When shoe designer Stuart Weitzman’s wife, Jane, published her book Art & Sole (Harper Design International) last summer, she highlighted a movement that has since had the full glare of fashion attention turned upon it. The Weitzmans had long commissioned from young artists what she describes as “art shoes – pure fantasy, not meant to be worn” for the windows of their Manhattan store, made from any materials their creators fancied: metal, ceramic, resin, paper, feathers, playing cards or fresh flowers.
They originated, says Stuart Weitzman, “when we opened as a then-small brand next to much bigger, better-known names, and we needed something to get noticed. They were never intended to be anything more, but people started to anticipate the display each season and artists began coming to us.” Most of the shoes have been commissioned from emerging youngsters, whose careers they have helped to launch. They are so beautiful that the Weitzmans have built them into a collection now numbering more than a thousand, and Art & Sole features what they consider to be the best 150, with photographs, descriptions and biographies of the artists.
The collection’s success shows how shoes are fertile ground for artistic inspiration – and for spring, fashion has taken this to heart. Karl Lagerfeld set the Chanel show in a spoof gallery, with KL-signed works of art on the white walls and giant bags as sculptures. Everywhere, handpainted-looking prints superseded complex digital ones as the patterns of the season, and artists from Mondrian (Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen) to Hélio Oiticica (Roksanda Ilincic) were cited as direct influences.
Artistic shoes are nothing new, as the wonderful recent exhibition on Roger Vivier, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, forcefully illustrated. In the 1950s and 1960s, especially in his work for Dior and Saint Laurent, Vivier was creating shapes, such as the Virgule “comma” heel (after which the show was named), with decorations in feathers, silk flowers and embroidery that still look adventurous and which the house’s current designer Bruno Frisoni uses for inspiration (Mille Fleurs sandals, £575). The curator, Olivier Saillard, grouped the shoes under superficially obscure but subtly pertinent art-movement titles, such as Northern Schools or Italian and Spanish Sculptures, and mixed Vivier’s pieces seamlessly with Frisoni’s so that dates became irrelevant. “All his shoes were sculptures and art was his passion,” says Frisoni. “For instance, his African collection led to the Saint Laurent Mask shoe and Mondrian’s minimalism inspired the classic Belle Vivier pump.”
In recent years, platforms, wedges and super-high heels have allowed designers plenty of blank-canvas space to exercise their imaginations. However, much of this – and many of the extraordinarily ornate pieces that have resulted – has been about decoration. Craft, perhaps, rather than art. “Historically, right back to the 18th century, shoes have reflected the decorative styles of their period, such as rococo or art deco,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and author of new book Shoe Obsession (Yale University Press). “Especially in his work with Saint Laurent, who was always heavily influenced by art, Vivier was one of the first to deliberately reference movements from all periods in his designs, hence the relevance of Saillard’s titles. Now we see more direct links, such as Manolo Blahnik using Damien Hirst’s dot patterns a decade ago, or Nicholas Kirkwood’s collaboration with the Keith Haring Foundation three years ago.”
These were the forerunners of the emphasis on graphic, architectural, art-movement-inspired shape that is now taking over from decoration as a piece of the current art/fashion jigsaw. “We often look at the shoe as an object, with sculptural and abstract influences on how lines and proportions interact,” says Kirkwood, who has a strong art thread in every collection and is currently the British Accessories Designer of the Year. Steele believes shoes have become such an important part of fashion design that they have taken on an artistic life of their own. “They are so central to our notions of design that they are treated now as living pieces of sculpture,” she says. “I find people don’t care if they can’t walk in them. They just put them on a desk and look at them. With new techniques such as 3D printing, designers can create magical shapes that could not have been achieved so easily before.”
She cites Japanese-born designers such as Aoi Kotsuhiroi, whose extraordinary work in lacquered cherry wood and antelope horn graces her book’s cover, and Noritaka Tatehana, whose handmade, heelless numbers are often worn by Lady Gaga. “He made me a pair, nine inches high, to wear for the book launch and I exercised for months beforehand, but it only took 35 minutes before they became complete agony,” Steele says. Mindful that many obsessives want to be able to wear artistic shoes, and that such extreme footwear may not be practical, designers are steering a more judicious course, helped by the lower and thicker heels that are au courant. The movements influencing them are many and varied but, in keeping with today’s general fashion, the majority relate to 20th-century styles, from cubism to pop art, although some go back further.
The cubist heel was arguably first developed by Kirkwood in 2011 for a Peter Pilotto collection, but has since become a sculptural modern classic. He believes such forms are increasingly important “as a respite from the commercial work we all do. I value them for my artistic credibility – and for my soul”. Now Phoebe Philo’s design team at Céline has reduced the cube to a strong metal frame, adding a trapeze, a hemisphere and a solid metal ball to summer ankle boots (from €1,790) and repeating the shapes in faux stones as decoration on sandals. Kirkwood himself has evolved the cube into a slight trapeze with his trademark notch on the inside (from £295), while reviving the cube in his work for Pollini, interpreted in materials from engraved metal to marbled Lucite. Even Frisoni at Vivier does a cube version of the house’s normally slanted block heel, albeit with U-shaped corners (£610). “There is such emotion and creative freedom in art that it is always the basis and my moodboard is always full of it,” he says. “Today, we are in a very abstract movement.”
Architecture and shoes make happy bedfellows and a number of designers capture very specific variants of 20th-century modernism with spare, restrained lines and clean block colour. Brunello Cucinelli, who creates a complete look, from separates to shoes, references “Bauhaus protocol” for a simple leather and suede sandal glinting with fine silver chain (£790). “This credo, based as it is on form following function, desires the removal of anything extraneous, affected or merely decorative,” he says. “It is the perfect inspiration for an active couture collection – the influence of art is always present.” Ilincic pinpoints the Brazilian Oiticica and the neo-concretism movement for her spring collection and chose Kirkwood’s moulds to actualise her designs (from £590). “This artist’s feel for colour and abstraction really resonates with me,” she says. “The complementary shoes are graphic but playful; we used bold colour and bows to achieve this.”
Atalanta Weller, meanwhile, was fascinated by “sculpture and especially Hepworth and Brancusi – I aspire to emulate their balance of line and form in a functional shoe. This time I was also intrigued by the work of the postwar protagonist Paolo Scheggi and his redefinition of space and shape.” The result is an extraordinary cut-out boot (£480).
Bringing architecture up to date, Weitzman has designed an elegant, fluid shoe inspired by sculptural silhouettes (£350), and he persuaded Zaha Hadid to make his Milan store her first retail project in Italy. He believes the only valid shoe is one that offers a modicum of comfort and adheres to strict principles of balance and support – scarcely credible in such a delicate creation. In contrast, other recent movements, especially the mesmerising monochrome of op art, have resulted in Weller’s bold interwoven ankle boots (£480), Kirkwood’s stripes and chevrons (from £695) and Kurt Geiger’s little woven checkerboard loafers (£220). The cartoonish hues of pop art are a favourite with Emerging Accessories Designer of the Year Sophia Webster, an alumna of the Kirkwood studio. “Shoes complement an outfit the way art completes a room, evoking opinion and creating emotion,” she says. “Speech-bubble shoes [from £395] are my take on the great pop artists.” Miuccia Prada uses the same primary shades, adding baubles rather than bubbles. Futurism is another stalwart influence, interpreted for spring in Fendi’s silver renditions (£2,550), Vivier’s abstract Prismick designs, Geiger’s sculptural colour blocking (£260) and, most spectacularly, in McQueen’s stiletto space boots, filtered through tribal and early-20th-century art and made from hand-sculpted Perspex (£2,645).
For more traditional tastes, impressionism and pointillism are rich sources for print, from Vivier (from £575) to Rupert Sanderson’s embroidered heels (£545) inspired by Manet’s painting Moss Roses in a Vase. Tangled nature, as seen in Rousseau’s naive landscapes, is a huge influence, often with a malevolent twist reminiscent of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal: poisonous-looking vines strangling high‑stepping sandals at Dior (£1,000), virulent-green jewelled coils at Prada (£830), scarily big butterflies at Webster (£410) and jungles seen through the distorted prism of Mat Collishaw’s Sordid Earth installation at Jimmy Choo, whose creative director Sandra Choi believes in a “mutual appreciation between art and fashion – each is the way its practitioners communicate their feelings”.
Surrealism has been a winner ever since Schiaparelli’s lobster hat and is mirrored in Charlotte Olympia’s sandals (£895), Chanel’s ribbed-sock boots (£570), Dolce & Gabbana’s column heels (£810) and Maison Martin Margiela’s raised-heel pumps (£663). So pick your art movement and find the shoe that reflects it.