As a woman with European size 44 feet (the equivalent of a US women’s 11), the Paris-based designer Ieva Juskaite has long known the struggle of searching for stylish feminine shoes in sizes beyond the conventional. “The problem was not that there are no brands doing nice shoes for bigger sizes. My problem was no luxury,” explained Juskaite. Most of what is currently available is either highly gendered or geared towards fetish dressing.
During the pandemic, Juskaite, who came of age in Lithuania after the fall of the Iron Curtain, set out to change this, making the styles that she couldn’t find for herself. She launched her line, Jiij, an amalgam of the Lithuanian word for ‘she’ and her own name, during Paris Fashion Week in September. The first collection is an edited offering of key styles neglected in larger size runs: a Mary-Jane, a square-toed block heel in silver and matte black, boots with a 1970s Space Age twist, and an artful loafer, all made in sustainable apple leather that come in EU 36 to 46. James Turrell, Pierre Cardin, and the colors and memories of Y2K serve as references. The brand’s first advertisements, which show the shapely legs of an older man slid into Jiij’s signature silver Eros heel, make a clear statement: These shoes are for everyone and anyone who hasn’t had access to them before.
As it turns out, Juskaite is not the only one craving more conceptual variety in footwear, which has lagged behind ready-to-wear, jewelry and other accessories when it comes to conversations around size inclusivity and the gender binary. In addition to a few traditional luxury brands, a handful of young designers are pushing for equity in their designs.
“We’re still learning about the demand for extended sizing for specific trends,” says Thom Scherdel, a menswear buyer for the London boutique Browns. That said, he suggests size availability on core styles has been slowly increasing in recent years, pointing to Margiela’s classic Tabi heeled boots and JW Anderson’s unisex chain mules as strong options. “However, it’s the directional pieces from seasonal collections that tend to have more limitations, due to higher price point fabrications and design elements,” he notes.
Retailers still consider more inclusive sizing a financial gamble, especially when it comes to expensive-to-produce runway pieces. Still, one recent market success suggests the demand might be greater than the industry once assumed: A Rick Owens six-inch platform heel for men, which Browns picked up not expecting high demand, “has now become a true option for us and our customers,” Scherdel says. “Something as simple as offering a wider range of sizing, that may not even sell initially, is a way in which we can broaden our customer base and ensure we are listening, responding and engaging with our community based on their individual needs. Essentially, it’s about servicing our clients without restrictions or judgement, as fashion is and should always be for all.”
Brooklyn-based designer Suzanne Rae Pelaez, of the artist-favorite line Suzanne Rae, expanded her shoe size run two years ago, offering black kitten heels, emerald green satin pumps and plaid smoking loafers in sizes 43 and 44. “It’s been a slow birth,” Pelaez reflects. “None of our wholesalers are really buying 43 and 44. People think it’s great, but are really afraid to take risks and buy something that they’re not sure is going to sell. They haven’t had that conversation with their audience.” Instead, Peleaz mostly sells these sizes direct to consumer—with a growing community of women, men and non-binary people returning for expanded options.
Portuguese designer Gui Rosa, a graduate of Central Saint Martins’ prestigious Masters program known for his exuberant crocheted menswear, has long been on the hunt for the ideal heel. “The dream is that I could just walk into Prada and get a pair of slingbacks,” muses the London-based creative, who has been sporting thigh-high silver platform boots he found on eBay with matching top-to-toe all silver looks. But, he says, “I want red carpet designers! What’s a better PR move than that?”
In June, Rosa crafted a pair of John Waters-esque thigh high cowboy boots—half hypermasculine gaucho, half delicate knit—for the Gucci Vault, an online pop-up showcase. He worked with a local Portuguese manufacturing family who have specialized in producing luxury men’s shoes, including for Prada, for over 100 years. “They were like, ‘We will do size 45,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I need 37s, 38s….’ And they were like, ‘Well, no, we’re just not going to do it,’” recalls Rosa. “In the end, they did make them. But it was a long process. It was more about changing the mentality, showing them how to make something that they had never imagined before.”
Gui Rosa had to convince a heritage shoemaker to manufacture his Gucci Vault cowboy boots in sizes that would fit most men and women.
Good American’s Cinderella heels have been available in extended sizes since 2020.
Good American, Khloe Kardashian’s company with friend and partner Emma Grede, has been making sexed-up heels, snakeskin slides, slouchy boots and gold-accented sandals in sizes 4-14 since 2020. “It’s a category that’s vastly overlooked by the fashion industry and inclusive sizing movement,” comments Grede, noting the data dive into sizing and demographic shifts that lead them to develop expanded sizing. The reality is, just as the gender binary is being increasingly questioned, women’s shoe sizes are also getting bigger, with the average US size now a 9, up from 7 to 8.5, and 30% of women wearing above a 10.5, according to Good American’s own market research. “A good pair of boots, heels, or sandals are a staple item for every wardrobe but so few brands offer inclusive sizing for more trend-forward, sexy styles,” adds Kardashian. “Shoes were always a category we knew we wanted to tackle, so I was so excited when we launched our first fully inclusive shoe collection.”
A look into the history of the style of shoe most strongly coded as feminine, the high heel, puts our current boundary breaking moment into perspective. Some might be surprised to learn that, for thousands of years, high heels—most likely originally invented in 10th century Persia as technical implements for riding and carrying heavy weaponry on horseback—were only for men. When Europeans adopted the heel at the turn of the 17th century, the heel was soon embraced by women, many of whom, at the time, were interested in masculinizing their attire.
“Heels have gone in and out of men’s fashion since their great abandonment in the 1730s,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, an art historian and the Senior Curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum. “But every time the heel has been revived in men’s fashion, most famously in the 1970s, it’s not a borrowing from the female wardrobe, it’s a reclamation of the masculine heel from the past.” She references Kiss’ Gene Simmons in his blocky, baroque heels as an example. (Others include David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Elton John.) “What makes what’s happening at this moment so interesting is that there is now an interest in taking the feminine in high heels and having it move away from being such a binary expression of gender.”
Perhaps the greatest example of our current shift is Jimmy Choo’s capsule collection with Billy Porter, which provides extended sizes in a cherry red heeled boot, a Zebra striped pump, and other playful, glamorous styles co-designed by the brand’s Creative Director Sandra Choi and the multi-talented actor, singer, director, composer and playwright. “Ultimately shoes for men and women are made very differently, and we want to be able to offer more than just larger sizing—we want to be able to look at the form and architecture of the shoe too,” says Choi, of the colorful range. “Billy was a great educator in this, and we have learned a lot for what we need to do going forward.”
“I find each time the heel re-emerges in fashion really very interesting,” says Semmelback. “Often, when quote-unquote women’s heels have been worn by men, it is in ways that are lampooning of women. When I started to see some men wear what are coded female shoes in non-ironic ways, I find a great deal of hope in these moments.” Perhaps things really are changing, one thigh-high, slouchy satin boot at a time.