The other day I was prowling around my favourite London shoe shop when a woman at the counter began to wail.
"Christ," she said, staring at a small tower of shoes she had just tried on as the assistant totted up the price. "That is a lot of money."
It was. I once paid less for a second-hand car. There was an awful silence and I looked away. I knew what was coming next. “I’ll take the lot,” she said flatly. “I’ll never find anything like them anywhere else.”
I have seen scenes like this before at Crispins Shoes, an unremarkable looking shop tucked away on a quiet street in the middle of the city.
It never gets mentioned in Vogue. Celebrities do not endorse it. No-one posts anything about it on Instagram. Yet it inspires a level of customer devotion that borders on the bizarre, because it caters to women who suffer from that most infuriating of indignities: big feet.
The last time one regular customer from Belgium came in, she arrived at 10am and left at 12.30pm with 39 pairs of shoes, Crispins' owner, Peiman Merikhy, told me recently.
“One of her feet is a size bigger than the other, so she bought two pairs of each style and left the smaller ones in the store.” Another woman who came in asking for boots started crying when Mr Merikhy brought out a pair that fit her European size 45 feet. “She said she’d never had a pair of boots before,” he reported. “She was just overjoyed.”
I adore stories like this, being a demure 42.5. I am also glad Crispins has lasted 40 years, has customers from Tel Aviv to Toronto and gainfully employs half a dozen people. It is good to know there are several other specialist UK stores scouring the globe to keep huge-hoofed females shod, including two up the road from Crispins. Yet how I wish there was no need for any of them to exist.
If bigger sizes were offered, would stores really be left with piles of unsold clodhoppers?
British feet have grown two sizes since the 1970s, says the College of Podiatry, but you would never know from a trip down the British high street. Like my many big-footed friends – and their daughters – if I am ever lucky enough to find a desirable shoe that fits in a mainstream store, I fall on it like a lion with a baby gazelle. Then I quietly email my sister sufferers to share the tremendous news.
We come from a long line of embarrassment. One size 42 friend says her father never saw her mother’s long feet until their wedding night. Her mum’s mother had warned he would bolt if he spotted them earlier.
The famed are not immune. When Leonardo DiCaprio discovered his feet were the same size as Kate Winslet's when they were filming Titanic, he gleefully dubbed them her "canoes".
The body positive movement may have passed us by, but if there are enough of us to support a minor industry of Crispins-like stores, and if feet, like bodies, are getting bigger, why aren’t there more big shoes?
Are shoe shop assistants lying when they tell me they hear endless pleas for larger shoes from people like me? If bigger sizes were offered, would stores really be left with piles of unsold clodhoppers? Or is this actually a peculiar case of market failure?
I have asked a lot of people in the shoe game about this and here is what I have found. The Society of Shoe Fitters hears a lot of gripes about the dearth of big shoes, as does the British Footwear Association, which passes them on to shoe manufacturers, who mostly do nothing.
Claims that making shoes larger than a UK size 8 can add £5 (€5.60) extra a pair are dubious: it depends on the volumes sold.
Some shoe sellers (LK Bennett) now sell up to at least size 42 and some (Stuart Weitzman) go even larger. But others (Emma Hope) say they see no demand and some (Christian Louboutin, Paul Smith) prefer to say nothing at all.
Finally, although a lot of shoe designers are men and ladylike shoes are still thought more attractive, it is not clear a male-dominated industry is to blame. Risk aversion and tradition may be more likely culprits.
Space prevents me from saying what else I learnt, but it boils down to this. Things are slowly changing, shoes will probably get bigger eventually but, in the meantime, the vast of foot are stuck with what they have always dealt with: sneakers, Doc Martens and corns. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018