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How One Designer Navigates Luxury Footwear’s Shift From Artisan to Athleisure: On Brand

Ritch Erani’s enduring vision of New York is one where Carrie Bradshaw struts down an Upper East Side street in the season’s most coveted Manolos, arms weighed down by shopping bags as she struggles to hail a cab.

The veteran shoe designer and longtime owner of Chuckies—a neighborhood haven for fashion addicts—developed a taste for luxury footwear at age 16, agreeing to ditch high school and open up shop with his business-minded brother, Chuck, in 1980.

Though the duo’s first storefront was in Brooklyn, Erani quickly made it his mission to become the czar of Manhattan’s luxury footwear scene, planting a flag on Lexington Ave. at the height of ‘80s decadence.

Erani describes Chuckies as a “high-fashion treasure chest for those lucky enough to find it.” His fortunate clientele has included fashion icons like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez.

Now, the shop owner and longtime standard bearer for the city’s most decadently dressed is grappling with the realities of a new era, marked by the inescapability of e-commerce.

The store sprung to life at a time when designers didn’t have their own flagships, Erani said, and it was up to enthusiasts like himself to curate the catwalk’s latest trends for flesh-and-blood patrons.

“I’ve been in this business for so long, I was carrying collections before brands even had their own stores,” he said, citing Dolce and Gabbana, Miu Miu and Sergio Rossi as some of the era’s visionary labels.

Now, the internet has changed the game. Gone are the days of waiting with bated breath on the next limited edition collection, Erani lamented. Consumers can find nearly everything they’ve ever wanted with a few quick clicks or swipes.

In a retail climate where competition is stiff and luxury resale sites like The RealReal are on the rise, even loyal customers are price shopping online.

During his store’s golden era, Erani would reach out to regulars to let them know when a new shipment of shoes had arrived. But his role as the Upper East Side’s trusted stylist has eroded with the rise of hundreds of new channels for browsing and buying.

The unlimited access and options provided by e-commerce have changed retail for good, Erani said—and the shift has also changed the way that trends are formed.

“There’s a loss of appreciation for what’s being done on the runways,” he said, referring to haute couture creations that blend art with function, in often unequal measure. “Unfortunately, those styles never really trickle down to the customer anymore.”

The industry at large now looks to other sources, like social media and influencers, for clues about what consumers want. The constant cycling of content has given rise to a fashion landscape where trends are fast moving and innumerable.

“There’s an overabundance of everything,” Erani said. Shoppers are practically pelted with options, and sensory overload has given way to a craving for simplicity.

A cultural focus on health and wellness has also solidified over the past decade. Savvy shoppers now look sideways at the sky-high stilettos that once defined a generation of fashionistas.

“We’re in a world now where people want to wear the same shoe in many different ways, and the expectations for comfort are much higher.”

The most important factors driving purchases in his store are price, practicality and versatility, Erani said. Customers are looking for styles that fill the real voids in their closets—favorites, not fads.

“They want hearty, bread and butter shoes that will take them a long way—not something that’s fleeting,” he added.

Erani still relishes a delivery from Paris or Milan, and gushes over the undeniable artistry of designer footwear. But he’s come to understand that even the most beautiful shoes will languish on store shelves if consumers can’t reasonably fit them into their day-to-day lives.

“’Everyone has been talking about versatility and wanting to wear their shoes here and there, and it’s become a running joke,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Can I wear it to a wedding? Can I wear it skiing down the slopes? Can I wear it roller skating?’”

Still, access to a built-in focus group of store customers has given him invaluable perspective as a designer. Erani has built his own line, Ritch Erani NYFC, as a focused study in whimsical, yet wearable, silhouettes.

Ritch Erani NYFC's Capri sandal.

Ritch Erani NYFC’s Capri sandal.

“Multifunctional was what I was trying to do in listening to customers. The world may not need another shoe designer—but I have a store and an audience, and I know what they want,” he said.

Erani has latched onto PVC as his blank canvas of choice, and the “crystal heel” has become his calling card. Handcrafted in Spain, the nearly-invisible heels and straps grace most every style in the range, creating an illusion of nakedness that is punctuated by both soft, subtle leather details and a few more daring elements.

“You can wear them from day to night. I stick by the look because it’s hasn’t been done in this way,” he said.

Many of the line’s heels are available in up to three different heights to suit a customer’s individual preference, and some feature removable and interchangeable ankle straps. Being able to shake up a look with that simple addition or subtraction makes shoppers feel like they’ve bought more than one pair of shoes, he said.

Erani eschews severe shapes and pointed toes, instead favoring rounded curves and block heels, which he views as timeless. And within his collection, there’s not a stiletto in sight.

“No matter how much of a trend something is, whether it’s in every collection in Paris or featured in Vogue, I’m not a fan of extreme shapes,” he said. “The climate that we’re living in is not ostentatious. People want luxury, but understated.”

When he puts the finishing touches on any design, Erani brings out a heavy editing hand, mercilessly cutting out superfluous features.

“Before I submit something, I look at it again and again,” he said. “And I usually end up taking things away from the design.”

The process of removal is cathartic, and it’s also a way to make his products more salable. The more bells and whistles on a shoe, the fewer occasions for wear, he explained.

The collection’s simplest styles have indeed ended up being its biggest statement makers. Beyonce was spotted wearing a pair of the designer’s completely clear Clara sandals on a yacht in Cannes, looking like a beachside Cinderella in modern glass slippers.

While Erani’s approach to materials is decidedly modern, one can sense his nostalgia for a bygone era through the silhouettes he chooses. The line’s cap-toe Mary Janes and heeled loafers could have been swiped straight from the wardrobe of Cher Horowitz, circa 1995.

Recently, Erani was tapped by Sony Pictures to breathe new life into another ‘90s cult classic: Cruel Intentions. When asked if he would design a capsule collection based on the personalities of each of the melodrama’s female leads, he told the studio, “Of course I’d be interested, those were the good old days.”

Styles from Ritch Erani NYFC's Cruel Intentions capsule.

Styles from Ritch Erani NYFC’s Cruel Intentions capsule.

Sticking with his signature crystal heels and PVC straps, Erani created three silhouettes named for the film’s iconic characters: Reese Witherspoon’s Annette, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Kathryn and Selma Blair’s Cecile. Ranging from schoolgirl-chic to dominatrix-light, the limited-edition line sold out quickly.

The capsule’s success was heartening for Erani, who has watched luxury’s shift, in recent years, from artisan to athleisure. Designers are still so focused on sneakers, he said, that they’ve begun to dominate even stores like Chuckies.

“I think it will swing back, but we may have to wait for a newer generation,” Erani said of the appetite for true fashion footwear. “People in their forties who have shifted will not be going back to trendy heels when they get older, but the younger women will come around.”

Recapturing that interest could take a true cultural awakening of Sex and the City proportions, however.

“I don’t know if it’s going to take another movie or another series that brings back the big, blockbuster glamour to the fashion business,” he said. With so many influences muddying the waters, mining era-defining trends seems a tall order for the modern designer.

“The key for me is keeping my eyes on my own paper and not looking around,” he said. “Because  when I do, I get discouraged.”

“I might think, ‘The world doesn’t need another shoe,’” he added. “But I stay focused on myself and I create a very small capsule of styles that are both multifunctional and different.”

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