The Catfight Over … Flip-Flops

“It’s the first time one shoe has caused this kind of frenzy,” said Sigerson Morrison P.R. manager Barbara Parisotto. She was referring to a coveted new warm-weather item: the kitten-heel rubber flip-flop. On the chilly morning of April 25, in fact, a dozen women were lined up outside Sigerson Morrison on Mott Street, eager to pay $85 to score a pair on the first day they went on sale. The entire shipment of 350 sold out that day; 140 pairs were already spoken for by shoppers who had placed their orders as early as December. On Vivre.com, 2,867 pairs have been sold since they first became available at the end of March. With new shipments now trickling into the Nolita store, hundreds of New York women on the waiting list will finally be able to get their hands on them.

The success of Sigerson Morrison’s haute flip-flop—it has the dolled-up, slightly unnerving aura of a child beauty-pageant contestant—is just more evidence that this lowly former poolside accessory has become a high-end wardrobe staple. Over at Scoop, Helmut Lang’s suitably stark, flat rendition goes for a cool $125. Manolo Blahnik, Karl Lagerfeld, Celine and Gucci all do versions of the flip-flop.

The sheer variety of flip-flops available now is staggering. There’s the standard model done by the likes of Old Navy and J. Crew. There are, of course, Havaianas, the über-trendy Brazilian brand of flip-flop that come in edible candy colors and were also featured, adorned with Swarovski crystals, in goodie bags for this year’s female Oscar nominees. There are tarted-up flip-flops from Charlotte Ronson, whose styles come in fabrics like cotton and macramé and are embellished with polka dots, ribbons and hibiscus-flower accents; Mella, who provides options in canvas, ultrasuede, terrycloth and denim; Scoop, who does them in velvet; and Coach, whose leather flip-flops sport a fetching sunflower at the big toe.

Every year, flip-flop fever seems to kick off earlier. This time around, beginning in still-freezing March, Premature Outdoor Flip-Flop Syndrome (POFFS) swept through the city as women eagerly went full frontal, their flip-flops smick-smacking against their winter-white feet. Ever since, throughout this stubbornly sub-par spring, these women have been pairing their flip-flops with knee-length skirts, boot-cut trousers, chic shirt-dresses, cropped cargo pants and, on frigid days—absurdly—with coats, sweaters, scarves and hats. Some are even committing such horrendous faux pas as wearing them with business suits, or flaunting flip-flop-shod feet that are crying out—heaving with sobs, in fact—for a fresh pedicure.

The skirt might be Marni, or the pants Marc Jacobs, but the attitude is: I didn’t really try that hard. “It’s like, ‘I’m too cool for this,’” said Ji Baek, founder and owner of the downtown Rescue Beauty Lounge nail salons, with a healthy hint of mockery. “‘I don’t want to wear my Blahniks right now. I’m just hangin’.’” It’s a studied nonchalance that says, Hey, look at me, I’m all cute and slouchy—and I’m still stylin’!

A recent Sunday stroll around Soho—the temperature peaking at a relatively modest 70 degrees—confirmed that POFFS was in full effect, as roughly one in five females out on the streets sported flip-flops. The line between stylish and slovenly, however, was a fine one. For every girl who pulled off that certain flip-flop je ne sais quois, there were dozens who, slip-slapping by in their dirty-wash denim, dingy tank tops and reckless ponytails, missed the point entirely.

Explanations for choosing to wear flip-flops varied. Lisa, 27, who wouldn’t give her last name but said she works in “luxury goods,” was wearing lightweight, cropped gray pinstriped trousers deliberately dressed down by her plain white Havaianas. “I don’t like to wear regular shoes,” she declared with finality. Leslie McKeown, 32, a retail consultant who was in a knee-length jersey skirt, T-shirt, denim jacket and green leather Calypso thongs, claimed that her decision to wear flip-flops is all about convenience. “I wear them around the house, so it’s easier to go outside wearing them,” she said.

On a recent nippy, 55-degree Thursday in Chelsea, freelance photographer Tanzie Johnson, 31—heading out for the evening in a pleated denim skirt, beige twill military jacket and orange Old Navy flip-flops—said that her primary concern was comfort. Although, she admitted, “I’m a little bit sorry I have them on today. I thought it was nice out and it’s not. I’m freezing.”

Blame the long, hard winter for this year’s eager and often unseemly flip-flop embrace. Still, the question must be asked: Now that we have to go outside to smoke like Californians, do we have to give up and dress like them, too?

Some trace the flip-flop’s rise as a daily urban-footwear option back to the era of heroin chic, around 1996 or 1997. According to Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion market director at Allure, that was when J. Crew introduced the single-color rubber flip-flop with thong, straps and sole—coordinated in matching shades of white, red, black and navy—that distinguished it from its poorer, $2.99 drugstore relation with its tell-tale white foot bed. “I remember the frenzy on that,” Ms. Morrison recalled fondly, “and having to buy all the colors.”

It’s fashion-industry types who take credit for the flip-flop’s bold move from locker room to office. Lord knows, after everything she’s been through, the New York fashionista has a right to relax a little. “Our feet really hurt right now, O.K.?” said Kate Dimmock, fashion market director for Marie Claire, who also confessed to signing up on the Sigerson Morrison waiting list. “There’s been a lot of heels going on and, you know, not everyone can make it to the celebrity podiatrist.”

Ms. Morrison, who admitted to having “so many pairs of flip-flops, it’s ridiculous,” described a typical summer scenario. “You’re wearing certain shoes that you thought were gonna work that day, and then your feet get so hot on the pavement that you’re starting to get blisters,” she recounted. “That blister in the summer really is the worst. And you need relief immediately. And you are walking down the street, and every other store has some version of the flip-flop. You see those flip-flops—they’re eyeing you. And even if you’re somewhat dressed for the evening, you could get away with a silver one or a gold one. And nine times out of 10, you will find it.”

But of course, busy, sore-footed, be-blistered fashionistas cannot fail to note that the look has caught on with the masses—hence the scores of women flat-footing it through midtown in flip-flops and smart office clothes. “Right now, the assistants are wearing them to the office,” said Ms. Dimmock. “Most editors don’t wear Seven jeans anymore, because every assistant wears Seven jeans. So, as an editor, you have be more selective about your flip-flop wearing.” Such as, she said, limiting flip-flops to days when you want to sneak out for a pedicure—”No one’s going to be the wiser if you wear those shoes,” Ms. Dimmock promised—or on summer Fridays, which, she said, makes the following statement: “I’m not going on any appointments, I’m not meeting anyone for lunch; I’m here to do a little paperwork and then out the door to get on the Jitney or the train or whatever.” Summer weekends in the city, though, are another story, as flip-flops break down caste barriers. “If you walk around Nolita post–Memorial Day, every girl’s wearing the same outfit,” opined Ms. Dimmock. “It’s either a bias-cut skirt or a little sundress with flip-flops. It’s a uniform.”

But Ms. Baek, of Rescue, has noticed a definite fallout to the flip-flop trend. First, there’s the issue of filthier, rattier feet. “Omigod!” she groaned. “There’s nothing as embarrassing or unelegant or unsexy or wretchedly ugly and unattractive as black heels when you see people walk. Like, to me, I cringe—like, ‘Oh, gross!’” And that’s just the beginning: “Rubber flip-flops are wretched for your feet. I hate those things,” she lamented. “The worst thing about them is that when you walk, there’s no heel gravity. You constantly clack on your heel with the rubber sole and—guess what?—you make the callous a lot thicker and harder.”

This is why Ms. Baek says she has designed her own line of flip-flops. “I made mine in terrycloth, so it doesn’t hurt and get blistered in between the toes. And they’re washable. I have to tell my clients to wash them.”

When it comes to educating her flip-flop-obsessed clients, who blithely spend their days accumulating all that New York City grime on their feet, Ms. Baek has her work cut out for her. “Some people don’t even take a shower at night,” she said with unbridled disgust. “The thought of that just blows my mind away. I made these individual bacteria wipes so they could wipe their feet. We sell them 30 per pack, so customers can carry it with them. Don’t be a dirty girl! Wipe it down! Don’t wait till you get home! I do these products because I get so frustrated.”

Given the filthy downside, why have the girls gone wild for flip-flops? Letitia Baldrige, the author of 18 books on manners, former social secretary at the White House and chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy, has a theory. “It’s part of a grimy, show-off-your-body, bare-skin thing,” she seethed. “Look at the bare navels. Look at the girls wearing their slacks down to just above the pubic region. It’s dis-gus-ting what’s going on.” Ms. Baldrige believes that women who wear flip-flops have a fetishistic agenda: They want their feet worshipped. “They make noise, they announce they’re coming with their flip-flops, and then the eye travels down to the feet,” she said. “They want you to look at their feet.”

As a fashion editor who may have had some responsibility for creating flip-flop fever, Ms. Morrison has some rules. “You should get your feet to the pedicurist,” she instructed. “You should clean them up.” She is equally emphatic about the noise issue. “The shuffling and the smacking and the sliding of the feet—it makes people crazy,” she complained. “Just pick up your feet, girls! Even though it’s nice and floppy, there is something nails-on-the-chalkboard about it. Don’t go there.” And, finally, for all those feet dragged from their winter cocoons and thrust out into the open like naked mole rats blinking in the sunlight, she is adamant: “Get a really good self-tanner.”

The Catfight Over … Flip-Flops