Some Serious Footwear

Author: Monica Yant Kinney ’93

Monica Yant Kinney photo copyright Peter Tobia

The new documentary God Save My Shoes explores women’s intimate relationship with footwear. We covet shoes, we hoard them, we spend the rent on platforms, we baby suede booties, exposing them to the mean streets only when we’re certain it won’t rain. In testimonials from fashionistas, celebrities and collectors, the consensus is as clear as the Lucite stiletto worn by exotic dancers: The higher the heel and more impractical the design, the sexier and more confident women feel.

“Shoes,” muses singer Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, “tell a story about you.” Hers is that she can rap, dance and prance effortlessly while balancing on 7-inch pins. So what do chunky, clunky Dansko clogs say about me and millions of comfort-conscious moms who can’t get through a Costco trip without them?

The name Dansko translates to “Danish shoe.” Last year, customers scooped up nearly 2.5 million pairs. This spring, given the variety of patterns, colors and materials like jute, Dansko will offer 385 different slip-ons, sneakers and sandals. But the classic Professional stapled clog in leather accounts for fully half the company’s sales. Look down the next time you visit a hospital, eat at a fine restaurant, get your hair cut or attend a parent-teacher conference. Smart people who earn a living on their feet and can afford the $120 price tag wear Danskos.

The clog confounds critics. These shoes are heavy, topping 2 pounds. They’re so big, each requires its own slot in a hanging shoe storage bag, unless you’re willing to let the beasts clutter your closet floor. While Dansko’s standard 2-inch heel does elevate, details like “roomy toe box,” “anti-microbial sock lining” and “superior shock absorption” are rarely, if ever, associated with high-fashion footwear. Luxury designer Christian Louboutin turns heads with his striking red soles; Dansko nonslip bottoms boast the seal of approval from the American Podiatric Medical Association.

Ann Dittrich has heard the sniping and seen the light. The stylish designer who cut her teeth at Cole Haan now serves as creative director at Dansko, which, in her opinion, produces more beloved and idealized footwear than what models march down runways.

“It’s easy to make a high-heeled shoe in a beautiful color and a beautiful material, but that doesn’t make it the best shoe,” Dittrich tells me on my recent visit to the company’s LEED-certified green headquarters an hour outside Philadelphia in West Grove, Pennsylvania. “It has to feel great. It has to be beautiful and comfortable. There has to be an emotional connection. You need to love the shoe, really love the way it looks as well as the way it feels. If that’s missing, it’s not perfect.”

Besides, Dittrich adds, “I would not like to think we are considered followers of fashion. Dansko considers itself to be off to the side. We’re a little bit . . . quirky.”

For a brand fans can spot across a crowded yoga studio, Dansko is surprisingly young. The company was born just 22 years ago when professional horse trainers Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup stumbled on “the perfect barn shoe” on a trip to Denmark and began shipping boxes to sell to equestrian friends in the United States.

Cabot was intrigued by the shoes’ unique design, but the initial attraction was pain relief, not style. “I didn’t love my clogs because they were Ugly Ducklings,” she tells me. “I loved them despite that.”

By 1999, Dansko had made Inc. magazine’s list of 500 fastest-growing privately held companies. But the bigger news that year may have been that Julia Roberts was photographed wearing a pair of Dankso black oiled leather Professional clogs.

I bought my first pair of Danskos in the mid-1990s. I was 25 and unmarried. I favor funky, overpriced heels for work, but found myself inexplicably drawn to the red clodhoppers. After a blissful urban test-hike along the unforgiving cobblestone of my historic Philadelphia neighborhood, these Euro clogs became my go-to shoe for “me time.”

I christened a second pair — same style, only in black like Julia’s — the official footwear of my 2000 honeymoon in Spain. I wore them sockless with culottes in Madrid to a bullfight. I wore them exploring the cliffs Hemingway admired in Andalusia. My stomach ached from all the flan and Rioja consumed on that trip. But my feet, legs and back felt divine.

Dittrich credits the “architecture” of the clog — the anatomy of the footbed, the contouring, the way the shoe seems to simultaneously force you to stand up straight and protect the foot from a pounding. The best piece of advice I ever received about buying Danskos was that they should fit loosely. The foot needs to rock forward and the heel should rise up slightly with each step. These shoes literally take wearers on a ride, so long as they’re willing to endure the stares.

“We tend to appeal to a girl or woman who’s a little bit individualistic,” Dittrich shares. “She doesn’t wear her shoes shyly. She likes to make a statement. Our shoes tend to be fairly bold, fairly recognizable.”

Famous aficionados include Tina Fey, Jennifer Garner, Julianne Moore and Heidi Klum, all of whom have been seen wearing Danskos on errands, to the park or at school drop-off. Kathleen Turner sported clogs with an evening gown on the red carpet at Cannes, a look I imagine she regrets. Last year, when Glee star Jane Lynch strutted to her seat on Conan in a gray pantsuit and shiny red patent leather Danskos, both the host and his sidekick obsessed over her feet.

“Oh my goodness,” Andy Richter marveled. “She’s wearing Dorothy’s clogs!”

“Look at those shoes!” Conan O’Brien followed. “They look like candy apples!”

The average Dansko customer is not a celebrity but a married suburban mother between 35 and 60 years old. “She’s fashion able but not a slave to fashion,” Cabot tells me. She earns more than $50,000 a year and owns multiple pairs for work and pleasure. She’s Sharon Lopatin, a 51-year-old ESL teacher with chronic foot problems I met ogling a size 38 kiosk inside the company store.

Her 26-year-old daughter deems Danskos “butt ugly,” but Lopatin brushes that off as youthful cluelessness. Lopatin argues that clogs are infinitely more fashion-forward than most “comfort footwear.” And she should know, having a closet full of flat, boring good-for-you shoes that did not live up to their billing.

“I think you reach a point in your life when you get more practical, but I’m not ready to be in my grandmother’s shoes,” Lopatin insists. “I’ve been wearing Danskos for 15 years. If they were truly unappealing, I don’t think I’d buy them.”

“The only problem with your shoes,” I tell Dittrich, “is that they’re seemingly indestructible.” I still have both my red and black Professionals, which remain perfectly serviceable after more than a decade of hard wear. If Danskos last forever, how could I ever justify buying more?

And yet, in a brown bag next to my purse, I sheepishly pull out $200 worth of discounted finds snagged moments earlier from the company store: The Rowena, a retro espresso-colored 1970s peep-toe slingback with a 1-inch platform, 3-inch heel and feminine floral cutouts; a refreshingly slimmed-down pair of black Mary Jane pumps with a dainty strap that snaps; and (gasp!) my third pair of Professionals, a dare-I-say-dressy design in shiny marbled gray patent leather.

I tell Dittrich I could wear all of these shoes to work, which I’ve rarely risked with my original clogs. She smiles approvingly, like a scientist recording a successful experiment. The styles I bought, she says, “didn’t exist until 2010. They’re more American, younger, more relevant. We needed to diversify, to give women something to wear at night, a heel, boots, a sport shoe, a sandal for the beach.”

Dansko now sells “vulcanized footwear” — think Keds and Converse but with sturdier materials and support. This spring, the company is debuting the Pippa, a jaunty, thermoplastic molded mule. Both lines will likely attract first-time buyers, but as a Dansko purist I wouldn’t wear either style. The pseudo-sneakers seem matronly; in magenta, teal or orange, the cuter Croc just doesn’t connect.

So even within the famously loyal Dansko community, there are fissures along fashion fault lines. I felt guilty until Lopatin admits she had the same reaction. “The sneaker turned me off,” she says. But not so much that it stopped the teacher with tired tootsies from buying three pairs of Danskos she knows will ease her pain.

Dittrich has toiled in footwear long enough to be unfazed by the whims of women dressing from the ground up. “I wouldn’t want to think everybody is going to love our shoes,” she insists. “That would mean we’re generic.”

Praise from the fashion press would be nice, but Dansko possesses something even more elusive: innate brand identity. How important is a signature look? Louboutin sued to keep rival Yves Saint Laurent from selling sky-high heels with scarlet soles, generating an intense legal debate over whether anyone can trademark a color.

“If someone is wearing Danskos,” Dittrich boasts, “you know they’re Danskos.” And you know her feet are grateful.

Monica Yant Kinney is a metro columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She wrote this story wearing black United Nude rubber wedges she bought herself in Vienna as a 40th birthday present.