The Shoes That Shaped The Year

1st January 2021


We look into the shoes that mattered the most in 2020 and lift our virtual hats to the designers and brands who used their platforms and shoe collections as a force for good.

aurora james September vogue cover
Brother Vellies designer Aurora James painted by Jordan Casteel on the September issue of Vogue.

2020 was the year challenges stopped being purely personal and became collective: We faced the biggest health crisis of our generation together, mourned the loss of our old lives, felt a collective outrage at the news of George Floyd’s murder, and opened up about mental health. 

In the middle of such turmoil, fashion struggled to find its place at times. Is there even a point to talking about our soft spot for shoes anymore? The easy answer would be a no, yet throughout the trials and tribulations of 2020, there has been an array of creatives who came through and showed the uplifting nature of good design and more importantly, the power of a fashion community in raising issues and making change happen. 

Footwear designer and Brother Vellies brand founder Aurora James is perhaps the most shining example: Throughout the pandemic she continued supporting the local African communities producing her shoes by pivoting her offer to also include at-home essentials like socks, handmade mugs and combs; she campaigned ahead of the U.S. presidential elections and created a pair of ‘We all Vote’ sneakers with Keds to educate her audience about their right to vote; and launched the 15 percent pledge to hold retailers accountable about the amount of Black-owned businesses they buy into. 

“So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power. So many of your stores are set up in Black communities. So many of your sponsored posts are seen on Black feeds. This is the least you can do for us. We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space,” she wrote as part of her manifesto. 

Since then major companies like Bloomingdales, Sephora, Macy’s and American Vogue have taken on her pledge, and her efforts have been recognized with a Fashion Award by the British Fashion Council and a front cover on the September issue of Vogue. Her lesson of 2020? That while change won’t happen overnight, “listening is the tool to bridge our great divide [and] when the dreamers activate pushers, movements can happen.”

Other fellow shoe designers like Sophia Webster and Amina Muaddi have also been following on James’ footsteps and using their platforms to raise awareness about fashion’s racism issues. Webster for one, committed to donating 19 percent of her online profits every June 19th – the American holiday that recognizes the liberation of slaves in 1865 – and to use the day as a market to check on her company’s diversity progress. 

Muaddi, who has Romanian and Jordanian heritage, responded to the social justice movement with a fall 2020 campaign that exclusively spotlighted Brown talent like herself, including photographer Mous Lamrabat.

Another applause-worthy brand in the shoe arena has been Sergio Rossi who immediately responded to the Covid outbreak in Italy, one of the first European countries to be hit the virus, with a “Shoes Make a Difference” campaign that saw the full proceeds of its online sales go to Covid relief funds, throughout the duration of the campaign. The brand also made a donation of 100,000 euros to a Milanese hospital, in a bid to send a message of “humanity” and “brotherhood.” 

sergio rossi shoes
Sergio Rossi’s online campaign “Shoes Make a Difference” raised funds for Cover relief in Italy.

There were also those like Manolo Blahnik, who offered moments of light relief and a creative outlet for children and adults alike, by making the designer’s famous shoe sketches available to download and colour in the support of England’s Mental Health Foundation.

Some others focused their time and efforts in sustainable material innovation and made significant progress – so much so, that in 2020 we saw shoes that were sexy, fashion-forward and sustainable for the first time. Thanks to designers like Alexandre Birman, Alfredo Piferi and Nicholas Kirkwood, sustainable shoes are no longer reserved to vegan leather sneakers or linen espadrilles, but they now also include stilettos or embellished pumps that blend style with ethics. 

Piferi for example, creates modernist, curved heels using vegan leather and matching lurex socks made up of upcycled materials; while Kirkwood has been working towards creating the first biodegradable shoe in the world and making great progress by switching to eco-friendly glue, wooden heels and organic materials like wool and nappa leather. 

In a whirlwind of a year, the shoe community has clearly shown how it can come through and offer a lot more than really good shoes. There’s clearly also a new wave of leaders, from Aurora James leading the social justice fight to designers like Kirkwood or Piferi helping make the industry less harmful to the planet. And the good news is that they’re all just getting started. 

manolo blahnik sketch
Manolo Blahnik sketches raised funds for England’s Mental Health Foundation. Image courtesy of the brand.
piferi sandals
New brand Piferi launched all vegan, designer shoes. Image courtesy if the brand.

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