A Really Big Shoe

Colorado's Croc craze is conquering the world. But does it have legs?

"I think they should branch out into hats, shaped to fit your head," the Shoe Goddess says. "Like the one in F Troop that folds back. You'd have to pay extra for one without holes."

I sigh. "The emperor has no shoes," I say.

She tries to be consoling. "You could water-ski on them," she says. "They're big. And they float."

Anthony Camera
Footloose: Pedestrian Shops owner Richard Polk has 
sold boatloads of Crocs to kids, seniors and celebs -- 
and their relatives.
Anthony Camera
Footloose: Pedestrian Shops owner Richard Polk has sold boatloads of Crocs to kids, seniors and celebs -- and their relatives.

They do. Crocs recently donated 15,000 pairs of its shoes to Hurricane Katrina victims. They might prove quite useful by the weakened levees of New Orleans.

"If they were really smart," she continues, "they'd put sports insignia on them. You could buy a pair with a Broncos emblem on the strap button. Can you imagine the powerful sell that would be?"

She's remarkably upbeat, given that her own quest for Crocs has been thwarted. Or maybe she's just relieved that I'm the one who got stuck trying out a pair, not her. This gets me wondering what these soft slabs will do to my lower extremities over time. Will they mold to my feet, as the company claims, or will my feet expand to fit the shoe, turning into giant, club-shaped flippers?

I call up Thomas Shonka, a podiatrist who works with top athletes in Boulder and is a past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. I don't know quite how to express my flipper concerns, so I start out asking him what he thinks about Crocs.

"I'm wearing a pair right now," he says. "The surgical clogs that have been in use for years tend to have a stiffer midsole and a little bit sturdier construction. But I use these in my home for the hardwood floors we have."

Shonka hastens to add that he's more comfortable talking about "clog-type shoes" in general, since he doesn't want to appear to be endorsing or dissing a particular brand. He knows athletes who have "a shopping bag of orthotics" and sometimes slip on a clog-type shoe (such as Crocs) for some relief. Obviously, clog-type shoes (Crocs, for example) aren't appropriate for serious running, hiking, climbing or other vigorous exercise, but they can be a welcome change from more heavily structured shoes, and he's unaware of any rash of injuries as a result of the trend toward more casual footwear (e.g., Crocs).

"But," he adds, "there's no data from assessment of this type of shoe, whether it's beneficial or detrimental. In the days of Earth Shoes, there was a proportional increase in the number of spontaneous Achilles tendon ruptures because of the negative-heel concept."

The Earth Shoe hucksters made a number of claims about the "natural" benefits of a negative heel. These days, Shonka is less concerned about ultra-casual clogs (Crocs) than he is about a similar trend in the athletic-shoe industry -- the push toward flimsier shoes that are supposed to give you a more natural running experience.

"This trend to go to a minimalist construction -- a minimal sole, back to nature -- I don't know where that's going," Shonka says. "I would not be recommending that to runners unless I see data that supports its use. It just goes against 25 years of experience with running injuries."

As for clog-type shoes -- including, yes, Crocs -- it appears that some foot types require more stability than an extruded shell of proprietary closed-cell resin can offer. "The majority of the population would be comfortable in a shoe like this at given times," Shonka says carefully. "But it's not a shoe for everyone. Parents shouldn't let their kids play sports in Crocs, and there are many people who have a variety of foot pathologies who wouldn't be candidates for a shoe like this."

I knew it. My problem with Crocs isn't just a case of mismatched temperaments. It's pathological.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali is on the Food Network's Iron Chef America, whipping up something that looks like a pizza-dough-and-butter sandwich. Sweating mightily over his ingredients, with unruly hair pulled back in a ponytail and a stubble of beard the color of diced carrots, Batali is the quintessence of active casual. His ample stomach strains against his dark denim tunic. In the long shots, he looks like a giant blueberry bobbing around the kitchen.

One online bio proudly trumpets Batali's fondness for shorts ("acceptable attire for every season"), but his footwear is equally notorious. On tonight's program he's shod in what appear to be a pair of orange Crocs, but are probably ultra-hip Italian clogs that cost as much as a dinner for four at one of his swank Manhattan eateries.

Batali's challenger tonight is Todd English, a product of more conventional grooming. He is clean-shaven, clad in the traditional white chef's outfit, and has his coiffure under control. Of course he loses the cooking contest. In the age of the active casual, the slob in shorts and orange plastic shoes is king.

What a chef wears in his own kitchen is, I suppose, his business (although the thought of Batali's footwear going into the dishwasher next to the silverware makes me queasy). But since I've been trying out my Crocs, I've started seeing them everywhere: in theaters and at fine dining establishments, at art openings and on television. The shoe may have its B list of celebrity devotees -- Graham Nash, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner and her main squeeze, Ben "Kiss of Death" Affleck -- but there are also plenty of fashionistas decrying the whole plastic-shoe fad and hoping it will go away soon.

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