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What the hell is #heelconcept?

Taking over Instagram feeds one propped foot at a time, things have escalated quickly for fashion’s weirdest meme

First it was a handful. Then give or take 50. That is, up until the past few days, when out of nowhere the hashtag #heelconcept exploded on Instagram, accompanied by immeasurably weird photos of bare feet propped up on anything from scrub brushes to Antiques Roadshow oddities as avant-garde stand-ins for high heels. Now clocking in at over 500 posts from users worldwide, everyone seems to be sticking their foot in. So what the hell is #heelconcept: a foot fetishist’s dream, or a trend forecaster's worst nightmare?

“It's basically making a high heel type shoe by arching your foot on anything you find interesting, taking a picture and tagging it with #heelconcept,” explains @gouine.stefani, aka 17-year-old Canadian student Louis Félix. A curious participant, he spotted the trend in his feed and decided to try on some of his own high concept heels. “I have a big obsession with shoes and also like to dress up. This is kind of a combination of both, so I enjoy it a lot.”

The first post tagged #heelconcept was published six weeks ago by its inventor @m.sty, real name Misty Pollen, an artist and textile designer who straddles Baltimore and Philadelphia. “I posted a photo of my leg as I stood on a bronze sculpture I had made of a figure sucking their own phallus,” begins Pollen. “‘I can put all my weight on this’ was the impetus, and as it is vaguely wedge-shaped it made sense to photograph it as a mock heel. Soon, a handful of others started using a similar formula and framing. I came up with the hashtag so I could see all my ‘heels’ together away from my other Instagram pics.” 

The first #heelconcept post by inventor @m.sty

Okay, so people are sticking their heels on a bunch of random objects and snapping pics. So what. Big deal. However what started out as an experiment – an “unconvincing simulation of the high heel” as Pollen describes – swiftly turned into a user-generated meme, with friends, then strangers, latching on to its playful nature and posting their own #heelconcepts. Kevin Wiesner, Lukas Bentel and JS Tan of the New York cultural technology startup Hello Velocity started publishing their own #heelconcepts on @hellovelocity. “Why join the fun? We had some awesome #heelconcepts and Kevin has great feet!” says Bentel. “We don't know (or care) where #heelconcept ends. But we think it's just the beginning. We’re sure that we can expect many more DIY fashion pictures to show up in the coming months.”

“Because online presence is now so thoroughly linked to each of our identities it is equally so an arena for identity play. People can put more into dressing up for Instagram than what is afforded to them to go out” – Misty Pollen

This new predilection for DIY fashion from the internet's arbiters of taste has already brought us trends like normcore and the reappropriation of logos. Now it seems time to shift our focus to feet. “What’s interesting about #heelconcept is that it epitomises one of the dominating cultural attitudes in the fashion world: Athleticism or Athletic Fashion," continues Bentel. "This doesn't just mean making a lot and making it fast. It’s about the accessibility of fashion through pictures – reducing the barrier of craft and cost of production in fashion. It’s about fashion as a platform for ideas and cultural exchange for anyone.”

It's no doubt fashion continues to become more inclusive. As an added bonus, this fashion meme already has a built-in fanbase: foot fetishists. What does inventor Misty Pollen think of the possibility of someone salivating over her trotters? "I've been inspired in the past by fetishists," she says. "This was years ago but I collected a lot of photos by denim fetishists who are very prolific and push their aesthetic to the extreme. I think perhaps #heelconcept is in ways a form of exploded concepts of beauty. And fetishists have been doing that and gravitating around online communities since the internet existed."

Bizarre as it may seem at a quick scroll through #heelconcept, a lot of these imaginary 'heels' aren't too far off from the extreme footwear actually being hawked on the runways and sold in shops. #Heelconcept isn't just a fun game, it's a commentary on the absurdity of fashion and what is socially acceptable. "Social mores and the restrictions of what is 'acceptable' affect some of us much more than others," says Pollen. "On top of that there are the physical limitations of garments and access to clothing. But because online presence is now so thoroughly linked to each of our identities it is equally so an arena for identity play. People can put more into dressing up for Instagram than what is afforded to them to go out. I think social media is where street style now truly exists. Now it's about probing the boundaries of what is possible."