(CNN) — Kelci Stringer realized her days in high heels were numbered when her children began to walk.
She struggled to keep up with them in her strappy stilettos and platform pumps, and the situation only worsened as they got older and needed to be shuttled around from school to soccer and myriad extracurricular activities.
The Atlanta mother still loves heels for special occasions, but her daily routine calls for flats. Slippers, loafers and sneakers are part of her uniform but she struggled to find unique varieties at a decent price. When she decided to start her own business, the name “flats” sprang to mind while she was getting a pedicure.
“I saw a void in the market that needed to be filled,” Stringer said. “My father said to me, ‘You’ve bought enough shoes so you ought to know something about them.'”
Sure, heels will always be a mainstay of women’s fashion. But flats are getting their due on the streets and the runway with more embellishment and detail, belying the common perception of a basic ballet flat.
Stringer’s Buckhead boutique, “FLATZ” is full of variations: embroidered ikat loafers, faux pink snakeskin slippers, bright yellow jelly sandals and leather studded flip-flops. Located in a small shopping plaza among a deli, hair salon and shoe repair shop, FLATZ opened in October to cater to shoppers who don’t want to sacrifice style for comfort. Business is picking up with summer around the corner as shoppers look for comfortable beach sandals or stylish walking shoes for sightseeing vacations.
Her typical customer is in her mid-30s, someone who “knows what works for her and knows what she wants,” she said.
“She’s not competing with anyone, or what’s on TV,” Stringer said. “I appreciate a customer who knows what she wants instead of my having to convince her of what she needs.”
Some might say flats lack the appeal of a sky-high stiletto, but strutting around in comfort can be sexy, too.
“I feel like wearing a pair of flats connotes a sense of low maintenance that men are typically drawn toward,” said Leandra Medine, founder of the popular “Man Repeller” fashion blog that celebrates trends women love and men hate. “Of course, the purported argument against them and pro-heels is related to the sex factor. They’re obviously the more conventionally ‘attractive’ choice.”
The return of a classic
Flats are having a moment as mainstream fashion embraces menswear-inspired looks for women, with wing-tipped oxfords, embroidered loafers and smoking slippers gracing fall 2014 runway shows. Glamour Magazine recently started featuring flats in a #FlatsFriday Instagram post which also invites Instagrammers to share their favorite flats.
On the popular style blog “View From The Topp” Kate O’Brien chronicles her daily outfits, paying tribute to a wide range of flats, from her beloved Birkenstocks and Clio sandals to tasseled loafers and colorful oxfords.
Heels occasionally make an appearance, but “I’m rarely in heels during my day-to-day,” she said.
“I’ll wear heels on occasion but flats are much more me,” said O’Brien, who describes her look as “Parisian Tomboy/Messy Vogue.”
“I like shoes that are comfortable and classic. Of course interesting details and fun colors are always great, but my favorite pairs are ones that I know I will have forever.”
The basic ballet flat has been around for centuries, modeled after the dancer’s ballet slipper as an alternative to the unwieldy heels and chopines of the Renaissance era. Their popularity waxed and waned over the years before French shoemaker Rose Repetto revived production of ballet slippers in the 20th century. French actor Brigitte Bardot is credited with bringing the classic “cendrillon” shoe to the masses after Repetto created it at her request for her to wear it in “…And God Created Women.” American actor Audrey Hepburn is also thought to have contributed to the popularity of ballet flats after wearing them in “Funny Face.”
Women have been complaining about heels for as long as they’ve been wearing them. “We’ll know that feminism has worked when a woman goes up to get a best actress Oscar wearing flat, comfortable shoes,” author Caitlin Moran snarkily noted in her 2012 book, “How to be a Woman.”
“How much more fun we would be having if we could only stop being slaves to the torture stilts we insisted on wearing. We could then stand around and chat and laugh all night like the men … and maybe even do a little bit of business.”
Opting for flats over heels might require a mental shift in women who’ve come to identify themselves by their footwear.
FLATZ shoppers tend to come in because they can no longer wear heels due to foot problems, or because they’re unhappy with their body and want their shoes to be their statement piece, store manager Christina Mitchell said. Often, her job requires “reprogramming” their minds to make them understand that flats can be chic, she said.
“Sometimes, when people think of flats, they say flats are boring,” she said. “But they can have a lot of personality.”
When shopper Tanya Lewis visited the store this week, she was already a convert. Flats are her go-to footwear for work and socializing. Her mother, on the other hand, had just recently come around to them after leaving her job in banking.
“When I was working I wore heels every day. I think you need them in corporate America,” Lewis’ mother said, declining to give her name.
The pair left with a pair of gladiator sandals for Lewis, and loafers and pointed-toe slippers for her mother.
“I’m veering more toward flats with age,” she said.
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