NEW YORK — You can leave those blinding white sneakers out of your summer vacation suitcase: Comfortable walking shoes are a fashion dilemma no more.
Not only is it possible to find shoes that are both stylish and wearable, it's probable. Shoe designers, manufacturers and retailers are paying a lot of attention to the burgeoning category of "ath-leisure" — the industry code word for what most people would call weekend shoes.
They're definitely not sneakers, says Catherine Beaudoin of Gap Inc.'s online shoe store Piperlime, but they incorporate a lot of what sneakers have to offer, including arch support, soft materials and rubber outsoles.
What's different are the styles. Shoes from the likes of Privo, Crocs and Aerosoles started off as "comfort shoes" but have moved toward fashion. On the flip side, upscale brands Cole Haan and Stuart Weitzman have paid more attention to making their fashionable shoes comfortable. Taryn Rose, sold at high-end department stores, was founded by an orthopedic surgeon determined to marry form and function.
"Everyone is moving to the center," says Beaudoin, who personally favors Privo's Hop shoe, a breathable, lightweight mesh ballet slipper.
Another staple of her suitcase is the foldable leopard-print Brad shoe by Bernardo because it's great to match all the neutral clothes that she likes to pack.
"I've been in the business 15 years, and in the '90s, 'comfort shoes' was a euphemism for matronly orthopedic shoes. No one under 80 would be caught dead wearing them," says John Kuehl, women's product merchandizer for Shoemall.com, "but the sneaker generation wants to look nice and get the comfort they enjoyed wearing sneakers.
"You have to marry athletic shoes with dress shoes and other stylish shoes to attract this discerning audience."
According to market researcher The NPD Group, fashion-focused comfort shoes, along with low-performance athletic and skateboard shoes, posted the highest growth rates last year in the $44-million domestic footwear market.
Kuehl says the turning point was the introduction of memory foam to the mass market about a decade ago. The long-lasting cushioning is typically used under the sock lining or insole of shoes, and it should spring back to its original shape after each use, he explains.
Next came extensive use of goring under buckles and other parts of the shoe for flexibility.
Meanwhile, Naturalizer has added multiple layers of cushioning and padding at the ball of the foot — the part that bears weight, Kuehl says, while H.H. Brown Footwear launched a brand called Sofft, which emphasizes a broad range of extra sizes and widths for those with narrow or wide feet.
Kuehl says that shoes made from a natural fiber upper, such as leather, are the traditional go-to shoe because it will absorb moisture close to the foot and it's soft enough to form to the foot over time.
Geox has made huge inroads into the market in just 13 years, largely because of its patented breathable construction. The rubber sole has a perforated membrane with holes large enough for water vapor from the foot to escape but small enough so that any water droplets on the ground can't get in, says company founder and chairman Mario Moretti Polegato.
"Rubber was the cause of the perspiration problem in many comfortable shoes," Polegato says. "When you use rubber, it's comfortable when you walk and there's no slipping, but you don't want smelly feet."
At Cole Haan, the emphasis is on padding. The brand began using its parent company's Nike Air Technology in 2000, aiming to further the goal of creating a comfortable high heel.
"You will probably wear a high heel for a more limited time than a flat, but you should be able to wear it for an hour without complaining it hurts," says design director Paul Overfield. "The construction and the arch are extremely important; millimeters can make a huge difference. You can't see that difference, but you can feel the difference."
Noting that even Crocs is in the heel game now with its You by Crocs, Beaudoin says after years of flats being the "it shoe," women are indeed returning to higher heels.
That said, women aren't ever going to wear heels all the time. "The flat continues and it will always continue," she says. "Comfort is here to stay."