During the viewing season for this autumn’s designer accessories I found myself at the Fashion Museum in Bath, staring at a pair of dainty, oddly familiar boots. Finely laced up, with pointed toes and Louis heels, they had intricate gold embroidery on dark ribbed silk, fetchingly faded with time. They dated to the 1880s but they could have come from any number of collections I’d seen in previous weeks – for there has never been a season when footwear has so lovingly referenced past crafts and details, resulting in embellished statement pieces, the best of which stand easy comparison with those handmade museum boots.
There has also rarely been such close synergy between clothing and accessories. From Valentino’s couture celebration of Shakespeare’s anniversary, complete with ruffs, doublets and high-waisted gowns, to grandly braid-embroidered tailored military jackets at Roberto Cavalli and Andrew Gn (the BBC’s War and Peace must have been popular designer viewing), a strong vein of historic costume runs through this winter’s style. Yet the season’s ornamented shoes and boots are easier to meld into contemporary wardrobes; they signal fashion savoir-faire but will remain trophy items when the current yen for historicism fades.
Shoe designers are remarkably united in their vision, switching from galleries to museums for inspiration after several seasons under the sway of modern art. “I have never felt so inspired as in St Petersburg,” says Edgardo Osorio, co-founder of Aquazzura, whose supremely rich and ornate autumn collection is titled From Russia With Love. “I wanted to convey the atmosphere of romance and grandeur without being too literal. Shoes have to be for life today so I picked wonderful details from the Hermitage – fabrics on furniture and clerical robes, Imperial jewellery and military insignia, the colours of stones and subtle furs, marbles and mosaics.” Highlights include the spectacular over-the-knee skinny Imperial boots (£1,955) in rich royal blue or scarlet velvet beaded with insignia; the Fauna ankle bootie (£930) in velvet, referencing palace curtains, or a new stretch calfskin that is “as soft as the best suede”, both embroidered with multifarious gold-beaded bug motifs; and the ruby red velvet, knotted, heeled Nasiba sandal (£590).
At Jimmy Choo, creative director Sandra Choi is influenced by what she calls the “hard lushness” of antique military regalia, from embroidered insignia to fur plumes and multibuckled, over-the-knee boots. “Watching War and Peace, I was drawn to the balance between the beautiful toughness of the military uniforms and the feminine draping of the women’s costumes. I love that tension and contrast. I call it sensual friction – velvet is sensual but also has military echoes.” Choi’s contemporary historicism can be seen in pointed electric blue heels (Lucy 100, £995) with a cool military braid effect created by slender gold paillette stripes, and elegant navy Romy 100 flannel pumps (£695) embroidered with beaded stars and insignia.
For Bruno Frisoni, creative director at Roger Vivier, layers of inspiration include both 18th-century Chinese woven silk and the house’s own archives. “Monsieur Vivier particularly loved soie chiné, where the silk is printed early in the weaving process, while I love a slight 1970s vibe, so we’ve taken crushed velvet and then over-embroidered it by hand in an almost abstract 18th-century motif that looks very contemporary,” he says of a chunky ankle boot (£1,850) and sandal (£1,550) with a crystal buckle.
Some designers delve further back into history. Christian Louboutin visits museums as part of his “creative mood gathering. I don’t immediately translate what I see but keep it with me so it can appear down the line in a different way.” He includes the ubiquitous military insignia in his dark red Collegissima ankle boot (£845) but veers back to Tudor times to concentrate on pearls that, mixed with geometrical pyramid studs and abstract brocade, look uncompromisingly modern (Pyrabubble sandal, £675; Tudor Soir sandal, £745). Gucci’s Alessandro Michele matches his eclectic, pearl-strewn Renaissance-meets-1980s dresses with art deco-influenced, suede and roccia snakeskin, pearl-studded pumps (£1,030), an aesthetic he evolved last season and which, like most of his ideas, is proving influential. Nicholas Kirkwood has long used pearls hollowed into a high heel as a signature and this season makes them a bold statement, running a graduated row of aniseed ball‑sized ones around the heel of versatile velvet boots (£995) and loafers (£550), the perfect balance of glamour and toughness. His inspiration is presumably early 20th century, rather than 16th, as the range is named Casati, after the pearl-wearing Marchesa. And perhaps Manolo Blahnik has also been to the Fashion Museum in Bath, near where he lives, as his autumn collection features Georgian-looking brocade Lurumu mules (£615) with crystal embellishments and ornate, gold embroidered Volta pumps (£560).
Aside from the prevailing mood in fashion, there are two other forces driving such opulent footwear. One is – paradoxically for a historic look – advances in materials. It is hard to find a shoe designer not working with velvet (the fabric of the season in ready-to-wear too) and modern incarnations – leather-lined, with stretch, and treated for water resistance – are both more practical and increasingly versatile. As Matchesfashion.com buying manager for shoes and bags Cassie Smart says, “Velvet is mostly thought of as an evening fabric but it has now become relevant for day too, often featuring embellishment.” It is the natural partner for military braid, nowhere better executed than in Gianvito Rossi’s sumptuous deep-blue velvet high-heeled Miral ankle boot (£710), crisply piped in scarlet silk looped round shiny brass buttons. It is matched by the velvet evening Augusta sandal (£690), with a witty “officer collar” ankle cuff embroidered in gold.
This historic aesthetic relies on a wide variety of top-quality fabrics. Osorio found the right brocade texture late in the season and persuaded the maker to weave in Aquazzura’s signature pineapple motif (Ananas slipper, £395). New York-based British designer Tabitha Simmons has a finely drawn dragonfly print on her lambskin/calfskin Ellyn open-toe sandal (£665), inspired by the work of art nouveau artists Gallé and Lalique. “I go to the best leather printers and love a Victorian or Edwardian look,” she says. “There are so many shoe brands today, that you have to do something different and special to stand out.”
Simmons also subscribes to the other factor behind the season’s ornate footwear – the desire to support handwork, however costly. “Shoemaking is an industrial process, but we cannot allow decorative crafts to die out,” she says. “The artisan touch makes a design individual, and women are prepared to pay for it.” So in addition to Simmons’ meticulous prints, other styles are edged with lace-like scalloping and tiny studs (Liv block heel, £495) or with mesh and hand-rolled velvet (Freya sandal, £595). Osorio says it is hard to find expert craftsmen and has spread his net wide. “I want to make our shoes as locally as possible, but we need to go where the experts are. Couture-style boots are made and embroidered in a Paris studio, but others are beautifully crafted in India. And our metal embroidery comes from Pakistan, where it’s a traditional technique.” Sandra Choi gets a similar effect in Italy, where she works with embroiderers who hand-apply those gold paillettes, beaded stars and insignia.
It takes a steady-handed expert leather worker to create the fine, regular, frogging-like scrolls of Christian Louboutin’s Cajac sandal (£895) and Gianvito Rossi’s gold-embroidered Vendome cuissard (£2,395), while the same applies to the rich fastenings of this winter’s footwear – the miniature, handsewn buttons on Simmons’ Edwardian-looking block heel Franny boot (£565), the delicate buttons on Jimmy Choo’s multistrap navy or amber velvet Lacey heels (£575) and Layton flats (£525), the finesse and dexterity of Rossi’s button-loop peep-toe Marquis heels (£710).
Handwork like this is a gift to big brands that already employ embellishment ateliers for their eveningwear or bags. The bullion embroidery adorning Roberto Cavalli’s jackets spills over into gold work on knee-high velvet boots (£2,540); there’s silver floral embroidery on black velvet Lily boots (£3,825) in Saint Laurent’s 1970s-inspired pre-collection; metal appliquéd symbols on the red lacquered wedges of Prada’s lace-up boots (£980); and gold lacquer leaves on leather inlay specialist Paula Cademartori’s Plexiglas-heeled calfskin Zoe ankle boots (£730). Each is made to catch the eye, to take you somewhere else and to create a longing for painstakingly made footwear that might just last as long as those museum boots.