On a recent Sunday evening, at the private club Norwood on 14th Street, designer Michael Kors was explaining the appeal of the gladiator sandal, the shoe New Yorkers are not going to be able to escape this summer. “It’s comfortable and powerful,” he said. “What could be better? Sexy, comfortable and powerful all at once. It works with any length; you can wear it with a short dress, wear it with a long dress, wear it with shorts … If you’re wearing really simple clothes, it kind of gives you a little edge, a little punch.”
This was a party honoring the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards nominees, and the aggressive accessory du jour was out in full force, encasing the feet of everyone from the actress Ashley Olson (high-heeled, black and strappy, paired with short shorts and a blazer) to the female servers wearing spare, proletarian versions as they proffered pork skewers.
Designer Cynthia Rowley sported a pair of her own design: nude platforms with a faux armor-plate stretching over the front of her foot and extending to the ankle. They looked like a softer version of the now-impossible-to-find black $770 Dior Extreme Gladiators worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in the new Sex and the City movie. “These are sort of orthopedic Spartan shoes,” said Ms. Rowley, who said she’d been inspired by the 2006 film 300, about the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae. “They’re totally comfortable.”
Of course, the Spartans were Greek, which gladiators were not, but no matter: Footwear is having an ancient moment. The resurgent style tends to involve multiple horizontal straps and buckles, one of which usually encircles the ankle. It can be dead-flat or treacherously high, ending at the ankle or extending upward to the knee, and is often studded or bejeweled in a manner favored by aristocratic Roman women.
Initially revived by Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaia several years ago, the sandals quickly began appearing in paparazzi shots, adorning the feet of celebrity fashion warriors Kate, Sienna, Lindsay, Nicole (Kidman, not Richie), and Gwyneth (who paired a studded version by Balmain with a white Lanvin toga dress at Cannes, to some ridicule). Retail ubiquity arrived this year, when it seems every designer and mass chain from Dolce & Gabbana down to the Gap introduced one or more versions.
“They are selling better than everything,” wrote Lisa Park, vice president of women’s shoes at Barneys New York, in an e-mail. Particularly coveted by her customers are Balenciaga black-and-white gladiators ($700), Lanvin jeweled T-strap flat gladiators ($575), and gold Givenchy high-heel gladiators ($695). “Gladiators.
Gladiators. Gladiators,” Ms. Park all but cyber-shouted.
“It has really caught fire this season,” said Ed Burstell, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of accessories and footwear at Bergdorf Goodman, where gladiators are selling “amazingly well. They go with casual, they go with denim, they go with summer dresses at all lengths. They take metallics great. A lot of people look at them and think they’re kind of tough, kind of strong, but at the same time they’re substantial, they’re sexy.”
But are they? Balenciaga’s menacing spring 2008 runway take on gladiator sandals involved a black-and-white armor plate (i.e., warrior shin guard) that ended at the knee, connecting to the leg with what looked like black-and-white ropes, all atop a teeteringly high heel. (The B.C. version did not offer such altitude, though it often strapped up to the knee to give the warrior optimum fit and a full range of motion.) The actress Jennifer Connelly starred in the ad campaign, which paired the formidable footwear with an orange print minidress whose construction gave it the appearance of haute armor.
The sandals marching up and down Manhattan streets this June are mostly flat and sensible, and largely paired with frilly frocks, but they retain some of the combative quality of the Balenciagas, lending toughness to more demure summer trends like florals and high-waisted shorts. They convey the message that while we New York women may dress like our days are one long garden party, we are engaged in grave, life-or-death pursuits; that we are fighting (sometimes against each other, admittedly); that we are not soft. As Beth Buccini, co-owner of the Soho boutique Kirna Zabete, puts it: “You need something to ground the frou. Because otherwise it’s too syrupy, sickly sweet.”
Then there are more practical concerns, like the need to shield oneself from grimy city streets. “All the protection you get with all those straps wrapping all over your feet gives you the illusion of a full shoe,” said Vogue’s Sally Singer, an early gladiator enthusiast who owns versions from Dior, Alaia and (slum it, honey!) Steve Madden. “And, in fact, in most cases, a short boot with intense foot air-conditioning coming in from all sides. It’s a way of looking like your foot is fully dressed, which I think in the city more women feel comfortable with, rather than wearing something that looks like it should be on a beach.”
Gladiators’ complicated material elements make the flip-flops of yesteryear seem indeed beachy, almost undergraduate; ballet flats, a spring trend, look positively naïve and gamine by comparison, ill-suited to the mean city streets. (Yes, such is the nature of fashion today that we have gone from overly feminine to cartoonishly masculine in a single bound.)
“It gives you a sense of power—just the word, ‘gladiator!’” said Jennifer Rogers, a 20-something grad student braving the line at Shake Shack during a recent lunch hour, wearing brown leather gladiator-inspired Banana Republic sandals with rectangular copper accents.