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Designer Shoes Get Their Red Carpet Moment

It's not just ready-to-wear designers capitalizing on celebrity placements.

Uma Thurman's lavender Prada dress, worn to the 1995 Oscars, marked the unofficial start of the celebrity red carpet as we know it. But do you remember what shoes she wore?

Flash forward nearly two decades, and Thurman's shoes -- no matter what kind of carpet she's photographed on -- are certainly accounted for. Indeed, what the star is wearing on her feet has become as important as her dress and jewels. And the red carpet may be driving the shoe business further than those other two combined.

Where It All Began

The rules of red carpet dressing are well documented. Typically, a designer will loan a dress to an actress, who will wear it to an event and return it afterward. Occasionally, a designer will make a one-of-a-kind dress for an actress. (Usually for the Oscars or the Met Ball.) But even under these circumstances, the star usually still has to return it so that it can be added to the brand's archives. There is quite a bit of talk about "pay to play" -- as in, designers paying actresses to wear their wares -- but in reality, this doesn't happen very often, unless an actress has signed a public deal to be a brand spokesperson. Jennifer Lawrence stars in Dior's ad campaigns and wears Raf Simons's dresses on the red carpet. Michelle Williams, who appeared in Louis Vuitton's latest handbag campaign, has been wearing Nicolas Ghesquière's first creations for Louis Vuitton.  Kristen Stewart is wearing more Chanel on the red carpet now that she's featured in ads for Karl Lagerfeld's Texas-inspired collection

There are exceptions to this. According to our sources, a certain set of Los Angeles stylists are known for taking money from brands in the guise of "consulting." A stylist being paid as a consultant by a brand will push product on her clients. "Shady people get paid on the side to push certain things," says one expert. "It's the least talked about part of the industry."

But those "shady" stylists are often lower on the totem pole than most, and soon enough they gain a bad reputation. The place where a ton of money does get exchanged is in diamonds. An actress could earn six figures for wearing a certain jewelry brand on the red carpet. And if she doesn't get paid in cash, she gets paid in jewelry. "I'd say that at least 85 percent of jewelry at a major awards show is pay to play," according to one source. 

What About Shoes?

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So where does that leave her feet? In the late '90s, Jimmy Choo was one of the first high-end shoe brands to host a designer "suite," outfitting stars pre-Oscars with shoes dyed to match their dresses. But it wasn't until Sex and the City and Carrie Bradshaw's fetishization of Manolo Blahniks that upscale shoe designers started becoming household names. Suddenly, readers of celebrity weeklies wanted to know who was wearing Manolos. And Christian Louboutins, too. "I don't think it became a thing until people started examining pictures on the Internet," says Sasha Charnin Morrison, Us Weekly's fashion director. "I call it CSI 7th Avenue. People are obsessed with knowing every single [outfit] detail about celebrities they want to emulate." 

And thanks to publications like Us Weekly, as well as websites like Red Carpet Fashion Awards, Who What Wear,  and the user-generated OutfitID, it's easier than ever to know who wore what. 

How to Capitalize

Sure, shoe designers face a constant challenge: gowns cover heels. But as paparazzi photos and daytime events have increased, the opportunities have increased. And unlike designer clothes -- which are often made custom, or cost a prohibitive amount of money -- shoes are typically available to buy. Of course, one pair can run more than $1,000, but they're much more accessible than a five-digit gown. "And they're not discriminatory," says Charnin Morrison. "They fit everyone." A photo of a pair of shoes in Us Weekly could easily -- and has -- moved upward of 500 units. 

Over the years, shoe designers have come up with more interesting ways to get their shoes on celebrities. "Our most successful ploy was the creation of the Million Dollar Sandal," says shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who, since 2002, has been creating a pair of diamond-encrusted shoes for an Oscar nominee to wear to the ceremony.  (That first year it was Mulholland Drive actress and nominee Laura Harring, who wore a pair of sandals dotted with 464 diamonds.)  "It forced the media to pay attention." Since then, Weitzman's shoes -- most of which cost under $400 a pair -- have appeared on red carpet after red carpet. While he will make custom shoes for his celebrity subjects, most tend to favor the standard-issue version. Lately, the designer's Nudist sandal is everywhere. (Since January, I've received 26 press alerts about celebrities from Emma Watson to Diane Kruger wearing the Nudist.) "We definitely get our fair share of the media attention," Weitzman says.

While designer shoe brands offer free shoes to both celebrities and stylists, there is one thing they haven't had to do: pony up. "I have never heard of shoe designers paying a celeb to wear their shit," said one well-placed source. "Most celebs choose shoe brands they find comfortable to their foot and [that] look good."

Other than figuring out ways for that pump to peek out from under that gown, shoe designers do face one problem that makers of $10,000 gowns and $100,000 rarely experience: the wrong celebrities wearing your things. Indeed, shoe designers might be spending more time over the next decade trying to get their styles off certain actresses feet, not on them. 

Above: Emma Watson wears Stuart Weitzman's popular "Nudist" sandal. Photo: Getty