Best foot forward

14 May 2010 | This 'n' that

C’est moi. Tribute. Eliza. Muse. Monica. Very Privé, Super Private.

These are names of shoes that women buy in luxury shops on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Six inches or more of heels that cost anything between 500 and 5,000 dollars, make walking torture; but pain is tolerated, as along with the shoes a woman acquires a deeply satisfying feeling of being envied, beautiful and sexy (her toe cleavage has to be clearly visible).

Mirja Tervo (born 1971) is an ethnologist who spent a year and a half selling luxury shoes in Manhattan. Among her fellow sales personnel were a medical doctor, a musician, an actor and a retired baseball pro.

The shoe salon paid no salary, just commission of ten per cent, and the required minimum sale per week was 3,500 dollars. If a sales person failed to sell merchandise worth this sum, he or she was given a loan of 300 dollars, payable immediately when the results improved, and they quickly had to.

Tervo made big bucks in her job, as she had the stamina of a marathon runner and the patience of a cow (the salon turned into a complete madhouse during the sales). As it happens, she has also published a book entitled Lehmä, ‘The cow’ (2006).

In this book based on her experiences, Huimaavat korot. Luksuskenkien vaarallinen viehätys (‘Dizzying heels. The dangerous allure of luxury shoes’, Atena, 2010), she introduces researchers’ views of this female folly. Tervo points out that academic footwewar studies usually concentrate on shoe museums, designers or advertising, whereas she took up smelly field work.

It did mean close encounters with sweaty feet day in, day out (to the point of nausea, as the no-sock trend results in incredibly bad foot hygiene), trying to find something that would fit severely deformed toes, being pleasant to tourists ‘just looking around’ and impeccably polite to the Mrs Complainbergs and the often shopaholic Ms Returnbergs – as well as to browsers who don’t intend to buy anything, as they are just acquiring their daily dose of dopamine in a luxury shoe salon.

Amusingly, in Finnish korko means both ‘heel’ and ‘interest rate’.  What goes up, must come down: heels got sky-high along with the prices of luxury shoes, and an economic crash ensued. Saada kenkää, ‘to get the shoe’, means ‘to get the boot’ – and that is exactly what Tervo did, after the credit crunch hit New York in 2008. She walked out of the salon (in her sensible shoes) feeling relieved, and wrote the book. It is an illuminating report on the Vanity Fair of footwear.

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