Friday, October 5, 2007

Foot forward

04 Oct 2007, ST, Urban

Singaporeans are embracing the era of the cult sandal and putting comfort before fashion. Even premium prices aren't getting in their way, finds NOELLE LOH

Singapore has racked up many lofty achievements over the years in terms of infrastructure and economics, but Urban can reveal a little-known, down-to-earth area in which the Republic has put its best foot forward too: cult sandals.

For when it comes to wearing sandals - humble, open-toe footwear that has graced Man's feet since prehistoric times - Singapore has a track record to be proud of.

For example, hark back to the colonial-era 1930s and migrant Samsui women who, in trademark blue tunic suits and red headdresses, toiled under the hot sun.

What was on their feet? Why, strappy soles that they fashioned (rather creatively, actually) out of the rubber of old tyres.

They may not have been pretty, but they were a triumph of function over form.

Later in 1972, sandals again made their mark - this time in the form of Peranakan-inspired beaded slip-ons that completed the Singapore Girl look. Now, those were pretty.

Today, both men and women have made sandals - whatever the style - a staple in their wardrobe, wearing them on adventure trails, at the beach and even at clubs.

Sandals may have once been humble footwear, but prices these days can be anything but.

Sure, you can still buy basic slippers and sandals at the neighbourhood market for under $5. But to step out in sandals that combine comfort and that 'cool' factor, be prepared to pay anything from $26.90 to $589.

Take the ones at outdoor specialist store Camper's Corner at Capitol Building, which sells criss-cross laced, polyeurathane sports sandals under the Colorado-based Chaco brand.

The sandals are said to offer a middle-arch support like none other, thanks to 'BioCentric' footbed technology, and a flip-flop leisure version costs at least $78.

A pair in its premium performance series, the ZX2 Unaweep, costs $187.

Despite the steep prices, sales are good, says Calvin Tay, owner of Camper's Corner.

'The market for Chaco sandals has been growing steadily since we started bringing them in about 12 years ago,' he says. 'People are beginning to appreciate the importance of the appropriate fitting and support when it comes to shoes.'

While he declines to reveal exact sales figures, he says the record number of Chaco shoes that one customer owns is 25.

Functional and fancy-priced sandals can also be found at German footwear company Birkenstock, whose cult status is apparent from the mass of imitation designs in the market.

Love 'em or hate 'em, Birkenstocks are known for their chunky soles and straps with fashionable prints and cost an average of $110 a pair.

Geraldine Lee, brand director of Birkenstock in Singapore, says the main appeal of the cork-soled sandals lies in their anatomically designed, contoured footbed that ensures comfort.

'There is nothing quite like a Birkenstock that combines comfort and quality in a wide choice of styles,' she says of the sandals.

The other clompy sandals that have gained a cult following are, of course, Crocs. When Crocs first appeared in 2002, the brightly coloured lightweight plastic shoes with holes were ridiculed by the fashion world.

But the United States-based makers used that positively, coming up with the marketing tagline 'Ugly can be beautiful'.

'The beautiful aspect of Crocs shoes is that they are soft, comfortable, lightweight, non-marking and odour resistant,' says John McCarvel, managing director of Crocs Asia.

British actor Ian McKellen seems to endorse this, having been seen almost everywhere - from last year's London premiere of the movie The Queen to his recent interview on Channel NewsAsia - in a fire engine-red pair.

Equally unconventional is the design of new British strapless flip-flops Dopie.

You heard right - these rubber sandals, which were launched in Europe in April, have no straps.

Instead, the brightly coloured thongs feature a rounded slot for the toe cleavage, though Dopie newbies can hook on a detachable strap to get used to walking in them.

'Customers tend to be design and fashion enthusiasts who are a bit ahead of the curve in terms of cultural trends,' says a spokesman for Spin the Bottle, Dopie's first official retailer in Singapore.

Corporate banker Valerie Loh, 24, says she doesn't think most cult sandals on the market look very nice and are, for most people, a temporary fashion statement.

'I own three pairs of Birkenstock sandals, but that's because they really are very comfortable,' she says. 'I don't think they are very fashionable and would never be caught wearing them to an event.'

However weird-looking or expensive, there is no denying the star appeal of cult sandals. Urban walks readers through five of the most popular brands.


What originated as orthopaedic footwear used solely for podiatric care has developed into must-have footwear for generations of flower children and fashion followers.

Geraldine Lee, brand director of Birkenstock in Singapore, says the key draw of the cork and rubber-based sandals is their comfort - thanks to a signature anatomically designed, contoured footbed.

In 2003, the brand upped its street cred even further when it collaborated with supermodel Heidi Klum to come up with a more luxurious range embellished with stones, studs and chains.

Celebrity fans include British chef Jamie Oliver, actress Naomi Watts and Singapore MTV VJ Denise Keller.

This pair (right) is from Papillio, which is an official Birkenstock licensee.

$79 for kids' shoes to $589 for a pair by Heidi Klum, from World of Sports, Wisma Atria Isetan Level 4 and all authorised Birkenstock retailers, tel: 6835-2702

These Grecian-style sandals with their signature adjustable criss-cross straps are said to provide maximum comfort and foot support.

You can recognise a hard-core fan from the Z-shaped tan lines on his feet.

Once favoured only by instructors from the local Outward Bound School, the sandals are gaining popularity among both men and women as streetwear, says Calvin Tay, owner of retailer Camper's Corner.

A new batch in seven colours arrives at the store every alternate month, he adds.

Its bestseller is the ZX2 Unaweep from the brand's top performance series.

$78 for a pair of Flipsides, Chaco's range of leisure flip-flops, to $187 for a performance pair, from Camper's Corner, 01-13 Capitol Building, tel: 6337-4743

Despite being called 'goofy' by The Washington Post and 'hideous' by pop culture magazine Radar, Crocs have gained a strong following. Fans include Hollywood stars like Matt Damon, Jennifer Garner and Heather Locklear.

The sandals, known for their signature Swiss cheese-like hole-ridden surface, even made their appearance on hit television series Grey's Anatomy.

The secret of their appeal is their softness and comfort. The use of the material Croslite, a proprietary closed-cell resin, means the shoes are lightweight, non-marking and odour resistant, says Crocs Asia managing director John McCarvel.

The bestsellers in Singapore are the original Beach design in khaki and chocolate, and women's model Sassari in monochrome.

$48.10 for the Prima range, which look like ballet slippers, to $85.60 for the Islander range, a leather version of the Beach design, from Check, 04-23/24 The Heeren, and all authorised Crocs dealers, tel: 6755-2236

The newest kid on the block, these strapless sandals from Britain feature a rounded slot for toes. The result is that you can frolic in the sun without worrying about getting tan lines on your feet.

Its makers assure customers that the sandals' soft moulded rubber means Dopies won't slide off. But, for practice when you start wearing them, a detachable strap comes with each pair.

A spokesman for Spin the Bottle, the first official retailer of Dopie in Singapore, calls the slippers 'stylish and fashion forward'. Customers are usually from the fashion or design industries.

While no celebrities have yet to be seen in a pair, the spokesman says Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett are fans of Terra Plana, Dopie's manufacturers.

'It'll only be a matter of time before they start showing up on celebrities' feet,' he says.

$59.90 per pair, from 01-02 The Cathay, tel: 9150-2297

First brought into Singapore by lifestyle brand (NUM) four years ago, these Brazilian slippers are made of a special rubber formula that gives them a 'butter-soft' feel.

What makes Havaianas different from the average pair of rubber slippers from the market is their quality, non-slip sole and the wide range of styles and colours that they come in, says Chua Shenzi, director of NUM.

'Some customers boast wearing their pair of Havaianas for three years or longer,' Chua says.

Since debuting outside Brazil six years ago, the premium brand of flip-flops has gained something of an iconic status, showing up on the feet of celebrities on the red carpet and featuring as a sponsor of the recent Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week.

According to Chua, hot favourites among local customers are Havaianas in gold, silver and bronze.

$26.90 for the basic range to $49.90 for the premium range, from, B1-11/17 CityLink Mall, tel: 6884-4253

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