Despite what you may see pedaling down Valencia Street and splayed around the parks, there’s more to San Francisco’s footwear options than Toms and well-worn ballet flats. The best shoe stores in San Francisco offer a little something for everyone, from D’Orsay flats to oxfords—as well as that elusive perfect boot. Sneakerheads can trawl the latest Nikes, Asics, Vans, and Adidas at Hayes Valley standby Undefeated, while those with more artistic leanings can design their own canvas kicks—and have them printed while they wait—at the Converse flagship in mid-Market. Red-sole fetishists flock to Christian Louboutin—the first outpost in the U.S. to combine both women’s and men’s shoes on one floor—in Union Square. It’s also worth checking out vintage clothing shops and thrift stores—Buffalo Exchange is particularly good for footwear.
San Francisco’s best shoe stores
Local co-designers Megan Papay and Cristina Palomo Nelson make wear-everywhere shoes that can tackle San Francisco's steep terrain without sacrificing style. The duo launched their label in fall 2012 with a collection of convertible leather ankle boots and snakeskin-print leather loafers that were an instant hit among Bay Area style bloggers. (Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Elle caught on shortly thereafter.) Since then, the pair has branched into chunky heeled booties, multi-strap sandals, and wedge sneakers, all artfully displayed across bookshelves and coffee tables in their Cow Hollow design studio and shop. The store itself looks more like an it-girl's apartment, decked with mid-century modern couches, repurposed theater seating, cowhide rugs, and artful vignettes that mash up family heirlooms, fashion collages, flea market ephemera, and glamorous depictions of the store's namesake, Frida Kahlo. Though the shoes are distinctively chic, they're built for the long haul. Palomo Nelson hails from a family of shoemakers, and the collection is produced at one of their factories in Spain.
It's indicative of the sought-after shoes here that Gimme maintains two Hayes Valley stores less than a block away from one another and that both are perpetually packed. Located amid Hayes Street's bustling restaurants and bars, it's a regular post-brunch stop for locals and an easy time killer while waiting for a table for dinner. The mini-chain offers a range of hard-to-find brands for women and men, from international labels (Coclico, Repetto, Chie Mihara, Costume National among them) to homegrown designers like Rag + Bone, Loeffler Randall and Jeffrey Campbell. In fact, Gimme was among the first Bay Area stores to import European labels like YMC, Dries Van Noten, and Veronique Branquinho. Though many of the shoes here are splurges, locals keep tabs on the sale nook in back, where past-season styles are marked up to 60 percent off.
Nestled on a fashion-dense stretch of well-to-do Pacific Heights, Heidi Says stocks footwear that defy frumpiness. The women who shop here aren't shy about jacking themselves up in a pair of leg-lengthening heels or embracing a bold print or pop of color. These are special-occasion shoes, after all; they're not meant to blend in. The salon is comfortable, with a generously sized royal blue couch and armchairs arranged on either side. (The space creates an informal central aisle for impromptu strutting.) The draw here is designer styles from the likes of Elizabeth and James, DvF, Missoni, and See by Chloe that you'd be hard-pressed to find at the department stores. (For more dressed-down styles, they also carry brands like Frye and Dolce Vita.) The company also runs a pair of Heidi Says clothing stores just down the street—one higher end, the other more casual—and it's not uncommon for neighborhood regulars to reverse-engineer an outfit from the soles up.
This local empire has four stores in the city, but the best stocked of the bunch are the pair on Haight Street. The “Super” store at 1420 Haight is packed with fashionable but practical shoes for city life. Women will find an array of flats—ballet, D'Orsay, smoking slippers and Oxfords—as well as hardy wood-soled sandals and clogs. Men can browse chukka boots, dress shoes, and casual leather lace-ups. With lower-priced labels like Seychelles, Dolce Vita, and Report, this is a great place to find a deal. (The staff is also adept at finding styles comparable to whatever high-end designer items you've been lusting after elsewhere.) Just down the street at 1553 Haight, the ShoeBiz Dinostore—so called for the large dinosaur sculpture guarding the door—specializes in sneaker and streetwear brands, including Nike, New Balance, Supra, Puma and Adidas. When new releases hit, you'll frequently find a line forming before the store opens.
The first thing you notice upon entering this store is the heady scent of leather. Not just any old leather, mind you: That's shell cordovan leather that's been tanned for six months to achieve the ideal pliancy and durability. Though they're not flashy, these are handcrafted, high-quality kicks for the man who takes his shoes seriously. The brand's stand-alone store offers the full collection of dress and casual shoes, from dapper wingtips and monk strap loafers to ruggedly classic boots. The gleaming leather is hand-stained and polished, arrayed in rich shades of mahogany, caramel, and oxblood. These shoes have stood the test of time: many browsers are already wearing burnished pairs of their own from the brand. And the longtime sales staff is attentive and knowledgeable. This is footwear worth an investment.