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Fitting Pretty

Barbara Thornton wants more shoe manufacturers to help all those women with queen-size feet.

When she first walked into Barbara Thornton's shoe salon, Hope Thomas had the same reaction that many large-footed women do: She cried. Eyeing rows upon rows of fashionable boots, slides, pumps, and sandals that would fit her size 11 feet, Thomas was bewildered. But she quickly wiped the tears from her eyes, ordered some pink knee-high boots, and returned the next day to buy six more pairs of shoes. It's a reaction Thornton has grown accustomed to. After decades of wearing drab, black pumps and other sensible shoes -- and enduring the tired jokes of salesclerks who offer to tie shoe boxes to their feet -- women who leave large footprints are often overwhelmed when they find stylish shoes that fit.

"Women come here after having to fight cross-dressers for one pair of size 12s on a rack and find they have dozens of choices," says Thornton, who wears a size 11 1/2 herself and is the CEO of DesignerShoes.com, the Newbury Street store and online shoe boutique that she founded seven years ago. Since its inception, the business hasn't had a year with less than 30 percent growth. In September, sales were up 70 percent over the same month in 2003. Thornton once presided over a bootstrap operation, but she seems to have hit her stride. She's capitalizing on her knowledge that women's feet are growing larger, while the number of retailers selling to them is not keeping up.

It's partially Thornton's own large feet -- and those of her daughter, also size 11 1/2 -- that helped her stumble into the shoe trade. A California native who has lived in Arlington for the past 18 years, Thornton was part of the first graduating class at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1969. At 57, she retains a degree of West Coast funkiness, mixing diamond studs and a chunky charm bracelet with a long, buttery black-leather jacket, and -- of course -- killer shoes. She jazzes up black slacks with multicolored Sesto Meucci loafers and dramatizes pedal pushers with green-suede sandals. A tall, handsome woman, Thornton has an intellect and quick wit to match her shoe size -- large and extra wide. Her conversation drifts effortlessly from manufacturing processes to the real estate market to public school funding and European politics. But wherever a discussion takes her, it always leads back to shoes. "I'll remember your shoe size before I remember your name," she says.

Thornton left California to attend Yale's School of Architecture, which she followed up with two decades of experience in city planning, public policy, and management consulting. In the mid-1990s, with two teenage children and an architect husband, she enrolled at Harvard Business School with the belief that her next career would be in the energy business. "I thought I'd be building power plants in Southeast Asia for Enron," says Thornton.

But the job she hoped for never materialized, and as she tried to visualize her future, she kept seeing shoes. Sparked by a poolside conversation with a shoe executive at a business school graduation party, Thornton began studying industry operations. Prodded by a large-footed friend, she created a business plan and began sole searching -- visiting shoe factories and taking a $6-an-hour job at Enzo Angiolini in the Burlington Mall to learn the trade from the ground up.

Thornton's original vision was just an online store, but in 1997, she couldn't find a bank that would loan money without a physical presence for her venture. That led her to her cramped quarters on Newbury Street -- two former one-bedroom apartments, stacked one on top of the other and crammed with shoe boxes. The "living room" is the salon, which especially on weekends takes on a slumber-partylike atmosphere. Women of all ages extol the virtues of the selection and laugh over decades of cramming their toes into ill-fitting shoes. Men sometimes make their way into the salon, too, and they're welcomed as kindred refugees from the culture of scarcity. "When a guy walks in," Thornton says, "he's just one more customer looking for good hard-to-find shoes."

Even though her bankers couldn't envision it seven years ago, Thornton's instinct about selling large shoes over the Internet has proven prescient, with online sales constituting 85 percent of her business. She keeps her sales figures close to the vest, revealing only that last year's revenues were between $1 million and $5 million. She's happy to share her five-year growth plan, however, which she projects to be $50 million in annual sales. In February, Thornton will be stepping out with her own brand of shoes -- Élevé, which will go up to a size 15.

As much as Thornton loves shoes, what sustains her is the belief that hers is social-justice work. For her, feet are a feminist issue. Women's feet have been growing steadily -- especially over the past 20 years -- and at a faster clip than men's feet. In 1987, 11 percent of women wore a size 9 plus; in 2000, 37 percent of women did, according to footwear analyst Marshal Cohen of NPD Group, based in Port Washington, New York. The growth can, in part, be attributed to girls' increased participation in organized sports since the passage of Title IX.

"Young girls are driving up the demand for larger sizes, because they've been pounding up and down the soccer fields," says Thornton. "We're breaking through the indirect foot-binding America had been putting girls through by keeping them on the sidelines." She also sees the suppressed supply as a racial issue. "Most African-American women have larger feet," says Thornton, "but a lot of the industry has said we don't make large sizes."

Thornton hopes to reverse that trend, one large foot at a time: "I'm on a crusade to get the shoe industry to pay attention to us." Cohen estimates that the size 9-plus market, a $2.5 billion business, could be even bigger if more large shoes were available. Says Cohen: "Barbara has recognized an opportunity and a great need in the market. It tells a great story." Almost a Cinderella story. But this time, Cinderella needs a bigger shoe.

Michelle Bates Deakin is a freelance writer living in Arlington. 

With her size 11 1/2 shoes propped on her desk, Barbara Thornton looks right at home inside her Newbury Street office.
With her size 11 1/2 shoes propped on her desk, Barbara Thornton looks right at home inside her Newbury Street office. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)
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