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A Step UP When it comes to giving its customers a lift, Frederick's Richlee Shoe Co. tackles the tall order in high style

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charles E. Budinger is retired now. But every day, he continues to rely on the one thing he credits most for his business success, for taking him from lowly bellhop to the banking boardroom.

His shoes.

The 87-year-old Budinger, a resident of Victorville in southern California, built a 40-year career and climbed to the rank of vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, one of the nation's largest -- all while wearing size 8 1/2 elevator shoes with a hidden, 2 1/2 -inch insole.

The secret lift boosted the 5-foot-2 Budinger's height to nearly 5-foot-5. But more importantly, it boosted his self-confidence.

"It's like a lady who gets a face lift; it may not make any difference, but she sure thinks it does," says Budinger, who still owns and wears about 20 pairs of elevator shoes, including boat shoes, black patent leathers and even two pairs of fuzzy bedroom slippers.

If the shoes indeed made this man, Budinger has the Frederick-based Richlee Shoe Co. to thank. The retired banker is among thousands of male customers of Richlee, one of only a few remaining U.S. outlets for elevator shoes -- specifically the company's patented Elevators with the "hidden innermold" it claims only the wearer will notice.

You'll find Richlee ads in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Playboy and GQ magazines (just call 800-290-TALL, they say). But most of the family-owned company's reported $270 million in annual sales is from word-of-mouth -- or foot -- referrals. Company owner Bob Martin won't talk profits, but says the shoes almost sell themselves, thanks to that secret boost in self-confidence it gives their customers.

Martin is quick to distinguish his product from those 1970s-style stacked heels now making a fashion comeback.

"Anybody can sell a pair of boring shoes in a regular shoe store, but we cater to our customers," says Martin, who runs his nondescript, 150,000-square-foot warehouse with his three brothers and a sister. "Everybody knows the shortest kid gets stuck in right field, and it follows the guy through his life. We're trying to help guys overcome it."

Martin and his father took over the company in 1981 from Foot-Joy in Brockton, Mass., which had made the shoes since 1939. In 1985, the family moved the business to the Frederick warehouse, and began adding the special "Eurathan" rubber innersoles to shoes manufactured elsewhere.

Within a few years, Martin says, Richlee realized it needed to expand beyond a basic dress shoe.

"We found that guys used to go to work and wear their [Elevators] dress shoes, and then they'd go to a company picnic or out on their boat and they'd have no casual shoes or sneakers to bum around in," says Martin. "It was like they'd shrink from getting that boost during the week to having to be flat-footed on the weekends."

Today, Richlee offers as many as 100 different shoe styles priced from $44.95 to $159.95. While a few styles are sold through department stores, most sales are mail-order through a colorful, pocket-sized, 64-page catalog. And whether they're golf shoes, high-top sneakers, wing-tips, sandals or penny loafers, every pair gives the wearer a hidden lift of an inch to three inches.

Overcoming a stigma

"It's hardly noticeable," Martin says as he leads a tour of company headquarters. "We build up the back of the shoe to accommodate the thickness of the sole. Bury it inside ... and they look no different than a flat-footed shoe."

For as far as elevator shoes have come in fashion, though, they still can carry a social stigma. Beneath the heightened soles is a world of buying in secret.

To save his customers the embarrassing Napoleon-complex jokes and prevent their wives, girlfriends or macho buddies from catching them flat-footed, Martin ships all his shoes in plain boxes -- no frills, no logos, no slogans, no sizes. Identifying the contents, Martin says, would mortify his customers -- not all of whom can be classified as truly "short."

Take the 5-foot, 9 1/2 -inch New Jersey real estate agent considered one of Richlee's most dedicated customers. He doesn't want his name used because, he says, he would "get ribbed by the guys at the gym" if they found out he sometimes wears a pair of high-top basketball shoes that give him a 2 1/2 -inch boost on the court. He didn't tell his 5-foot-10 wife that he was wearing a $139 pair of Italian dress elevator shoes (one of the Richlee's most popular styles) until after their wedding night.

"I don't have a Napoleon syndrome, but I just always wanted to be 6 feet tall," the 42-year-old says. "They are just nice, classic-looking shoes that happen to give you a boost. Not those ridiculous, stupid ones guys wore years ago."

Some Richlee customers are a little more comfortable bringing their elevator shoes out of the closet.

It took Wayne Jagusch a few years to tell his tennis buddies -- and his wife -- that he owned a dozen pairs of Richlee shoes, including a pair of "Lite Walkers" -- white sneakers with a 2-inch lift.

"It used to bother me," says Jagusch, 61, a 5-foot, 10 1/2 -inch Hillside, Ill., businessman. "I was always concerned someone in the locker room would notice, [that] my buddies would ride me halfway to the grave if they knew about it. Now, I don't care."

Why does he wear them? "It fulfills my need to fuel my ego, to stand tall," he says.

Fernand St. Louis, an evangelical pastor in Montreal, says he's got Richlee slippers, winter boots, loafers and formal black shoes for weddings -- all in size 7 1/2 -D -- because they give his 5-foot, 5-inch frame that little extra.

"Even if I was 6 feet tall I'd wear those shoes," says St. Louis, 62. "It's just an exhilarating feeling. It's the feeling I'd imagine ladies get with high heels. You're up there."

Psychologists say that the desire to be tall -- among men, especially -- dates back to ancient cultures. From the pyramids of the Egyptians to the idols of Eastern and Western cultures, height has long been associated with greatness. Heroes, points out Dr. William T. Stuart, an anthropology professor at University of Maryland at College Park aren't put on the floor, they are placed on pedestals.

"Height is equivalent to prominence. Elevation means power," Stuart said. "Gods were thought to dwell in mountains, not in shallow places."

While some elevator shoe wearers can be as tall as 6-foot-5, more typical customers are far shorter -- averaging 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-10 -- and say they often are looked down upon, overlooked for promotions or mistreated because of their height.

"Everybody knows tall people ... get more respect," says Jerry Warner of Independence, Mo., who has been wearing elevator shoes for six years. "They're more noticed. They just stand out more. Short guys feel inferior, and it's tough."

Psychologist Alastair V. Harris at Radford University in Radford, Va., agrees.

"There is no doubt that it is no more defeating to be short than to be bald," observes Harris. "If somebody finds out you are wearing elevator shoes, it's like them finding out you wear a toupee. Or for a woman, it would be like somebody finding out she wears a padded bra."

Discreet shopping

For many men, height becomes especially significant in relation to women, psychologists say. If a man is shorter than his wife or girlfriend, there is often a sense of diminution and subordination.

"Even if it's not true," Stuart says, "if a man is feeling that way he may see that as reason enough to buy elevated shoes."

Men who do feel that way will find a friend in Richlee. But at its headquarters off Route 85, you'll find few of them strolling through its showroom, decorated with pictures of Mickey Rooney, who Martin claims was once the company spokesman in the 1940s and 1950s, and a few racks of the latest hiking boots and loafers.

Instead most contact the company by phone. A bank of a half-dozen phones manned by the Martins and their 16 employees ring steadily with inquiries and orders from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The most common question: "How tall will those make me?" Callers learn that on average, the shoes give the wearer a 2-inch lift, but that certain styles -- such as the newly designed "Smooth Leather Wing Tips" ($84.95) -- give a full 3-inch lift. All that without wearing a pair of bulky cowboy boots or platform shoes. Richlee, says Martin, prides itself on providing height discreetly -- and in style.

"Some people would probably like them to be taller than two or three inches, but I'd be afraid they would get nose bleeds," Martin laughs.

Beyond the shoes, the company has plans to expand its production line into jackets, T-shirts and pants, Martin says. Whether any of the apparel will bear the "Elevators" name is uncertain. That may take getting customers to make their secret known.

Charles Budinger, for one, claims he's never been bashful about wearing the shoes -- or admitting he does.

"I'm perfectly frank about it," he says. "I didn't have anything to do with [deciding] my height. Once in a while, I'd hear a funny crack from somebody, but I never got self-conscious.

"I'll wear them as long as I'm able to wear shoes."

Pub Date: 12/16/98

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