$5,000 For a Pair of Sandals: The Rich Are Different, Right Down to Their Shoes

The fashionista world has been having a collective snit this spring over a huge and sudden increase in the price of designer shoes. A choice quote from Jezebel summarizes the outraged screams rising across the nation:

Any dedicated observer of shoe culture knows that over the last decade or so, something very strange and concerning happened to designer shoes: they got really fucking expensive. In the early 2000s, a pair of Pradas or YSLs could be had at full price for around $400

$400 is pretty damn insane, but that was then: at the most recent Barneys Warehouse Sale many of the sale prices were higher than that. One struggles to name a consumer item whose price has inflated more dramatically in recent years than the designer shoe (and it's not like $400 is "cheap," as baselines go, to begin with). Basic designer pumps now often hit in the $700-$900 range. Even newer designers, like Brian Atwood and Camilla Skovgaard, feel justified in pricing some of their offerings at over $1000. Christian Louboutin's zippered heels will set you back nearly $1600. Anything with embellishment or exotic leather might top $2000.

What. The. Fuck?

Safe behind its paywall, WWD -- the fashion industry's paper of record -- has apparently defended the increase, explaining that materials prices have gone up, and the US dollar has lost ground against the euro, and also admitting (in many more obfuscating words) that designers and retailers are working overtime to exploit the already absurdly high profit margins to be found on statusy shoes and handbags.

The Wave wedge

So why should we care? Progressives are, by definition, pretty much not the target audience for these shoes. Beyond the ridiculous price tags, they're too high to walk in, and most of us don't have anything in our closets that would remotely go.

Here's why we should care. WWD's reedy rationalizations don't explain the crowning absurdity of N-M's spring collection: the above-pictured black-and-gold sandal. Far and away the most expensive shoe in the collection (more than double the price of the next contender, in fact), it was designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen -- the woman who also designed Princess Kate's wedding gown, and is clearly making her bid to cash in.

This should be enough to give us pause. I mean: Five grand for a pair of shoes? In a world where kids are starving and ice caps are melting and we're closing public hospitals and libraries?

As Jezebel so aptly put it: What the fuck?

I tried to contact Neiman-Marcus' PR chief, Ginger Reeder, to ask her what could possibly make a shoe worth $5,000. I wanted to ask her: what's the value proposition here? Historically, designer shoes were at least good value: they were well-built, comfortable, durable, and had classic good looks that ensured you'd keep loving them for years.

But clearly, this shoe is not remotely about durability, quality or enduring style (and it's sure as hell not about comfort). Its sole reason for being is to show off. The fashion statement here is direct and clear: "I'm so ostentatiously rich that I can throw around gobs of cash just to have the newest thing. Suck on this, peons."

How does this happen?

It was probably predictable that I got no response from Ms. Reeder. (I mean, honestly: what sensible thing could she have possibly said?) So I turned to another expert on conspicuous consumption: Pulitzer Prize-winning financial writer David Cay Johnston. What, I asked him, does it say about us as a country that a store can market something like this, and find buyers for it?

First of all, Johnston said: remember that Neiman-Marcus has made its name selling over-the-top stuff (up to and including bespoke Learjets), so it thrives on the attention it gets from items like this. And second, for women in the top income level, "$5,000 is like chewing gum money" -- they hardly miss it.

"We've reached a point where this very, very narrow band of people -- the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent -- has these incredible amounts of money coming at them constantly from their investments. But they pay relatively light taxes compared to people who work and have big incomes but make nothing like they're making -- and they have literally no place to put this money."

So, Johnston continued, "They have more money than they have any utility for...Money at a certain point loses all meaning, in the same way that if you are unbelievably beautiful, it loses all meaning and distorts what you do.

"And I don't have any doubts that they'll sell at least a few pair of these shoes. You can imagine some incredibly rich guy simply sending a pair of these to his wife or his mistress or his second mistress." And then a joke: "The second mistress is always more expensive than the first one because it's a newer model and you're an older guy."

This kind of extravagance may be uniquely American, Johnston observed. It's certainly not possible in most of the rest of the world. "If they lived in Bangladesh, they'd have nowhere near this kind of money," he noted, referring to the vast public and private infrastructure that makes wealth acquisition so much easier here than almost anywhere else. And in other countries where that infrastructure does exist, it's far more aggressively taxed. "This is a reflection of how the enormous fruits of the American economy are not being distributed in any relationship to their contributions to that economy."

And worst of all: Guess who's picking up the tab?

Then Johnston mentioned something else that should piss people off a whole lot more than over-inflated shoe prices. It's this: in some cases, there are absolutely legal ways for rich women to shunt some of the cost of an absurd shoe purchase off onto taxpayers. For some of the buyers of the Wave wedge, we may end up picking up part of the tab.

Johnston explains how this works. A famous actress -- say, Angelina Jolie -- buys a $5K pair of shoes and wears them to an event. Then, she donates them to a charity auction, which may sell them for more than $5K (whee! Angelina's actual shoes!) -- and takes the value of the sale as a tax deduction. Which means we end up subsidizing roughly 40 percent of the the purchase of a pair of once-worn $5K shoes.  And she may actually end up making money on the deal.

Of course, the amount of the deduction varies directly with the fame of the person wearing the shoes. Kim Kardashian routinely sells her once-worn shoes on eBay for a hefty profit. Regular gals like me can only deduct the going thrift-store rate -- and that's only if we itemize our taxes, which most Americans don't.

In other cases, studios and production companies buy things like this, and take them as a business deduction. All those Hermes handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes worn by the Sex and the City cast? We also subsidized it all to the tune of about 40 percent -- the amount of the tax deduction the show's producers were able to take because they were used in a show.

What else does $5,000 buy?

I can't help but think about how much more good could be done with the $5,000 a handful of rich N-M customers are going to squander on these shoes. Assuming they sell 100 pair -- which is a conservative assumption -- that's a half a million bucks. With that kind of money, you can fix up a school, improve a park, or put a few hundred kids through Head Start. You can put two would-be doctors all the way through medical school. You can staff a full-time seniors' or youth center serving a middling-sized city. You can put half a dozen more nurses into the local hospital, or that same number of teachers into neighborhood classrooms.

Any of these things have far more lasting value than a pair of shoes that will be yesterday's news by Labor Day.

If someone's rich enough to spend five grand on shoes and not even feel it, she's rich enough to pay a lot more than that in taxes. The right wing likes to say that people have a right to keep the money they earn, and spend it however they like. But in a time when money is so tight for 99 percent of us -- and yet those same rich folks are telling us every day that we don't deserve to have decent (or even basic) government services -- it's time to insist that their right to profit comes with a serious responsibility attached to it. They only deserve to make that money as long as they're going to invest it in things that will build enduring value for society.

And that -- emphatically -- does not include shoes that cost one-tenth of what the average American household brings home in a year. Am I instigating class warfare? If so: bring it on. Because as long as there are families out of work, banks that refuse loans to the middle class, and a national debt our financial titans refuse to pay, indulgences like this are the stuff of which revolutions should rightfully be made.

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