EAT YOUR HEART OUT, IMELDA. SONJA Bata's footwear fixation beats yours by a mule—er, a mile. In 1990, Bata trekked to northern Canada's icy Belcher Island region solely to find a pair of Inuit boots made of rare narwhal sinew—for which she paid a mere $120. Other times, says the 68-year-old Toronto businesswoman, "I have literally taken shoes off people's feet. I'll go into villages in different countries and say to them, 'I'd like to buy you a new pair of shoes. Can I have your old ones?' Usually, they're delighted with the offer."

Bata's shoe collection now numbers more than 10,000 pairs—not that she would walk a mile (or even a foot) in any of them. She considers them artifacts and in May opened the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto to display them. A shoe-box-like structure, the 39,000-square-foot building houses a research library, a shoe trivia display (sample factoid: the average person takes 9,000 steps a day) and footwear dating from 2800 B.C. Exhibits range from the palm-leaf-and-wood funeral shoes of an Egyptian Pharoah, bought at an auction, to an Australian aboriginal executioner's slippers made from human hair, to Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell's space boots. "We want to bring history alive," says Bata, who finds her booty by networking with antique dealers and collectors. "There's no better way than with shoes—they're so personal."

So far, more than 35,000 visitors have paid the $4 admission fee to stroll through the museum, which also boasts footwear of the rich and famous, such as Queen Victoria's ballroom slippers, silver sandals that belonged to Elizabeth Taylor and Pablo Picasso's imitation zebra-skin boots. "Their shoes reflect their personalities," says Bata, pointing to Elvis Presley's blue-and-white patent leather loafers. "Obviously, his character had a lot of showmanship. You wouldn't see Elvis in black oxfords."

Also this May, Bata scored a coup of sorts by acquiring a pair of Madonna's burgundy-and-gold platform shoes. "Along with Marilyn Monroe, Rudolf Nureyev and Wayne Gretzky, she was on our wish list," says Bata, who shelled out $4,000 for them at a New York City auction. Her priciest acquisitions, however, are the 17th-century European white-and-gold embroidered men's slap-soled shoes, for which she paid $40,000 in 1987.

Growing up in Zurich, Bata, the daughter of a prominent lawyer, could barely tell a boot from a brogue. "I wanted to be an architect," she says. Meeting Czech-born shoe manufacturer Thomas Bata, a family friend, changed all that. The couple—he is now 80—wed in 1946 (they have four grown children) and, says Sonja, "instead of designing buildings, I started designing. footwear. I went off like a rocket." So did the company, which began selling shoes to emerging postwar markets. "Thomas felt like a missionary who could put shoes on all these barefoot people," she explains. Last year, according to the company, more than 300 million pairs of Bata shoes, most retailing for less than $20 a pair, were sold worldwide, 28 million of them in the U.S. It was during Bata's visits to shoe markets around the world, she says, that she realized that, because of the popularity of sneakers, local shoemaking traditions were dying out. She decided "to give something back," she says, by helping preserve the craftsmanship that was about to be lost.

As for Bata's personal shoe wardrobe, it numbers a relatively modest 40 pairs, most of them functional pumps and loafers—and a few high-heeled evening shoes. Her favorite? "She likes to go barefoot," says her daughter Christine Schmidt. "At home she can't wait to take her shoes off."

MARJORIE ROSEN
NATASHA STOYNOFF in Toronto

  • Contributors:
  • Natasha Stoynoff.