The summer of 1500 B.C. welcomed the flip-flop sandal. Espadrilles came to Spain in the 1300s. But years from now, when historians look back at the summer of 2012, they’ll remember us not for our new iPads or affinity for Girls, but for our sneaker wedges—those clunky shoe-bricks that have seemingly taken over the world.
These aren’t just ordinary sneakers. They’re chunky, they’re gaudy—and they’re enough to give you a workout just climbing a few stairs. Extreme high-tops with an internal heel, sneaker wedges trick people into thinking you’re casual and sporty while secretly giving you a little lift. And it ain’t pretty.
Unfortunately, sneaker wedges are everywhere. They’re on the feet of models like Gisele Bündchen, Miranda Kerr, and Joan Smalls. Kate Bosworth wears them with a flowy skirt, Elle Fanning throws them on with mom jeans, and even Beyoncé lugs Blue Ivy Carter around New York wearing them. Whether we like it or not, these atrocities are here to stay.
This season, Marc Jacobs designed several cartoonish sneaker wedges for his Marc by Marc Jacobs line, Giuseppe Zanotti released a Snooki-ish gold python pair, and the brand Ash developed a version that comes in a dizzying variety of stripy suedes. But the success of the sneaker wedge is due in large part to French designer Isabel Marant, patron saint of the off-duty model, who has made legions of women look like they didn’t try. Her $760 Willow sneaker wedge comes with a relatively conservative one-inch heel and an array of washed-out colors, not unlike what Barbie dolls wore in the ’90s. The Willow has sold out at Marant’s boutiques worldwide, driving shoppers to eBay, where the highest-selling pair has gone for $1,435. (The e-retailer says that of the 7,000 sneaker wedges available on the site, a third are Marant’s Willow sneakers.)
In some way, this may be the trickle-down effect of a larger trend that favors “ugly-cute,” an aesthetic that prizes hard-edged masculinity over the prim and proper. “Before I got my first pair of Isabel Marant sneaker wedges, I thought they were truly ugly,” says Leandra Medine, creator of the popular blog The Man Repeller, for whom ugly-cute is something of a lifestyle. “But oh my god, they’re so comfortable. These things you’d never expect a woman to think are chic are suddenly in high demand.” Medine cites Impossible Conversations, an exhibition on view at the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, as an example of a cultural shift toward celebration of ugly-chic.
As far as I was concerned, they were more ugly than chic, but knowing that I had hated them without ever trying them on, I decided to give sneaker wedges a fair chance and dragged myself to the Marc by Marc Jacobs store in Los Angeles. A trio of blindingly bright sneaker wedges sat in a glass counter in a pool of light. “Those are almost entirely sold out companywide,” said a salesman as I reached for the shoes. Of course, they didn’t have my size—so I went up to a 10 and spent the next 20 minutes jump-walking around the store like an astronaut who had just landed on the moon.
I had been told that sneaker wedges were elongating on the leg; with the right skinny jeans, flattering even. But as I spun in front of the mirror, it was decided: I looked like Floyd “Money” Mayweather on his way into the ring. They cut off my calves in the worst possible place and made me look about a foot shorter than I am, despite the internal lift. But even two sizes two big, I’ll admit, they were comfortable. Cushioned, padded, even orthopedic.
I returned the sneakers to their boxes, slightly less perplexed by their cultish appeal. No, I told the salesman, I didn’t want them. But, slipping my feet back into ballet flats, I had a moment of yearning to be back in the moon shoe. They may be hideous, but the converts were right: they are comfortable. As Medine put it: “How did no one know there was such a need in the market for this? Why did no one think of this until now?” And maybe, just maybe, she was right.