DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's spend some time this morning on women's shoes. It is a multibillion-dollar industry and increasingly it's being driven by the demands of women in their middle years. I can't claim to be an expert here, but women I know say shoes are not just practical. They say something about your personality. Yet, as women age, many find they're forced to choose - comfort or style. As part of our Changing Lives Of Women series exploring aging, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji takes on the comfort shoe.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: I rolled my eyes when I got this assignment - shoes for aging woman. I was worried no one was going to care. But then I remembered my grandma years ago taking me by the hand and telling me she had something to give me. She led me upstairs to her closet where plastic boxes of shoes were stacked floor to ceiling, hundreds of pairs of heels - animal prints, bright colors, feathers, pointy-toed, at least three inches high. These are all yours now, my grandma said in her awesome Puerto Rican accent. I can't wear them anymore. She was crying.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
IRIS PORTELA: Hello.
MERAJI: It's Shereen. Can you hear me?
PORTELA: (Speaking Spanish).
MERAJI: So I called my 83-year-old grandma, Iris Portela.
PORTELA: How are you?
MERAJI: I'm good. How are you?
PORTELA: I'm fine. What can I tell you?
MERAJI: I asked her corroborate my memory.
PORTELA: Yeah, I had so many beautiful shoes. Now I have to use flat shoes and I'm old, but I don't like old people clothes.
MERAJI: She's always taken pride in looking stylish, and shoes used to be her statement piece. Not anymore, but she has found a brand that doesn't make her feel geriatric.
MERAJI: Right, you like Clarks.
PORTELA: That's my favorite. They're expensive shoes 'cause those Clarks, they cost $100.
MERAJI: The $100-and-up comfort shoe is where the women's footwear market has grown most in the last few years - up 6 percent from last year - thanks, in part, to my mom's generation - do I have to say it - the baby boomers, who demand style with their comfort and will pay for it. Fashion footwear brands a responding. Stuart Weitzman makes high-end pumps with chunkier heels and more cushion. And brands that might have been stigmatized by the comfort label years ago, like Aerosoles or Naturalizers, have stepped up the fashion.
MARCIA ARRANAGA: Twenty years ago, the shoes looked comfortable and when you say that, it's a taboo.
MERAJI: Marcia Arranaga owns three shoe stores in Southern California called Riviera Euro-Comfort. She's been in the business for 25 years.
ARRANAGA: We specialize in very unique, comfortable, European walking shoes.
MERAJI: I stopped in at her Beverly Hills boutique. It's not far from Jimmy Choo. And Arranaga says there are so many options now it takes weeks to pick out shoes for her stores. Comfort shoes have their own category in the footwear market, but the definition is squishy, especially now that more brands want in. Arranaga gives me a list of her must-haves.
ARRANAGA: You can wiggle your toes when you're inside the footwear, absorbs the shock when you walk, step or stand, the arch support is there.
MERAJI: Off the record, she gave me another list of older celebrities who have come in through the secret back entrance to shop. And by the looks of the shoes in this place, you can have it all - for a price. They range from 100 to 600 bucks. That's just too high for someone like Anne Flores.
ANNE FLORES: I'm 51 years old. I'm a single mom with a 12-year-old daughter.
MERAJI: Flores is a transportation planning manager. She's up and down from her desk all day and takes public transportation to and from work. After bunion removal surgery on both feet, she knows her way around a comfort shoe catalog.
FLORES: Now that the weather's getting cooler, I'm still kind of in denial because I don't have any closed-toe shoes that I feel like don't look like nurse shoes - no offense to nurses. You guys rock. But I want attractive-looking shoes that aren't going to cost so much money that I can't afford them.
MERAJI: The footwear experts I spoke with for this story told me prices are high because a truly comfortable shoe just costs more to make. They're engineered differently and the brands that specialize in supportive comfort are often smaller, so output isn't enough to bring down the price. And that store owner we met earlier, Marcia Arranaga, she says her customers are happy to pay extra for cute and comfortable because they're over either wearing sneakers everywhere or being in pain all the time.
ABBASSEH TOWFIGH: I always tell my patients our feet are the tires of our car.
MERAJI: Abbasseh Towfigh works as a podiatrist in Santa Monica, Calif.
TOWFIGH: The more mileage you put on them and the kind of mileage you put on them causes wear and tear at every level, from your skin to your joints to the fat padding, et cetera.
MERAJI: Towfigh says, as you age, you wear out the fat pads at the bottom of the feet. The cartilage thins in all the joints. Your muscles, tendons and soft tissue tighten up. These things cause pain, but she's worried to suggest a comfort shoe first thing because comfort is still a word her patients - like 66-year-old Ellen Stein - recoil from.
ELLEN STEIN: Ugly, unfashionable, something that I'd say, oh, no, I'm not wearing that. I don't care. You tell me whatever you want. I'm not wearing it. I'm not old enough to be wearing old, awful, ugly shoes (laughter).
MERAJI: While there are more stylish choices than there were 20 years ago, that whiff of a convalescent home continues to linger around the comfort shoe. I just saw an AARP commercial that opens with a woman's feet in sky-high stilettos. The camera pans up as the older woman in said stilettos struts down a city street. That's right, stilettos - not a sensible wedge or a flat with good arch support.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "I'VE STILL GOT IT YOU DON'T KNOW AARP")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Knows her way around a miniskirt, can run in high heels, must be a supermodel, right? You don't know AARP because AARP is making...
MERAJI: You can find it on YouTube by searching for the title "I've Still Got It." Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
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