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What Happens When The Shoes You Want Are Too Small

How to decide if it's worth fixing before you buy.

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Q: I went to a sample sale this week and found a perfect pair of high-heeled boots from my favorite designer. They were on sale at an amazing discount, but there was one problem: they were one size too small. After too many bad experiences buying small shoes in the past, I decided to leave them behind. I know that shoes can sometimes be broken in or stretched out, but some do it much more than others. How can I know for sure that I will be able to make them fit better?— Erin, New York, NY

There are few things more heartbreaking — in the realm of shopping, that is — than finding a pair of designer shoes you love at a crazy discount, only to realize it's not available in your size. It's not like you can buy them anyway and think the ol', "Oh, I'll just lose 10 pounds and fit into it" thing. There is nothing you can do to change your shoe size — or at least, nothing that isn't crazy. My great-grandmother was a fancy and eccentric Spanish woman who actually had some of the bones in her toes surgically removed so she could have smaller feet. I'm serious. 

But there are less invasive ways to make small shoes work, and you can hedge your bets before you buy. I spoke to David Mesquita, owner of The Leather Spa, a luxury accessory repair and care shop in New York City that stretches shoes regularly, who says it all depends on the construction of the shoe. "Leather and suede stretch very well," he says. "Patent leather does not. Not nothing, it will give a little bit." But by a little bit, he means maybe a quarter of a shoe size — a matter of millimeters. 

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Also, don't forget to check the inside of the shoe. "In any type of construction, you have your outer layer which is usually leather and your lining on the inside. Some companies use leather inside, which of course can give a little bit. Some companies use PU [plastic often used as fake leather] and that stuff doesn't stretch at all, which limits how much we can stretch the item." Mesquita says satin or fabric linings will rip when stretched, but if it's part of the calf of a tall boot (one of the most popular places clients ask for stretching), he can solve it by gluing the lining down afterwards. 

Another place to look when determining if a shoe will stretch is the sole. If the sole has a plastic lip that extends over the toe of the shoe, it's going to impede any stretching regardless of the fabric. And because leather stretches with water, a heavy duty water resistant work boot will be harder to change. "When in the '90s everyone was wearing Timberland boots, we were stretching them like crazy, just not as successfully as on a nice pair of leather men's dress shoes. Length wise we could get about 1/4 of a size. Maybe almost half a size."

Mesquita says stilettos are a whole other challenge. "On a high heel, you can only stretch the width. But whenever you make something wider, it may give you a little bit more length on the shoe because you can slide your foot in more." But beware of widening shoes that have a very narrow design, even flat ones. It will look more different than you might expect. "You can't retain that original shape if you need it bigger," he says. 

If you are on the fence about taking them to a specialist, try some at-home tactics first. Spray the inside and outside with a stretching solution and wear the shoes as they dry, preferably with thick socks. If you've considered filling a plastic bag with water, inserting it into the shoe and putting it in the freezer (a hilarious suggestion online), Mesquita strongly discourages that tip. "If you put too much water you can rip the shoe. Even if I got a $1000 pair of shoes for half the price, its still a waste of money." The bottom line is the higher the quality of the shoe and its fabric, the easier it will be to stretch. Before you buy something that doesn't fit, be observant and ask questions about materials — it will make all the difference between the pair becoming a closet castaway and the perfect fit.