Day Three Hundred and Twenty-Five: Simplicity and Shoes

One of the things that’s been on my mind this year is consumption, conspicuous and otherwise. How many items does it take for a real person (not a suitcase-living “minimalist”) to live in the world? How does someone who has far surpassed that point go back, in a conscious way? That is, to give an example: why discard half a wardrobe full of perfectly nice, perfectly functional clothes, just to live a streamlined fantasy? The social and environmental cost has already been paid.

I had something of a breakthrough about this in the shoe department of Nordstrom, of all places.

My “fancy dress” high heels are worn out. I’ve owned them for almost ten years (half of which I lived in a place where such shoes were completely inappropriate), so it’s their time. Now, ten years ago, I paid something like $75 for these shoes. The reasons they’re worn out are to do with their construction–the synthetic interior is disintegrating. The leather exterior looks, aside from a scuffed heel, perfect.

Looking at the facts of why my shoes were falling apart drove me across the great divide at Nordstrom, between the “regular” shoes and the “salon” shoes. The “salon” shoe department is where you will find your Pradas and your Manolos. Pragmatically, it seems to be the $200 and up side.  The shoes on this side are not made in sweatshops. The insoles are stitched down. The shoe linings are real leather.

I tried to get hard data from the salesman about the line between increased quality and increased price, which is something that niggles in my brain a lot these days. Take these four shoes:

Payless, $32.99
RSVP, $79.00
Stuart Weitzman, $325.00
Christian Louboutin, $795

The Payless model gives consumers no details about where it was made. It is fully synthetic. The RSVP shoe is synthetic in the patent leather version; the matte versions have leather uppers. It also does not confess online as to its origin. The Stuart Weitzman shoe is made in Italy and is real leather inside and out, as is the Louboutin. Every woman in the mall will instantly know that you spent $795 for the Louboutin, thanks to the conspicuous red sole. (I deliberately selected all of these in patent, because I think patent leather looks cheap and tacky at every price point.) What price point do you pick? If you’re buying a synthetic shoe from who knows where, why buy the $75 versus the $35? If you’re paying over $300, do you want other women to know it? Would a regular consumer notice the quality difference going up this scale? When does paying for quality switch to paying for flash?

Alas, the salesman, perhaps hoping that I would spring for those Jimmy Choos, could not/would not differentiate between the shoes in the upscale side of the department, even though he was quick to point out that all of them were better constructed and would last longer than their cheaper counterparts.  (Caveat: I think the price/quality continuum is much muddier in more pragmatic shoes. I’m also suppressing a lot of variables by picking something as basic as a black pump, where you can really get an almost identical shoe in every brand.)

And now I have made an incredibly long circle to get back to an incredibly basic point: sometimes you get what you pay for.

At my age and income bracket, though, you can only “trade up” for so many material objects. I have a good amount of discretionary income, thanks largely to my beloved, paid-for car, but it isn’t infinite. I can’t buy good quality in bulk.

Which, as I gingerly walk around in my new shoes, has brought me back to minimalism. If I reimagine my shoe wardrobe, what does it look like? If there were no “I can only wear those flats for half an hour” shoes, or “that color only works with some outfits” shoes, or “I can’t wear those two days in a row” shoes, how many pairs would I need? A lot fewer than I have. I could be very comfortable with one pair of tennis shoes for actual exercise, one pair of high heels for dressy events (we live in that kind of town, and I like them), one pair of low-mid heels for professional/daytime wear, one pair dark-neutral flats that could be dressed up or down, two pair of summer sandals (you can’t wear the same shoes every day in the summer in this climate), one pair of tall boots. The end. I could reach this shoe nirvana with two purchases–the neutral flats (my current pair are brown) and the mid-heels (I am perilously close to walking through the sole of my very, very cheap go-tos.) I will also have to go, kicking and screaming, to replace the world’s most perfect sandals, because I’m not sure they can make it one more summer.

The shoes here are both a real thing and an example. As in, suddenly I see how this “better but fewer” thing would actually work.