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ulla johnson, ulla johnson fall 2021, fall 2021, fashion, nyfw, new york fashion, shoes, boots
A heeled boot with stitching and tassel embellishments on the runway at Ulla Johnson fall '21.
Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

The state of fashion may seem a bit dreary these days, but New York Fashion Week launched its mostly-virtual showings with a somewhat surprising — and much needed — spring in its step, almost quite literally.

Of the first handful of brands to show during the week (which officially runs from February 18, though many of the usual names are showing beyond the calendar), many — including Ulla Johnson and Zero + Maria Cornejo — offered a kind of wardrobe that suggested an easing back into public life come fall.

ulla johnson, ulla johnson fall 2021, fall 2021, nyfw, new york fashion week
Statement boots at Ulla Johnson fall ’21.Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

That included the footwear, which was heavy on boots — and also surprisingly focused on heels — especially considering the proliferation of slippers, slipper-like flats, heavy lug-sole boots and the usual sneakers in current times. Johnson’s offering including a mix of statement boots, done in contrast stitching with tassels and a high wooden heel, balletic soft-toed pumps with grosgrain ankle wraps, and a series of hiking styles in collaboration with Diemme.

Both designers were keen on getting back to the idea of going out, even if that idea needed some baby steps, easing into it with a mix of comfort pieces and statement items, such as the aforementioned boots.

“I think everyone wants a bit of a lift, and I tend to go with my gut,” said Cornejo in a phone interview following the release of her fall ’21 collection, which she debuted ahead of New York Fashion Week with a simple look book. “We all want to be dreaming a little bit.”

The designer’s ready-to-wear included plenty of her signature easy-to-wear pieces, with a little something extra in metallic jacquard materials and velvets. So, too, was the footwear, a small but powerful edit that included statement knee-length and ankle boots done in black and caramel-colored vegetable-tanned leather with a belt detailing that gave a subtle crinkle-like quality to texture, plus a series of high-heeled sandals (also done in simple black, tan and a black-and-red color way).

“Maybe it’s stupid, because we didn’t really sell a lot of shoes in the past year. (But) I think things will lift up,” said Cornejo, who works with a small factory in Italy to produce her footwear collections, which focus on vegetable-tanned leather and local materials, adhering to her philosophy on sustainable materials. “The whole point of fashion is that we have to inspire and create, to dream a little bit and take ourselves out of the doldrums.”

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A vegetable-tanned leather knee boot with belt detailing, from Zero + Maria Cornejo fall ’21. The designer offered a small but powerful edit of footwear in her collection.Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo

zero + maria cornejo, nyfw, fall 2021, new york fashion week
A heeled sandal with ankle wrap and adjustable toe strap from Zero + Maria Cornejo fall ’21.Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo

While New York has never been the shoe mecca that Milan is, or the luxury brand hub that is Paris, over the past few years it has lost some of its star names (such as when Paul Andrew pressed pause on his line in March 2019 to take on a larger role at Salvatore Ferragamo), while other designers like Chloe Gosselin have chosen to show elsewhere or opted out of fashion weeks altogether in recent seasons.

It may have lost some marquee names — and its biggest shoe-heavy brands such as Tory Burch, Michael Kors, Coach and The Row are showing outside of the immediate calendar —  but New York’s designer footwear is actually hanging on. That’s thanks to niche high-contemporary designers like Cornejo, who knows that customers see value in well-made, day-to-night shoes and boots that are less about flash and more about the aesthetic codes of intelligent women.

There are some notable new designers, such as Emily Amelia Inglis, who started her brand Studio Amelia with a collection of strappy sandals that quickly gained a cult following with the fashion set. When IMG invited her to debut her first show at NYFW, the Australia-based British designer jumped at the chance to showcase not just footwear but the second season of a sustainable ready-to-wear collection that she launched in 2020.

studio amelia, nyfw, new york fashion week, fall 2021, pre-fall 2021
A heel from Studio Amelia’s pre-fall ’21 collection. The brand is offering a shop-now component of the line alongside its debut of the fall ’21 collection of ready-to-wear and shoes at New York Fashion Week.Courtesy of Studio Amelia

“There are six women behind Studio Amelia, including myself, and we are located between Sydney, New York and London, so New York acts as a middle point for us all,” said Inglis, whose brand is a year-and-a-half old. “Our biggest market is the U.S. and the customer has been incredibly supportive from day one, so it makes even further sense to showcase here,” she added.

Historically, some of the best NYFW shoe moments have come from collaborations, and this season is still following that that tradition. Johnson’s aforementioned boot offering included a collab on hiking styles from Diemme. Jason Wu tapped U.K. brand Dear Frances for a multitude of boots for his fall ’21 collection, the second season to focus on his new lower-priced strategy. Victor Glemaud worked with Lagos brand Shekudo on a series of pumped-up clogs, which the designers are selling on The RealReal. And Anna Sui, New York’s resident footwear collaborator, teamed back up with John Fleuvog for a few groovy boots to match her sixties-inspired collection.

All to say that at this New York Fashion Week, it’s taking a village. But the fashion — and the shoes — are still there.

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