The Men Who Love to Dress Your Feet

bryan saksshoes2h The Men Who Love to Dress Your FeetShopping in Manhattan has become something of a contact sport, drained of its leisure and reduced to its essential acquisitive purpose. One need only walk into H & M on a Saturday to observe a live case study of the worst traits of Manhattan females: materialism, impatience, entitlement.

Which is why it is refreshing, on any day of the week, to stroll into the 59th Street Bloomingdale’s fourth-floor ladies’ designer shoe salon. Here, everything is orderly. Salesmen wear suits and acknowledge you with a polite, deferential nod. Trim middle-aged women wander slowly in pairs, mulling over endless iterations of the demure Chanel ballet flat. Plush couches beckon.

On a recent Wednesday, Frank Guzzone, a 10-year veteran of the department, was presiding over this scene. He is typical of the city’s luxury shoe salesmen—older (he didn’t give his age, but looks to be late sixties), chatty, well-schooled on the relative merits and rich history of most brands he sells. Mr. Guzzone considers himself not only a shoe salesman but a psychologist.

“You’ve got to romance her a bit, talk to her, and let her give you vibes of what she wants,” he said of his typical customer, whom he describes as youngish, in her early 20’s to mid-30’s. “Sometimes she’s carrying a dress with her and wants to match the color. So you tell her, ‘I can show you this gunsmoke shoe that goes with the gunsmoke dress.’ You gotta know when to back off, when to push it. You have to be sharp.”

Mr. Guzzone will do practically anything to satisfy his best customers. Last month, he sold two pairs of shoes to a woman visiting from Europe. The store does not send shoes to hotels as a rule, he said, so he had them sent to his own apartment and personally delivered them to the customer at the Towers Suite at the Waldorf (the one they built for F.D.R., he noted, so that the former president could escape surreptitiously through a private exit without being seen in his wheelchair).

Department of Dollar Signs

Manhattan is undergoing a luxury shoe renaissance of sorts, with sales booming, department stores overhauling and expanding their shoe salons and shoe designers gaining cult followings and collaborating with high-profile couturiers. And at the center, charged with satiating the prodigious footwear appetite of Manhattan’s richest and most particular women, are men like Mr. Guzzone: Throwbacks to another era entirely, when shopping was an elegant, intimate, personalized affair; when there weren’t online designer boutiques and discount chains; and when a woman’s shoe fate each season really was in the hands of her own trusted salesman at her local department store, who knew the specific contours of her hoof and sent her a Christmas card every year.

The rarefied shoe departments at Bergdorf, Bloomingdale’s, Saks and to a lesser extent Barneys have remained partially frozen in time—proud holdouts of genteel, old-style service in a dying Manhattan service economy. The younger generation, after all, raised on Payless and ALDO and Zappos.com, have probably never had a shoe salesman place a shoe delicately on their foot while they recline on a couch, and know nothing of lenient return policies, or private rooms where they can be served lunch while deciding which color of $865 Christian Louboutin Knotted Open-Toe Sandal will go best with their new evening dress. (Or, for that matter, of paying full price. )

These four big players in the Manhattan department-store luxury shoe world (Henri Bendel, alas, has no shoe department) have all remodeled their designer shoe salons, adding inventory and salespeople, in the past five years. Saks’ recent announcement that its brand-new designer shoe salon requires its own ZIP code—10022-SHOE—not to mention an express elevator from the cosmetics department, was as good a sign as any of where shoes rank these days in relative importance to a department store’s business.

“Day in, day out, the designer shoe salon is the most heavily trafficked area of the store, with the possible exception of cosmetics,” said Bill Brobston, SVP General Manager of Bergdorf Goodman. “Our customers used to buy their clothing first, and then follow it up with their shoe and handbag purchase, and that certainly still happens to some degree. But frequently, since we’ve redone our shoe salon, it becomes very much a focal point in the store for customers to gather, socialize, shop together—you probably see more friends shopping together in shoes than in any other area of the store. It’s a very, very important part of the business for us. It’s safe to say it’s doubled over the last three years.”

Old-school shoe salesmen provide the personalized, old-style service necessary to sell an inventory of shoes that, for all their holes and buckles and synthetic material, continue to get more expensive. Ferragamo and Stuart Weitzman recently hiked their prices after updating their designs. At Bloomingdale’s (whose shoe business has posted double-digit increases in the last five years, according to VP and divisional merchandise manager Debbie King), high Chanel boots fetch $1,450, and a pointy Viktor & Rolf black ankle boot was marked $735. A mid-calf black Burberry boot ($940) had already sold out last week. “The educated shopper knows to come in early for boots,” Mr. Guzzone said with a shrug.