Combat boots march into the luxury fashion market

WASHINGTON — When Roseanne Morrison was scouting new street looks in Manhattan's Meatpacking District late last year, she spotted a young woman sporting brown lace-up boots, blue jeans and an attitude.

"It was kind of insouciant, 'I just rolled out of bed and threw my boots on,' " said Morrison, fashion director at New York retail consultant Doneger Group. "I knew this was something different and that it was going to drive a new look."

That freshness has pushed even luxury designers such as Christian Louboutin to market so-called combat boots, with peep-toe platform versions going for $1,495. Women are pairing them with shorts, miniskirts and floral dresses, helping to make boots the fastest-growing part of women's fashion footwear in spite of scorching weather in cities like New York and Miami.

Boot sales surged 37 percent in the year through April, bolstering a rebound in luxury spending as the economic recovery strengthens.

"It's a way of saying, 'I am a tough, cool and bad girl and don't mess with me,' and at the same time, women want to stay feminine," said Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York. "The only faux pas is not to have confidence. You have to look like you can kick some butt."

Women are shopping for themselves again after surviving the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Bain & Co. projects U.S. luxury sales will rise 4 percent this year after falling 17 percent to $54 billion in 2009.

The chunky boot trend was popular during a previous slowdown in the '90s. Back then, so-called grunge music fans embraced the look, an evolution of what punk rockers wore in the '70s, Doonan said. The "mother ship," he said, is the thick-soled Dr. Martens that became popular during that era, which typically cost $100 to $200.

What's different now is that the look is "less rocker, more rugged," according to Morrison, who specializes in trend analysis at the 64-year-old Doneger Group. It's part of a return to a broader military trend in fashion, which includes trench coats and utility pants, and is no longer limited to black.