“Thwick-thwack, thwick-thwack, thwick-thwack.”

In spring 2003 when Sigerson Morrison introduced a revolutionary $85 kitten-heeled flip-flop – the first flip-flop to be mounted on a heel – the lowly rubber throwaway moved up more than a few notches.

The flip-flop had arrived.

Luckily, there’s no looking back. The lovably loud, so-comfy-you-could-be-barefoot-if-you-didn’t-know-better slip-ons just keep getting sexier, prettier, sleeker – and more upscale.

For proof, check out Neiman Marcus. Right smack in front in the women’s shoe department, flops by the likes of Manolo Blahnik, Kate Spade, Gucci and Prada clutter the display tables, gently nudging out strappy sandals and pointy-toed pumps.

Fittingly, the price tags are more commensurate with the label than with the product – most are constructed of rubber, plastic and little more than just a flash of leather. Burberry’s cute, flat-as-a-board version – in black and beige – may look similar to the ones you pick up at Walgreens for less than a buck except for the telltale novacheck print and $85 sticker on the sole.

Manolo’s gone animalistic with a $445 sleek kitten heel model – a zebra print with a red kidskin strap – and it’s made mostly of – egad – canvas. But they’re Manolos, after all; surely Carrie Bradshaw would approve. In fact, her alter ego, Sarah Jessica Parker is a fan of Lady Lanell’s, who puts out a plain rubber thong encased in Swarovski crystals ($145). “I loved my sandals,” Parker writes on www.ladylanells.com.

We do, too. And not just Lady Lanell’s. The whole bunch – from Banana Republic’s traditional beachy things (under $50) to Chanel’s wooden-soled, bejeweled clunkers ($200 plus) and of course, the most coveted shoe of 2003, still priced at $85 and selling “very well,” according to Anne Ziegler, spokeswoman for Sigerson Morrison in New York.

High-end designer houses aside, you can ride the beach-chic wave blissfully on the cheap.

DOTS has come out with an intentional doppelganger in colors like red, orange, yellow and turquoise – for $6. “I’ve seen them side by side and you literally can’t tell the difference,” says Tyra Chappell, marketing spokeswoman for DOTS, in Cleveland.

Chappell calls the trend as she sees it. “Generally, the whole femininity thing is in this year,” she says. “You’re seeing the kitten heel flip-flop worn with full, patio skirts, so big in the ‘50s.”

Feminine, yes. Fun, yes. But let’s not overlook the overall appeal of the flip-flop, kitten heel or no: It’s effortless (No buckles or straps!); user-friendly (No shoe polish!); low-maintenance (No trips to the shoe maker!). How could the hip set “not” embrace them? Considering former fashion trends that border on the masochistic – corsets, nipple rings, vinyl stilettos – this is a lucky time, indeed.

Lucky, too, that style, these days, means never having to look “too” put together. Casual Friday has morphed into Casual Every day. Very rare is it that an office worker – especially in endless summer weather like ours – pushes the boundaries. Though “ordinary” flip-flops – like those Havaianas hot with models Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen to throw on in between runway outfits – may not cut it for a law firm or bank.

“Flip-flops are definitely very hot,” says Corina Biton, spokeswoman for Neiman’s. “They’re all about comfort and the casual lifestyle. For someone who hangs out and goes to the beach or the gym every day.” (Biton doesn’t subscribe to flip-flops in the workplace, however – check your corporate-attire manual, to be sure).

But they sure are showing up in the most unlikely of venues – with the best kind of endorsement any flip-flop manufacturer could ask for: celebrities.

In September 2002, Sarah Michelle Gellar hung out after getting hitched to Freddie Prinze Jr. in $30 Mellas. Oscar 2003 attendees snagged crystal encrusted Havaianas in their goodie bags. In January of this year, Us Weekly quoted Mandy Moore as saying (now ex) boyfriend Andy Roddick “thinks I look most beautiful in jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops.”

Don’t hate them because they want to be comfy.

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