It’s a jungle out there if you want to buy shoes this spring. It started with a Kew glasshouse’s worth of tropical foliage arranged by Charlotte Olympia Dellal in the ballroom of a West End hotel, brilliantly coloured shoes peeking out like exotic fruits, which she followed with the season’s wittiest catwalk show, involving 1940s-style dancers and giant painted bananas in a Busby Berkeley-esque routine. It continued in Milan with Jimmy Choo’s restrained, beautiful display of origami leaves, flowers and hummingbirds fluttering in shades of green; in Paris, with Christian Louboutin’s orchid jungle that harboured studded leaves (Venenana, £1,095); and back in London, Manolo Blahnik had a green jungle in his showroom and based part of his collection on the prickly pear.
This is a classic example of designers coming to the same conclusion at exactly the same time, dancing to the same tropical beat. Their inspirations are varied, yet the effect is the same: an explosion of vivid colour and craftsmanship – from appliquéd leather and fine embroidery to tribal beading and feathers – that brings a smile to the face and, as many styles are flat or block-heeled, a spring to the step.
The explantation, at least in part, according to Colombian-born Edgardo Osorio, creative director/founder of Florence-based brand Aquazzura – which has a reputation for delicately crafted, feminine shoes – is a fashion favourite: escapism. “The best designs take you somewhere else, make you dream,” he says, “and with the world’s uncertainties we need that. It is not the time for depressing fashion. What better definition of a summer escape than a tropical island encapsulated in brilliant colours and exotic motifs on a shoe, a holiday on your feet?” Then there is the exhibition factor. Charlotte Dellal, founder of Charlotte Olympia, says “shoes are objects to admire on or off the foot, and some clients collect them for display as well as to wear. Our special pieces are inspired by beautiful art objects but on a small scale.” Those specials (from £765) this season include moulded or carved heels, handpainting and lacquer work, beading and intricate appliqué. For Jimmy Choo’s creative director Sandra Choi, it is the finer points of the tropical trend that make a shoe special. “The silhouette stands out first, but you need to draw the eye to the detail,” she says.
This summer’s fashion trends – whether in textured, homespun-looking fabrics and ample, peasant-inspired shapes in neutrals or white, or as upgraded street style that mixes athleisure and the 1980s in bright, saturated colour or monochrome – are a great foil for these tropical shoes, which bring a decorative contrast to simple clothes or an interesting twist to the new brights (provided they are matched or clashed expertly). Browns’ accessories buyer/manager, Ida Petersson, sees the influence of southern California – its subtropical landscapes, lurid sunsets, 1960s architecture and glamorous lifestyle as defined by Slim Aarons’ fashionista-favourite photography. “There is a focus on new fashion brands from that area that reflect the lifestyle, but it really started when Hedi Slimane moved his Saint Laurent studio to LA, and now it is a popular location for shoots and fashion shows,” she says. Adding impetus is the craze for luxury brands to fly clients and press to pre-collection or cruise shows in Rio de Janeiro or Havana.
Though the style conclusions may be similar, the inspirations are varied. For some, the exuberance of tropical nature is key. “The 21st century is so fast-paced we forget to be still and marvel at the wonders we coexist with,” says Choi. “Nature offers a sense of calm and makes you concentrate on the detail that is such a part of current maximalism.” And Dellal adds, “I cannot escape my heritage [she is the daughter of Brazilian model Andrea de Magalhaes Viera]. I have done tropical before – now it’s light-hearted but beautifully crafted. We push our Italian craftsmen further every season.” Standout examples include finely cut-out, appliquéd silhouettes of tropical leaves, some hand-embroidered in bright crystal (Eva, £645), clusters of handmade flowers and fruit (wood-soled, £675) and complex appliqué work (Fruit Salad, £695).
Manolo Blahnik comes from the subtropical Canary Islands but his humour is distinctly British. Alongside a high-minded collection that reflects Brâncusi’s art and commemorates Dame Zaha Hadid is a bright green sandal (£675) with cactus-like lobes and little leather spines and a matching high heel (£765) with vivid red flowers. “I went back to the Canaries and remembered how, as a child, I was told to avoid these prickly things,” he says. “I wanted to see if our craftsmen could recreate them – and they did, dragging the leather through by hand to make the spines using traditional techniques.” The red flowers also reference one of his most iconic styles: 1971’s red cherries design for Ossie Clark. The same colours are used for an equally crafted style (£935) inspired by a paniered dress in a Moscow museum – deep red satin ribbon looped up over bright green lace, embroidered by hand – that links jungle to history in a typically lateral Blahnik thought.
At Jimmy Choo, Choi’s modern take on nature starts with a deeply exotic iris flower, its fragile, large petals expressed in translucent Perspex layers and metallic appliqué (Lumia, £695). “Like an orchid, an iris challenges conventional flower shapes but is a construction of extraordinary beauty,” she says. “In my vision it blurs with the symmetry of a tropical hummingbird, in shimmering sequins and fluttering feathers [Annie, £995].”
Casadei worked with jeweller Ilenia Corti, best known for her engraved gold and jewelled animals, to create sandals sporting delicately carved tropical flora and fauna (£1,800). Sophia Webster, last year’s winner of the British Fashion Council/Vogue Fashion Fund, is a disciple of brilliant colour whose signature is a butterfly, often as a large set of wings on the heel. This season she has vivid Perspex wings on the Chiara sandal (£450) and extends the idea to include representations of birds with parrot wings on the Firebird (£695). She adds equally bright calfskin flowers (Hula, £495), dark prints featuring bird-of-paradise flowers (Effie, £395) and raffia fringing (Darla, £550), inspired, she says, by a creative mash-up of “1960s musical icons like The Supremes or Martha Reeves, combined with Hitchcock’s The Birds and set in a tropical paradise as full of brilliant colours and textures as my 1960s references. The effects are sophisticated and delicate but very modern.”
As a tribal aspect of tropical, raffia is one of the favoured materials this season. Delpozo’s crested raffia flowers on natural linen (£730) take their cue, says designer Josep Font, “both from organic nature and the hyper-real effects of ocean depths and starry nights created by early film director Georges Méliès”. At Aquazzura, Edgardo Osorio’s inspiration came from his own 30th birthday party last May. “I love fancy-dress parties and always research them. I had a mood board, pictures of tribes from the Amazon, Papua New Guinea and Africa, and I was fascinated by the artistry of their clothes – beading, woven raffia, embroidery, feathers [Mombasa sandal, £845] and flowers – so it was a natural progression to use these for a collection. Raffia makes wonderfully sheeny beads [Tropicana thong, £420]. I also worked with an artisan who handpainted the patterns of my favourite orchids on raffia [Flora, £590].”
Roger Vivier’s designer Bruno Frisoni found inspiration on an island south of Java, “in tropical gardens, which became a stylised silk print [sandal, £650] or raffia embroidery on denim [£1,100], making a precious craft more spicy and energetic”. Like Blahnik’s cactus or Dellal’s monstera leaves, his styles highlight the vivid green of the tropics. “I sketched the colours created by the sunset – unreal, magical, acid variations of green and yellow – and had them sequinned on a cut-out bootie [£2,550],” which looks like glowing leaves. Rupert Sanderson is another in thrall to green. “I started working with Lurex in brilliant shades, including green, and found a reddish Lurex thread that, on green suede, was redolent of India, so we embroidered it in tiny elephants and paisleys [Kitrina, £635],” he says. Scrolls of fine-leather embroidery in gold nappa (£835) recall tropical basketwork.
Gianvito Rossi makes the tropical fantasy fruitier with his cocktail collection. Crystal-beaded lemon and lime slices, olives and cocktail umbrellas are embroidered onto strappy sandals in citrus-tinted satin (£1,140) or pastel suede (£845). Heels twirl like swizzle sticks (£780) and silk floral prints add context (£490). “It came from the idea of cocktails for our 10th anniversary, and the tropics followed spontaneously,” he says. “Satin creates lightness, and I love fun but chic embellishment.” He makes a theme perilously close to vulgarity faultlessly tasteful.
Tropical nuances are a natural for partywear but they also add verve to the simplest summer flat. “Subtle tropical detailing on slides works effortlessly with tailored pants or floaty dresses,” as Matchesfashion.com buyer Cassie Smart says, referencing styles like the bold tribal tassel on Louboutin’s suede babouche (£525). The bright beads clustered on Car Shoe’s vivid green satin slipper (£245) – not to mention its feathered walking sandal (£305) – make for perfect escape shoes, even if summer is strictly in the city.