There are many valid reasons to prefer working from home (hello, coffee and emails in bed). But one enduring argument for returning to the office — maybe the only one, for me at least — is that someone besides myself and my four walls would see the outfits I’ve accumulated over the last two and half years. But despite my excitement to debut the wardrobe I’ve been building, I’ve come to realize that working in-person in any capacity means facing down my sartorial white whale: finding the best work shoes.
Footwear, in general, has always been my style weak point, especially when it comes to the office. Even before this era of murky dress codes we’re living in, I only had two pairs of semi-destroyed work shoes I was constantly making mental notes to replace. Now, as the world has returned to at least some IRL business dealings — from commuting to an office to power lunches to work trips — I feel totally unprepared from the ankles down.
According to Katherine Theobalds, the founder and creative director of sustainable footwear brand Zou Xou, aiming for versatility will go a long way to answering my problem.
“My customer is a really thoughtful woman who is looking for a shoe that will work for her most days and maximizes the options in her wardrobe,” says Theobalds. “You don’t want to buy a shoe that only goes with one thing. Think broadly: How will this shoe make me wear more of what I already own?”
The impulse shoe buy is a mistake many of us have made at least once. It’s a lesson that stylist and consultant Laurel Pantin says she learned the hard way, blowing her hard-earned cash on shoes she could barely walk in from Barney’s Warehouse sales (RIP) throughout her earlier days working in fashion. At the time, her affinity for shoes was fueled by an industry-wide Christian Louboutin obsession and the rise of glittery Prada heels. Now, she’s the SVP Fashion Director at Large for Austin, Texas-based retailer ByGeorge. Her tastes have shifted over the years, reframed by both the frequent telecommuting and motherhood.
“I’m usually holding a child or a bunch of other stuff, so if I can't slide it on, I won’t wear it,” says Pantin. “I'm a shoe girl, but with the caveat being that I'm a comfortable shoe girl.”
With so many factors at play, Pantin admits there are no one-size-fits-all rules when it comes to selecting the perfect work shoe. “Anything style-related is so personal to your preferences, your body, your geographic location, what kind of industry you work in, and what kind of people you’re working with.”
So, to simplify, I’ve broken down the best options across a variety of work environments by category below — and, of course, asked the experts to weigh in.
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Corporate Dress Codes
For super-serious business settings, only formal shoes will do. But that doesn’t mean a high heel is mandatory. In a corporate atmosphere, Pantin reaches for mid-high kitten heels or closed-toe pumps.
“As long as you can walk in them gracefully and you’re not struggling, [heels] can boost your confidence and show a little bit of effort,” says Pantin. “But there’s nothing worse than putting on a pair of shoes that you think are really beautiful and then stumbling around.”
Theobalds advises keeping it classic with either flats or low to mid-high pumps for those who opt for more feminine fashions. For those whose style leans more masculine, she recommends a good dependable loafer.
For an atmosphere where employees have more latitude to take fashion risks, Theobalds recommends anything from a lug soled loafer to an open-toed shoe.
“I know open toes are no-nos in most environments, but you can get away with them in creative offices,” says Theobalds. “For me, styles like the Delfina [Zou Xou brand] add a bit of dressiness that’s not too over the top and still manageable for a workday.”
In professional settings where most anything goes, Pantin relies on her beloved Dries Van Notens.
“They’re always super interesting, they have really great color combinations, and they’re the kind of shoe you can wear with a white button-down and jeans and people will think you're the most stylish person on earth,” she says. “It’s like a magic bullet for style.”
And in more casual-creative environments, she also recommends a stylish sneaker. Though even in the most artistically open offices, Pantin feels a line has to be drawn somewhere: “I would say avoid flip-flops.”
Remote With IRL Meetings
Many of us are somewhere between fully back at the office and still at home, working a hybrid structure that sees employees in the office several days a week, or remote but with the exception of a few meetings. For a workday where a stop into the office or a quick lunch meeting is sandwiched in between childcare, remote working, and running errands, Theobalds knows a versatile, comfortable shoe is a must-have. She goes for a mule on days where she’s both working remotely at home as well as taking meetings out and about.
“A slip-on style has the benefit of feeling like a house slipper when you’re in your home office because it has that ease,” she says. “But it still has that polished feel.”
Pantin also opts for a loafer or a classic ballet flat and is a big fan of brands Margaux New York and Jamie Haller for heel-less days.
“[Jamie Haller flats] are great for when I have two seconds to get ready I'm just going to throw them on because they go with literally anything,” she says. “And you don’t have to worry about your toes looking nice! That’s another thing I let just fall out the window these last few years: I never get a pedicure.”
And for the summer days when your toes look sufficiently presentable, Pantin recommends The Row’s sandals.
“You can wear them in a professional setting and in the evening,” she says. “I’ve worn them to black tie. They’re really minimal and super versatile.”
Always On Foot
Women who spend much of the workday on their feet and running around the office are the exact ladies Theobalds is thinking about when making her footwear.
“All of our shoes are designed with that [lifestyle] in mind, that’s where I set the bar: can she do a lot of things in this shoe?” says Theobalds. “The mule has been rated the highest for comfort, but lots of people feel that an open-backed shoe isn’t the best for running around. That’s all very personal, but for me the Trini [Zou Xou brand] lug soled loafer in this case is the most comfortable.”
Pantin on the other hand is a Birkenstock enthusiast and reaches for a pair on workdays she knows she’ll be mostly on her feet. The arch-accommodating shape of the sole is key, and like the shoe girl that she is, Pantin shares a clutch insider tip to apply the coziness of a Birkenstock to any other shoe in your collection.
“My back kills at the end of the day wearing anything with no arch support,” she says. “If you have a pair of flat boots or closed-toed shoes and you get Birkenstock insoles, it basically converts anything into a super comfy shoe.”
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