On a beach in north Devon, a local is talking to me about weever fish. These venomous creatures hide just beneath the sand, eyes peeking above to survey the surrounding landscape for potential prey. Bathers often succumb; if stung, your best bet is to plunge your feet into very hot water and keep them there for as long as possible.
This local has a simpler solution: waterproof sandals. Hers, a taupe pair by Merrell, are lightweight, waterproof, a special sort of elective ugliness. They are also just one of a litany of water shoes designed for use both in water and on dry land. Newly coined as amphibious shoes, they are not in themselves new, but along with the floafers (a loafer that floats), GQ-approved Hoka One One Hopara sandals, a new collaboration of wipe-clean sandals designed by super-stylist Lotta Volkova for Adidas, and later this month a neoprene pair in orange and red from a collaboration between Palace skateboards and Adidas, they have emerged as the sandal of now.
Crocs, the most infamous of these shoes, turn 18 this year, and the pandemic has been good for their health. “We have seen a surge in demand for our icon, the Classic clog,” says the company’s vice-president of lockdown sales. People who wouldn’t have been seen dead in Crocs, the hybrid monstrosities designed by three boating enthusiasts, have given in to their perfect practicality. Black and tie-dye versions have even sold out.
Vogue describe these wearers as Croc-verts, and where Crocs have led, others have followed. For their AW20 show, Balenciaga flooded Paris’ Cité du Cinema film studio – and front row seats – with water to highlight climate change, and put models in galoshes and waterproof shoes. Tevas, launched in the 1980s as little more than a velcro watch strap attached to a flip-flop, were designed to be worn on rafting trips in the great American outdoors. They have since appeared on catwalks at Prada, Stella McCartney and Anna Sui (the latter wears them on the beach herself). Actors-turned-designers the Olsen Twins, known for their four-figure fashion line The Row, have been seen in a version that cost £35.
The ccookery writer Claire Roberson pivoted to Tevas about three years ago. Now living in Sicily, she says she wears hers eight months of the year. Her logic is comprehensive – she wears them for hiking, gardening, land work and swimming. “They are also perfect for swollen ankles in the heat,” she says.
There is an impulse right now to attribute every hat, shirt and shoe to some form of pandemic-fuelled uncertainty. But trends don’t occur in isolation. And the rise of amphibious shoes, which place practicality squarely above looks, suggests a desire for a return to a more natural state. They also allow for the sort of flexible lifestyle that the current situation – and weather – demands of us.
Paul Watson, the head of press at Matchesfashion, says more and more people have been buying these sorts of “technical sandals”. He mentions Suicoke (pricey) and Hoka One One (less pricey) during lockdown, but also Birkenstocks beach shoes, waterproof versions modelled on the cork original, and produced in garish shades of green and purple. Watson, who owns eight pairs, happily wears “the ones designed for the beach” when it’s raining. “It’s definitely an indication that comfort is the current order of the day,” he says.
Affordable, comfortable and versatile, the amphibious shoe-wearer is paying to feel something like being barefoot. If clothes help us define how a crisis has changed our lives – see Zoom shirts, slipped on for meetings like flak jackets, and tracksuits replacing white collars as acceptable office wear – then these shoes are very much a sign of the times, representative of the way in which comfort and practicality have overwhelmed convention and fashion. But, as is the case with anything that purports to make our lives better, we democratise it, commodify it and thus it goes mainstream. Perhaps, like weever fish, they have been lying in wait all this time.