Farewell, flip-flops - flats are back and beautiful

Bye-bye, fancy flip-flops. Your days in the stylish summer sun are over.

Chic urban dwellers have replaced you with the bright flat.

We're talking more than the ballet shoe - although the easy-to-walk-in option is my fave. This summer's low-heeled footwear runs the gamut from penny loafers to tasseled moccasins in jelly-bean hues and creamy nudes.

There is even a new flat on the block: the "flatform." Think platform with a lower cork wedge. As if they couldn't get any cuter, some come in peep-toe styles.

"Women are coming in and asking for something colorful, but with coverage," said Aubrie Costello, manager of Bus Stop Boutique in South Street's Headhouse District. "They were tired of flopping around. They were tired of the dirty heels. But they still want to bring style to their wardrobe."

Usually flats are at their trendiest during the transition from fall to winter, but this year flats, especially ballerinas, may beat out sandals when it comes to summer fashion.

That's because 2012 versions aren't just the boring black shoes you stuff in your bag to rest your feet after wobbling in wedges all day. They are softer and more feminine. Flats in spectator two-toned styles in tie-dyed fabric are the star of the show.

Labels from Ann Taylor Loft to Nordstrom, known for spotlighting work-appropriate pumps, are highlighting flats this season. Even Tom's, the granddaddy of the conservative flat, introduced ballet flats in a variety of colors this spring.

"Flats are really hitting the market hard now," said Marshall Cohen, chief analyst for market research firm NPD Group.

Sales of flats outpaced high heels by just 1 percent in 2011, Cohen said, but we are right at the beginning of this trend. "They are going to be even stronger in the fall."

Sherri Guggenheim, owner of Media-based ViVi G. Shoes, is so sold on the future of flats that she designed a collection of made-in-Italy rubber-soled ballerinas. Colors include tangerine, yellow, turquoise, coral, and kelly green. Guggenheim had a pair fashioned from raffia palm for an upscale look, and she's selling flats in metallics that she says will transition well into fall.

"They are just so elegant," Guggenheim said of the flats, starting at $250. "And it's such a flattering shoe. If you put on a colorful ballet flat with white jeans, you look so fresh."

Part of our fascination with extremely low heels has to do with the sky-high rise of heels that started in the late-1990s Sex and the City era. First they were pointy-toed. Then they were round-toed. And while women began experimenting with shades beyond black and brown, our pinched piggies were constantly in pain.

In an effort to give their tootsies a rest, and preserve their perfect salon pedicures, young women turned beach shoes into everyday-wear thanks to the bold colors and glitz of thong sandals. Flip-flops became so popular that in 2005, Northwestern University's women's lacrosse team students wore flip-flops to the Bush White House, sending etiquette experts into a tizzy. They were the official comfy shoe of the summer.

At the same time people were showing off their Swarovski-beaded flip-flops, high-end flats were starting to rack up cool points with the ladies who lunch. Patent-leather Tod's, which cost more than $300, were hot with upscale working women. Chanel's quilted flats were big, as were Gucci loafers. Main Line native Tory Burch started her own clothing line and by 2006, the Tory Burch Reva flat became a staple with society women.

"These flats were more about luxury than they were fashion," Cohen said. "But they weren't a trend as much as they were a staple."

In the last two years, we've seen silhouettes streamline, a la old-school Audrey Hepburn and modern-day Michelle Obama. Longer hemlines and skinny trousers have an elongating effect, so women don't have to rely on heels to look thinner, er, taller.

But while our feet may thank us, men probably won't (nothing screams sexy like a high heel). Just because flats are back, Cohen warned, it doesn't mean heels aren't popular.

"This is one of those rare times when heels and flats are hot at the same time," he said. "Usually the market goes very much in one direction. This year the customer is responding to both."

I predict that as long as celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Blake Lively, and Sienna Miller are photographed in skinny jeans, toting oversize color-blocked bags and wearing matching ballet flats, the low shoes will keep you in good fashion standing.

My feet are grateful.

Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, "Mirror Image," at philly.com/mirrorimage.