The return of sculptural heels

Time to rejoice at sculptural heels that are as wearable as they are wondrous. Avril Groom reports. Photography by Pedro Aguilar

Clockwise from near right: Giuseppe Zanotti calfskin and steel G heels, £530. Jimmy Choo satin and pearl Samantha mules, £1,195. Clergerie calfskin Gatsby shoes, £540. Jacquemus leather and wood Camil heels, £445. Yuul Yie leather slingbacks, £260. Nicholas Kirkwood suede and chromed resin Veronika mules, £575. Salvatore Ferragamo satin F sandals, £625. Rupert Sanderson calfskin, sequin and Plexiglas Treasure Stardust Sequin Fantasy heels, £825
Clockwise from near right: Giuseppe Zanotti calfskin and steel G heels, £530. Jimmy Choo satin and pearl Samantha mules, £1,195. Clergerie calfskin Gatsby shoes, £540. Jacquemus leather and wood Camil heels, £445. Yuul Yie leather slingbacks, £260. Nicholas Kirkwood suede and chromed resin Veronika mules, £575. Salvatore Ferragamo satin F sandals, £625. Rupert Sanderson calfskin, sequin and Plexiglas Treasure Stardust Sequin Fantasy heels, £825 | Image: Pedro Aguilar

Sculptural shoes conjure up towering heels, high platforms and extraordinary creativity – concepts for the feet as designed in leather and metal by Japanese masters Noritaka Tatehana and Kei Kagami, or Alexander McQueen’s iconic 30cm-high Armadillo designs from his final 2010 collection, or even the styles by the late Zaha Hadid for United Nude, layered in strata like some of her furniture. Undoubtedly art, but not exactly fashion. These originals mostly elicited wonder rather than desire. At a drinks party several years ago, I saw art collector and style icon Daphne Guinness – known for wearing extreme McQueen styles and high-platform “hoof” heelless shoes designed for her by Tatehana – suddenly drop from view among the throng. She hadn’t fainted from the pain, but merely rocked back on her own heels to ease the strain on the balls of her feet – and lost several centimetres’ height in the process. The shoes were balanced so she could wear them with grace, but it takes a brave woman to don such styles.

Given that they were constructed for visual impact rather than the practicalities of standing and walking, the sculptural heel has proved a blind alley – until now. This is due in part to new materials and technologies, but also to changes in attitudes as women seek to unshackle themselves from uncomfortably high heels. Flats began to appear on the catwalk and now, for a little height, the light sculptural heel. The trend goes back to Salvatore Ferragamo, whose 1940s F wedge and columnar Flower heel have inspired the house’s current creative director Paul Andrew. “I spent months in the archive and was struck by how Ferragamo used handcraft with the best technology of the day,” says Andrew. “I’ve reinterpreted the F model (£625) with a more underslung shape, a refined silhouette and more suspension for comfort. It’s cleaner and more minimal than shoes we’ve seen recently.” 

“There is a clear trend towards a simple, cool modernity that is expressed in geometric and sculptural shapes,” says Susanne Botschen, co-founder of new online footwear retailer Martha Louisa. “The high stiletto is lovely for a special evening, but an interestingly shaped mid-heel shoe can give a practical focal point to an outfit at any time of day.” 

Clockwise from top left: Neous leather, Perspex and beechwood Loda mules, £495. Manolo Blahnik velvet and leather Cuenta heels, £685. Nicholas Kirkwood deconstructed knit and Plexiglas Kim boots, £1,525. Rejina Pyo calfskin Connie mules, £440. Christian Louboutin brushed calfskin and Plexiglas Elyette heels, £975
Clockwise from top left: Neous leather, Perspex and beechwood Loda mules, £495. Manolo Blahnik velvet and leather Cuenta heels, £685. Nicholas Kirkwood deconstructed knit and Plexiglas Kim boots, £1,525. Rejina Pyo calfskin Connie mules, £440. Christian Louboutin brushed calfskin and Plexiglas Elyette heels, £975 | Image: Pedro Aguilar

“I’ve always strived to use organic curves and sculptural shapes that complement the foot,” says Pierre Hardy, referring to designs for his own brand and those for Hermès. “A geometric heel makes a great contrast to the body’s softness, like a nude statue on a column. It’s simple, modern and elegant.” His Cassidy boot (€995) ticks all those boxes – straight-sided, with a gracefully curved, set-back mid-heel sculpted on an arch and a curved top to match. At the same time, it offers a faint echo of Western style, a current fashion obsession. “Western style is free and playful, but only when it’s subtle, with a light touch,” says Hardy. Equally sculptural is his slender, over-the-knee goatskin boot (£1,200) for Hermès, contrasting with a bold colourblock wedge. 

Words such as “elegant” and “light” drop from designers’ lips to describe heels straight out of geometry  textbooks and curved uppers that frame the foot. “I’ve been creating sculptural shapes since I was born, but they always have to be light and subtle,” says Manolo Blahnik. “This autumn I’m inspired by baroque sculpture in Italian churches (Cuenta, £685, or Abukov, £855) and by midcentury modernism (Lobita, £695, or Layevitch, £975), but it’s just a touch or it looks heavy.” He also points to customers driving this change. “Heels are definitely lower,” says Blahnik. “Sculptural shapes look less overdone. At my recent exhibition launch in Canada, most guests were wearing 3-5cm heels.”

David Tourniaire-Beauciel, the designer reviving 1980s star brand Clergerie, believes very high heels do women a disservice. “Our shoes are always sculptural, but it’s sculpture dedicated to movement,” says Tourniaire-Beauciel. “Lower heels, light materials and shapes such as cutaway, asymmetric heels or curvy, streamlined wedges are modern and practical.” His Solal (£450) and Gatsby (£540) strike the right balance of being unusual without being too extreme. 

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Nicholas Kirkwood, another fan of sculptural style, cites Barbara Hepworth, Donald Judd and the landscape-and-light work of James Turrell as inspiration. When he introduced his 5cm triangular Prism heel in 2013 “there was nothing like it,” he says. “The mid-heel was considered mumsy and undesirable, but I wanted to make it modern and relevant.” It is still an inspiration – the new Veronika (£575) inverts the triangle to the back of the heel, while the profile is slanted. Turrell’s influence appears in the Plexiglas heels of ombré colour on the Courtney (from £750) and crystalline structure on the Kim ankle boot (£1,525), made from a compressed, deconstructed knit

Plexiglas is fertile ground for other designers; it can, for example, be faceted like crystals or cut glass in “whisky tumbler” form, as seen on the sequinned Treasure Stardust Sequin Fantasy shoes (£825) by Rupert Sanderson. “All shoe design is sculptural to some degree. Whether it’s moulding a Lucite heel into cut‑glass form or making an upper flow around the foot, the contrast between the two is exciting,” says Sanderson. “Sculpture is not functional, it’s art, but  a shoe must be practical. Getting it right is a balancing act.” A graceful example is his smooth, organic pebble shape – based on one he found on a Sri Lanka beach 20 years ago – that has become a brand signature and can morph from a metal buckle (pump, £525) to a sensuous velvet mule (£495). 

Giuseppe Zanotti, a long-term bold shape shifter, puts ice-inspired facets on his Ghiaccio boot (£730) and turns metal elemental with his lightning-shape G heel (£530). “Sculpture offers endless inspiration,” he explains. “The lightning is a sculptural adaptation of my G signature to look more powerful than a traditional stiletto or kitten heel, while the facets heel is a luxurious contrast to a simple, modern, tactile nappa upper.” 

Pierre Hardy calfskin Cassidy boots, €995
Pierre Hardy calfskin Cassidy boots, €995

Christian Louboutin is another designer having a ball with sculptural shapes. His new collection includes futuristic column-heeled boots with scalloped soles (Oriona, £1,475), Plexiglas block-heeled pumps (Space Bool, £685) and designs with details based on 1960s sculpture (Rotonda, £785), furniture (Elyette, £975) and patterns (Flat Interior, £635). “A shoe is a ‘little architecture’, a subtle matter of proportion,” explains Louboutin. “I found myself looking at 1960s and ’70s interior design and the ‘futuristic cells’ conjured up by Jacques Grange, Michel Boyer and Gabriella Crespi. I was also inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and interior designer David Hicks’ geometric shapes.” 

At Jimmy Choo, creative director Sandra Choi is similarly inspired by renowned artistic endeavour. “I love the clean lines of Brancusi’s work and try to channel metal and stone into delicate, elegant shapes that are balanced and practical,” she says. “Our prototype last is made to my foot, so I can test everything. I’m loving voluptuous, curved shapes like our Samantha mule (£1,195), which is textured with rounded pearls that complement the curved sides and toe cleavage. While Edwardian-inspired, it looks very modern.” Choo’s Tanya boot (£1,050) elongates the leg with a sinuous curve of subtly coloured Swarovski crystal that segues upwards into a matching cockade – the lightest possible version of sculpture.

If established brands are rising to this new challenge, much of the initial impetus comes from younger designers. Their standard bearer is Jacquemus (Blahnik is a fan), where designer Simon Porte electrified his 2017 autumn/winter show with mismatched pairs – one spherical, one cylindrical heel on simple pumps – that were an instant commercial success. Now his concept is more delicate, with fine straps, crossed or slanted, and a pointed toe on a light-looking, turned-wood heel (Camil, £445). 

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The geometric heel idea has sparked other imaginations, such as Korean designer Sunyuul Yie, whose shoes feature elegant cone heels (from £245) atop pearls, and inverted pyramids (£260), as well as Rejina Pyo, whose collection includes subtly organic mules in bright contrasting shades with a gold heel (Connie, £440) and geometric Cuban heels (Dolores, £495). And then there are London-based Neous’ Loda shoes (£495) with spherical heels in Perspex and beechwood, or sporting a bright red dot (£595), or the brand’s half-egg-heeled boots (£670). Yie cites midcentury sculptures by Jean Arp and nature as her inspiration; Pyo looks to Brancusi, Arp and Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi.

Interpreting such forms as footwear presents technical challenges, as Zanotti explains of his G heel. “A special steel structure that follows the exact curves of a stiletto heel is used to stabilise and balance the shoe,” he says. “This technical structure defines the product’s true quality.” Unconventional designs also need exhaustive testing. Co-founder of Neous Alan Buanne, who trained with Kirkwood, says he and fellow designer Vanissa Antonious “love the sense of duality and contrast that opposing materials give, but they require the right materials, machinery and adhesives. We work in Florence with artisan heel makers whose families have been in this field for decades – it’s a highly technical world of its own.” 

There is perhaps one more reason for the rising popularity of low, sculptural heels. As Hardy eloquently puts it, current fashion has a “decorative abundance” and we have maybe reached peak pattern and need a palate cleanser. Designers whose shoes are adjuncts to a complete fashion collection, such as Jacquemus or Pyo, are disciples of form, drape and simplicity rather than print and embellishment. As Buanne says: “Our intuition tells us that the shoes shouldn’t speak louder than the wearer.” This look is hard to perfect, but these sculptural shoes, which can alter the whole tenor of an outfit, are a good place to start.

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