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Sunday, May 18, 2003

A Fashion Flip(Flop)

By Leanne Potts
Of the Journal
    "I blew out my flip-flop/ stepped on a pop-top ... " You know the rest of this song, of course Jimmy Buffett's 1977 chestnut "Margaritaville," which tells of a mood-disordered alcoholic who has lost his way in life and now lazes seaside in plastic shoes probably purchased at a convenience store.
    The shoes are the telling detail, proof that the song's protagonist has slipped from stability into a downward spiral of apathy and self-abnegation. This guy is so defeated he doesn't even bother to get dressed anymore; he just sits around with booze in the blender and crappy shoes on his feet.
    Flip-flops have long been the official footwear of the disaffected, a sort of sack cloth for the tootsies. Wearing them says you are more concerned with feeling good than looking good, that you aren't even in the mood to be attractive, damn it.
    Which is why news that the fashion world has gotten its manicured hands on the lowly flip-flop is so stunning.
    Yes, fashion has co-opted the flip-flop.
    Did you ever think you would see the words "fashion" and "flip-flop" in the same sentence?
    Me neither.
    Yet in boutiques and on fashion Web sites across the nation, designers are slapping their logo on the onomatopoetically named flip-flops, tagging them with the more upscale-sounding name "thong" and selling them at prices that would buy Buffett's beach bum a season's worth of tequila.
    Burberry has a flip-flop with its trademark plaid encased in a clear plastic footbed. Price: $85. Pucci is making a terry-cloth flip-flop with its trademark psychedelic print. Price: $170.
    Helmut Lang has a rubber flip-flop virtually indistinguishable from the ones you can get at beachside T-shirt shops. Price: $125. And a little design house called Sigerson Morrison has slapped a kitten heel on a rubber flip flop and is selling it for $85 a pop.
    Here's how affected the flop has become: Hollywood fashion princess Gwyneth Paltrow was photographed in a pair of flip-flops and not by paparazzi.
    Something deeply nutty is going on here.
    Fashion experts explain the flip-flop phenomena thusly: Months and months of bad news and uncertainty has turned us into a nation of depressed slobs.
    "The economic bad news is driving this," says Sharon Haver, editor of New York-based focusonstyle.com. "People don't know what is going to happen next in the world and they're looking for comfort. Flip-flops are comfort shoes, the mashed potatoes of fashion."
    A plausible theory, but paying $150 for plastic shoes is about as comforting as the bill for your maxed-out credit card. If you're worried you might get laid off, do you really want to wear Gucci flip-flops to the unemployment office?
    Yes, you do, say those who have their fingers on the pulse of the under-30 set who have made flip-flops trendy. "With their attitude of a great future and bull-market upbringing ... this generation's appetite for brands is unwavering," says Greg Casto, assistant account executive with Loren/Allan/Odioso, a Cincinnati marketing firm that focuses on selling to Generation Y.
    Kids of the '90s economic boom want to wear aggressively unfashionable shoes, Casto says, but they want them to have designer logos on them. They want to slum.
    To meet the hunger for upscale downscale, designers have turned out versions of other erstwhile cheap shoes. Chanel is making a $150 shoe that looks a whole lot like the classic wood-soled Dr. Scholls sandal ($9 at drugstores in the 1970s) and Michael Kors has a $40 jelly shoe.
    The proper attire to wear with slumming shoes: suits, skirts or any other outfit that looks obviously ludicrous when paired with rubber shoes. "One girl in our office wore a darling, obviously expensive black suit ... with pink flip-flops," says Karla Neely, who works at a Dallas public relations agency.
    It's anti-fashion as fashion. The key to flip-flop chic is an insouciant understanding that, for women over 30, i.e., your mother, wearing flip-flops to the office is the equivalent of coming to work with your hair in curlers.
    "It says 'I am so cool I can wear this cheap-looking shoe and still look good,' '' Haver says.
    Flip-flop chic also fits into a history of flat shoes being popular in economic downtimes, says Gina Pia Cooper, editor of the online magazine FashionFinds.com. The last time flats were in style was during the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cooper says.
    "When the economy is flat and the mood is flat, women don't feel like they don't want to wear high heels," she says. "Instead of putting forth a too-high-fashiony look, flat shoes are a compromise."
    Naturally, there are knockoff flip-flops that sell for far less than the designer models. Which is weird, because the designers were copying cheap flip-flops when they made their pricey versions.
    For those who have too little money (or too much sense) to pay designer prices but want to get in on flip-flop chic, there are flops in the $12 to $40 range that have been dolled up with sequins, plastic fruit and beading.
    For those who are feeling flip-floppy but not flat, there are an array of platform flip-flops out there, too.
    For those with ultimate confidence, there are still flip-flops available in under-$5 range. Walgreen's and Smith's are selling the good old $2.99 models that will enable you to look authentically poor.
    Cooper, who must be the planet's most heretical fashion writer, says cheap flops are the way to go.
    "There are idiot fashion victims out there who will buy (a $125 flip-flop) because it has 'Helmut Lang' on it," she says. "Don't be ridiculous. Get a glue gun and stick some sequins or something on a pair of flip flops from Target. It's cooler to be creative and save money than to spend money on a name."