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Looking for Comfort, Rubber, and Soul. COMMENTARY

WE'RE everywhere: working women on the go - all dressed up with sneakers on our feet. No slaves to fashion, we insist on comfort. And frankly, we look ridiculous. And the word from on high - New York's Seventh Avenue - is: Real women don't wear sneakers.

From the office of designer Donna Karan, known for her stylish, comfortable creations for working women, assistant Christy Hood pauses at the thought of Donna's designs worn with sneakers. ``OOOOooooh. No way.''

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Ms. Hood herself wears leather flats on her daily walk to the subway. ``I used to wear sneakers until I saw how weird they looked on everybody else, so I stopped.''

Across town on Madison Avenue, Rachel Breinin of Self magazine admits she still wear sneakers to work. ``New York sidewalks and grates eat up your good shoes.'' But comfort has its price. ``My husband always looks at my feet and says, `Isn't there anything better you can do?'''

The ``aerobic sole'' - a spongy synthetic or rubber mix - is catching on with designers like Ferragamo, Charles Jourdan, and Bally. But while their ``skimmers'' are more shock-absorbing than shoes with leather soles, the insides lack the stability of an athletic shoe.

When asked what stylish but comfortable shoes he would sell a woman in a mink coat, a shoe salesman at New York's Bloomingdale's puzzled. ``If she's wearing a mink coat, she probably doesn't worry about comfort.'' The most popular choice for (minkless) women who walk to work is the Reebok Walker, he says.

``Which model was he talking about?'' asks a spokeswoman from Reebok's headquarters in Canton, Mass. (where everybody drives to work). ``I can't believe women in New York wear them with their dresses. They're so ... unattractive.'' Check out Reebok's new Metaphor line, she says.

A quick trip to Filene's in Boston proves disappointing. Though the Reeboks have spongy outsoles and cushioned insoles, there's no arch support. With one youthful exception, the styles lack character and the colors (except sold-out black) are dull. Still, Reebok is on the right track.

So is the shoe industry's trade journal, Footwear News, starting this month a comfort shoes section. Although great strides have been made in the ``comfort technology'' of pumps, says editor Sharon Lee, they are slow to catch on.

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``A lot of women are still reluctant to give up the fashion aspects for the comfort,'' says Ms. Lee, explaining that the fashion shoes industry changes as quickly as the clothing market; comfort shoes lag behind with old colors and styles.

Almost ready to abandon my search, I spot a perfect pair of black and white oxfords in Vogue. These shoes, part of Nike's i.e. line (launched last fall), are sporty, colorful, and reasonably priced (between $30 and $70).

``We set out to replace the white aerobic shoe of the last four years,'' says Karen Sparks from Nike's Portland, Ore., headquarters, assuring me that the shoes are even ``fashionable enough to wear in the office.''

Racing to the only store in Boston that carries the i.e. line, I try out the sassy shock-absorbers. Little heel support, but otherwise funky, comfy, and stable. But the store doesn't have my size, and Nike - caught off guard by the enormous success of the shoes - can't deliver until July.

Leaving the store, I see a businessman walking by in a neatly tailored suit ... and running shoes.

Shoe manufacturers, wake up and fill the market.

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