Tuesday, March 24, 2009

simple shoes - too simple when it comes to men's sandals?

by Frédérik Sisa

This is undoubtedly a familiar rule of thumb in fashion design: thin for women, thick for men. Hence, strappy sandals and wispy thin jewelry chains for the ladies, chunky fishermen’s sandals and boxy links for the gents.

With that in mind, here I am wearing a pair of good-looking sandals:

Two things to notice. First, this isn’t a style men will really find anywhere, although, looking hard enough, some roughly comparable styles can be found. Second, the toe loop and crossing upper strap – the sandal in general – is robust enough to achieve a style that is unisex and suitably stylish for men.

This would be a rather strange way to talk about a pair of shoes, except for the fact that this particular pair, called Tanline comes from Simple Shoes’ women’s line from days gone by. Beyond illustrating how women’s styles today are granted, through our cultural biases, a flexibility not found in men’s style – women can wear men’s clothes and still look feminine while the vice-versa isn’t the case – it reflects a curious kind of decision-making process behind what products to offer and how to market these products in light of cultural fashion expectations. In other words, if you have a unisex style, why limit yourself to one sex?

Looking at Simple Shoes’ current offerings in the sandals department – their sneakers actually are pretty snappy all around, for women AND men – we find, well, disappointment. Here’s the men’s line, and here’s the women’s line. Flip flops for men – boring! – and a few styles beyond the flip-flop for women, including the gladiator-style TeeToe and this one, called Glider:

For comparison’s sake, take a look at these shoes from Birkenstock. The one on the left is Gizeh, Birkenstock’s thong sandal for women. Although not available in the US, for whatever reason, the sandal on the right is Birkenstock’s masculine counterpart, Ramses. The major difference lies in thickness of the straps and the way in which the thong strap connects to the upper; it’s far more pinched in Gizeh then it is in Ramses.

Question: why can Birkenstock offer essentially the same style to both men and women, but not Simple Shoes? Like Tanline, there is nothing about Glider that is specifically feminine. Glider is also more appealing in terms of its contemporary styling and materials, although I admit I’m not exactly a fan of Birkenstocks in the first place. In a case of shooting itself in the foot – ha, ha – it seems to me that Simple Shoes is shutting out potential customers.

During the holidays, when I saw that Simple Shoes added TeeToe to their women’s line (before adding Glider), I eMailed Customer Service to express my desire for a bit more variety. They can’t satisfy their clients if they don’t know what their clients want, right? This is the answer I received:
Thank you for your email. I understand your disdain at our Men’s choices in shoes. However, Simple is always working on new styles for men. If you could please keep checking www.simpleshoes.com for updates on Men’s choices, that would be wonderful.
Disdain really is too strong a word, especially since I really want to be able to support a company that embodies values I hold and I didn't send out an angry missy. And they do have cool products that reflect that hip planet-saving philosophy – I bought a messenger bag from them and I love it. But I just can’t bring myself to buy a pair of flip-flops. I wish Simple Shoes weren't always so simple in their sandal styling - although, in all fairness, their line of ecosneaks is looking pretty good.


Sean said...

The heel on the Glider sandal vibes too feminine to allow the sort of crossover appeal of the Birkenstock example you cite. I note some women, in spite of whatever romantic and epic images it might evoke, feel the traditional cowboy boot is too feminine for this very reason (i.e., a distinct heel...which indeed seems odd insomuch as so many men's dress shoes, until recently, had a distinct heel, but increasingly fewer, or so I observe). In any case, a heel seems especially feminine where sandals are concerned. Moreover, the Glider has a lateral channel tooled across the rear of its heel--thus the shoe is entirely too refined to evoke the "robust" and/or blocky qualities you indicate are necessary to be marketed as unisex footwear. For those reasons, I think Glider, as it is, *is* specifically feminine, and it probably makes sense to market it as such. But you're right, with a few modifications, a la the Birkenstock sandal, they could likely get more bang for their buck...save on manufacturing costs, and appeal to a wider swath of humanity all at the same time. But this idea--trending toward greater and greater simplicity to enable mass production while retaining general appeal--has been the general direction of design for the last 100 years...in everything from trains to wine glasses. (Nice blog!) --Sean

Frederik Sisa said...

I would have to hide (cower, some might say) behind the subjectivity as to what constitutes a feminine or masculine "look." As you say, many men's dress shoes possess(ed) distinct heels. Men's dance shoes (admittedly niche footwear) definitely still do. Clogs, which are basically unisex, are also heeled. The point being that I don't personally think that a humble heel like the one on Glider necessarily makes the sandal look feminine. But that may just be me.

Having said that, you do make an entirely fair point, and Simple Shoes does have to market to broader cultural perceptions. Simple Shoes could have two options: make a single pair of unisex sandals (women can actually get away with wearing men's styles, more or less, while the reverse isn't necessarily true, so a "robust" design might be the default) or do like Birkenstock and offer masculine and feminine variations of the same design concept.

Thanks for reading!

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