Everyone’s favourite flat shoes are flying off the shelves this season. Which can only mean one thing – in fashion terms they’re toast
On the shopfloor at Marks & Spencer, ballet pumps are selling better than ever. So well, in fact, that they are being blamed for damaging profits. There were 100,000 pairs sold in the first quarter of 2012 – a whopping 76% rise on 2011 – but the retailer says that it should have bought more stock, and could have sold 7,000 more pairs. The figures confirm what John Lewis reported last August, when it announced ballet pump sales were up 129% on the same month in the previous summer: the ballet pump is over.
That’s right, over. Finished. Ballet pumps may be flying high as a retail commodity – but darling, you could say the same for fluffy iPhone cases and Jubilee-themed cupcakes. I’m talking about fashion. And in the fashion sense, the ballet pump is toast.
Now don’t get huffy. I am not saying no one is wearing ballet pumps these days. That would be patently ridiculous, since 100,000 of you have bought a new pair in the past three months from M&S alone, which is a fairly mindblowing number. What I am saying, on the contrary, is that everyone is wearing ballet pumps these days.
Of course they are. Ballet pumps are fantastic. I have loads. I wear them all the time. They are comfortable, and super quick to slip on and off. Crucially, they are poised on a smart-casual midpoint which means that – unlike almost any other kind of shoe – you can wear them anywhere, from scuffy errands to a smart restaurant, without looking out of place. But in the Scrabble game of fashion, what was once a high-scoring piece has become merely a useful blank to join the dots of an outfit.
“The tipping point came when the value retailers starting selling ballet pumps in the way Woolworths used to sell plimsolls,” says Melanie Rickey, fashion blogger and contributing editor to Grazia and Pop. “I remember walking into a store and seeing, for the first time, ballet pumps stacked on the shelves like packs of chewing gum. I realised they had become kit, rather than fashion.” That is, we buy them now in the way we buy tights or gloves.
It didn’t used to be like this. When Kate Moss and Sienna Miller began to get papped in their Primrose Hill uniform of skinny jeans and ballet pumps, the world looked on, admired the shoes – and doubted whether skinny jeans would catch on. Ha. “I remember how, in about 2007, in the Grazia office we used to pore over pictures of Kate and Sienna in their ballet pumps,” says Rickey. “They always wore the Lanvin or Alaia ones, very beautifully made, and with the skinny jean the proportion was perfect.” A visit to Repetto in Paris to buy their chic leather ballet pumps became a Paris fashion week ritual. With Amy Winehouse stumbling around Camden in blood-stained pink satin ballet pumps, what had once been a twee, princessy style was almost edgy. I bought my most loved pair of ballet pumps in 2008, when Salvatore Ferragamo capitalised on the trend and relaunched its 1978 Vara style, a glossy pump with a contrast grosgrain ribbon, as the Varina. Mine were white with a black ribbon, and I wore them, repaired them, and wore them again until they fell apart.
When Kate Moss wears simple ballet pumps on the school run – styled with perfect jeans, an under-the-radar but fabulously tailored jacket, and yesterday’s blowdry by a world-class hairdresser on some fabulous shoot – she looks amazing. The trouble is, these days, every mum at every school gate in the western world is working that look, only with less-than-perfect jeans, the high-street version of her Antonio Berardi jacket and a growing-out bob.
There was a time, a year or so ago, when school-run chic was having a moment, but the shine has worn off.Thirtysomething mothers loved the fact that they were wearing the same clothes as off-duty models – but funnily enough, the off-duty models didn’t feel the same way. As the models scooted between shows at London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks this year, it was noticeable that their look has got edgier. More androgynous, lots of 90s rave/grunge references, lots of colour. And the flat shoes they wear to kick on and off between shows have changed: a velvet gentleman’s club slipper – possibly studded, ideally Christian Louboutin – for the androgynous types and a thick-soled “flatform” trainer or sandal for those under the influence of the 90s. Even at M&S, the ballet pumps that are selling so well are from its more competitively priced ranges (the bestselling one is in black leather for £19.50) while the more on-trend Limited Collection range sells flatform sandals, two-tone trainers and a pump with a ballet-pump toe and a blocky brothel-creeper heel.
What the flatform – as seen on Azealia Banks at Coachella this weekend – and the gentleman’s slipper have in common is an element of loucheness, of out-of-the-ordinariness, that the ballet pump had in its heyday. Now that the ballet pump is the choice of daytime TV presenters and Middletons, edgy it most certainly is not. But a grungey platform workwear boot is hardly go-anywhere chic, and velvet is terribly unpractical. The ballet pump may have fallen from fashion grace, but it is not going anywhere. And even Kate Moss still wears them on the school run.