The UK footwear chain Jones Bootmaker was saved from administration earlier this year but its new owners are still closing a number of its stores – which is a setback for women with larger feet and few options.
And I should know: as Jones is one of the few High Street staples to offer a larger than average range of big sizes, my local branch was the first port of call to accommodate my own size nines.
Now it lies empty, the latest instalment in a troubled footwear history that sentenced me to boy’s lace-ups at school and overhanging toes in any sandal since.
With independent shops rarely stocking shoes above size seven and larger brand outlets offering merely one or two options – if I’m lucky – finding suitable shoes remains the Holy Grail.
Since the 1970s, the average shoe size of men and women in the UK has increased by two sizes, from a size eight to 10 and four to six, respectively, according to research from the College of Podiatry.
“When size five was average the industry would think providing two sizes above to a seven was just about the fringe of adequate for women, but now that it’s a six, we should be seeing far more eights and even nines as standard,” says the college’s Dr Jill Halstead-Rastrick.
She believes the footwear industry is not moving with the times to accommodate a nation that is taller and heavier and so by evolutionary logic, has larger feet, and warns this is an issue that could be a time bomb for the next generation.
“Increased weight splays the feet and we are seeing a lot of adults wearing shoes that are too narrow or small. This is only going to become more of a problem as we continue to grow in stature – we need a wider variety of larger sizes.”
It’s a familiar narrative to Laura West of the Society of Shoe Fitters.
She estimates around 30% of inquiries she receives are from girls aged around 12 unable to find school shoes above a size eight, and who have to wear boys’ shoes as a result. Irrespective of any aesthetics this has serious repercussions for girls’ foot health, she argues.
“Boys’ shoes will fit differently, and ill-fitting footwear does change [girls] physiology.
“If feet hurt you shift your weight unnaturally when you walk and this wears out other joints and tendons leading to hip, knee and ankle and neck problems later on.”
West believes the problem stems from the demise of British manufacturing in the 1980s, when many UK brands shifted production overseas to cut costs. This has meant less research into foot development and a deeper disconnect between the manufacturer and consumer needs, she says.
“When we produced shoes here we could run short production lines including larger sizes at little extra cost, but in an overseas factory you have to order in far greater numbers, which becomes cost prohibitive.
“Independent shops can’t compete with low cost imports – and they would have been the ones to feedback the inability to supply certain items like larger sizes to their manufacturers’ representatives.
“Now consumers trawl from High Street chain to supermarket and the staff have little involvement; it is a self-service mass market approach and an ‘if we’ve got it you can have it – if not tough’ mentality, so manufacturers don’t have a clue.”
A focus on fashion over quality has compounded the problem for many UK women’s shoe makers. By contrast the men’s market has benefitted from higher-priced items such as Goodyear welted shoes which enjoy a healthy export trade to Europe, Asia and US.
“The price commanded for them makes UK production profitable,” says British Footwear Association chief executive John Saunders.
By contrast “most UK women’s shoemakers were operating in the volume to mid-tier market,” he says, and were hit hard in the late 20th Century by increasing Asian competition, retailers demanding a greater share of profits and consumers turning to cheaper shoes.
China now accounts for about 65% of shoes made worldwide, and with this production coming from a country where the average female shoe size is a UK three-and-half, this virtual monopoly has hit shoes sizes.
Former luxury shoe buyer Naomi Braithwaite, now a fashion marketing and branding lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, recalls how standard sizes of shoes at the company she worked for reduced after it switched production from Italy to China.
“Sample sizes were based on Chinese feet which are smaller boned and narrower. As well as this, many of the designers at the luxury end simply didn’t like to see their shoes in bigger sizes as they didn’t think they looked as beautiful as the more petite sizes.”
The additional cost involved in producing larger sizes to cover the extra material and increased shipment weight is another deterrent for a somewhat already reluctant industry, she concedes.
It’s a gap in the market that Long Tall Sally, a specialist in fashion and footwear for tall women, has successfully exploited. Its shoe range starts at size seven and goes up to 13.
Making shoes above a size eight costs the firm about £5 extra a pair because of the extra material, and it also uses a bespoke ‘last’ – a three-dimensional foot shaped mould on which each shoe is made.
Yet it seems to be paying off with footwear growing from a 5% to 15% share of the total business. Size 10 is now its most popular size, representing 30% of footwear sales.
“Demand for larger size women’s shoes has risen steadily,” says Long Tall Sally’s shoe buyer, Chris O’Shea.
The other option if you’ve larger feet, is to buy German.
“Germany is very much an exception – it has always had much better selection in larger size footwear and what they do well is shoes with quality, comfort and longevity'” says O’Shea.
While Germany still outsources production to Asia, many of its footwear brands retain head office, marketing and design in the country – with a consistent focus on function and quality over fashion.
It’s why Dr Halstead-Rastrick often directs patients to German brands. But she says the industry could better use technology to provide more personalised fittings without the prohibitive prices that handmade shoes usually command.
“You can even scan and measure feet via a phone app now, so surely we can’t be that far off a situation where we can send our measurements to companies and say, this is the shape of my foot can you make me something?”
Here’s hoping change is afoot.