and Rag & Bone to appeal to upscale shoppers.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘I am a tough, cool and bad girl and don’t mess with me,’ and at the same time, women want to stay feminine,” said Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York. “The only faux pas is not to have confidence. You have to look like you can kick some butt.”
Women are shopping for themselves again after surviving the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Bain & Co. projects U.S. luxury sales will rise 4 percent this year after falling 17 percent to $54 billion in 2009.
The chunky boot trend was popular during a previous slowdown in the ‘90s. Back then, so-called grunge music fans embraced the look, an evolution of what punk rockers wore in the ’70s, Doonan said. The “mother ship,” he said, is the thick-soled Dr. Martens that became popular during that era, which typically cost $100 to $200.
What’s different now is that the look is “less rocker, more rugged,” according to Morrison, who specializes in trend analysis at the 64-year-old Doneger Group. It’s part of a return to a broader military trend in fashion, which includes trench coats and utility pants, and is no longer limited to black.
Women’s boot sales rose to $4.91 billion in the 12 months ended in March, compared with $3.6 billion in the previous year, according to researcher NPD Group Inc. That helped spur a 5.8 percent increase in women’s shoe sales to $20.1 billion, the Port Washington, New York-based firm said.
“Boots are going to be a continuing strong trend for the back half,” Wesley Card, chairman and chief executive officer of New York-based Jones Apparel Group Inc., said on an April 28 conference call. “That’s going to be very helpful.”
Jones Apparel has advanced 14 percent this year in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.
Bigger Boot Sales
Fashion houses that have sent combat boots down the runways in recent years include Alexander Wang and Chloe. Limi Feu showed them in Paris for the spring/summer 2010 season, with voluminous short dresses. Balmain and Ann Demeulemeester have weighed in with their own interpretations.
Neiman Marcus, based in Dallas, sells the $1,495 Louboutin version, with six-inch heels and the designer’s signature red sole. Barneys New York features the women’s Rag & Bone combat boots, both in black and beige, with canvas, for $495. The British label AllSaints Spitalfields displayed five types of women’s combat boots -- including light-colored “chalk” and “stone” ones -- when it opened a store in New York’s SoHo district on May 21. They are priced $250 to $280.
Jennifer Kline, a 44-year-old mother of two sons and professional model who lives in Wayzata, Minnesota, said she’s one woman who’s saving her money for another style.
‘Trying Too Hard’
“It’s horribly unattractive, and it doesn’t flatter anybody,” said Kline, who has modeled for magazines including Vogue, Shape and Newsweek. “It looks like you’re trying too hard to be cool. For the summer, it’s too heavy.”
Nevertheless, the combat-boot trend “underscores how less-seasonal style is becoming,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst. Boots’ share of women’s footwear sales climbed to 5.2 percent in last year’s second quarter from 4.6 percent a year earlier. That share expanded to 13 percent in the third quarter from 12.4 percent, according to NPD.
Women previously wore other boots after Memorial Day, pairing Deckers Outdoor Corp.’s Ugg Australia sheepskin styles with shorts. Fashionistas who can’t stand the heat should look to shorter styles and open-toe versions -- though comfort isn’t what matters most, Morrison said.
“Stilettos, they aren’t comfortable either, but they have been on trend for some time now,” she said. “Fashion first.”