15 October 2005

A shoe fetishist’s dream


Leon, Mexico offers a bargain-hunter’s cornucopia of footwear


Rows of cowboy boots in every conceivable colour and kind of leather stretched as far as the eye could see at the Bota de Oro (Golden Boot) in Leon, Mexico. The neighbouring store was peddling handbags for $4 U.S. each. And around the corner, an athletic shoe store sold knockoff Chuck Taylor sneakers under the “Everlife” brand with the name “Tuck Michael” and familiar star stamped on the ankle.

Many Mexicans — and a growing number of tourists — indulge their incurable footwear fetishes in Leon, an unremarkable industrial city 380 kilometres northwest of Mexico City famous for one thing: shoe manufacturing. A shoe-shopper’s dream, more than 5,000 stores operate in Leon, offering everything from leopard-print stilettos to canary yellow cowboy boots. Shoe stores fill entire malls, both shabby and chic. And where the shoe shops end, the leather stores begin, stocking an endless selection of jackets, belts and bags — all sold for jaw-dropping prices. A leather belt goes for less than $10 U.S.

“I’m drowning in shoes!” exclaimed my friend Nadine Lawrence, as we navigated narrow aisles of one of the countless “malls” in the aptly named Zona Piel (Leather Zone), a slightly rundown retailing district. She initially wanted to avoid the temptation of Leon, but couldn’t resist, hoping to find a pair of white cowboy boots to take back to her native NewZealand — along with whatever else caught her fancy and would fit in her suitcase. I went searching for sandals to replace the aging pair I bought in Leon in 2002. We weren’t disappointed, although we pored over a seemingly endless assortment of similar-looking merchandise in our quests.

Most stores crammed a respectable selection of footwear into impossibly small spaces Few provided any amenities — like a comfortable spot to try on shoes. Or a sock for the shoppers wearing sandals, offering only a hideous plastic bag to slip over a bare foot. While no one would confuse Leon with a fashion capital — it offers few avant-garde styles — pleasant surprises abound. Like the surprising number of shoes that fit Nadine’s Size 6 feet. Or the baby blue stilettos she plucked from a cluttered display for $30 U.S.

“I can see these growing on me,” she said, taking forever to choose the blue pair over the yellow ones. “What else do these go with?”

I picked up a pair of mule-style leather sandals for $20 U.S., the same price I paid for a similar pair in 2002. Finding white cowboy boots made from normal leather — not ostrich, crocodile or snakeskin — was less easy. But the Golden Boot came through, with the desired model for just $60 U.S. After an entire afternoon of shopping — checking out at least 200 stores — we left exhausted, seeing only a fraction of Leon’s shoe bounty.

From the Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 2005

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