Suddenly everyone started to float. When the first pair of shoes appeared on the catwalk at Antonio Berardi’s spring-summer 2008 show, few could have predicted the leavening effect they would have on footwear. Fashioned from silver snakeskin and featuring a 5.5-inch void where a stiletto would usually be found, the heel-less platforms embodied the renewed and continuing taste for unlikely (and very high) shoe shapes. Nowadays, no party or art opening is complete without a fashion-forward heiress, actress, or pop star tippy-toeing in unfathomable ortho-pods, clutching her stylist’s arm. Without tether, her shoes suggest, this woman just might fly away.
Naturally, there are some practical considerations. Newspapers have run foreboding articles quoting podiatrists concerned that the outrageous creations might cause long-term damage to knees and hips. As Lady Gaga found out when she fell over at Heathrow last June, there is a not-so-fine line between aesthetic fantasy and the painful reality of schlepping around an airport concourse. Still, fashion bloggers are full of admiration for the women who sacrifice physical comfort and speed for the sartorial achievement of donning “difficult” shoes. And designers have been only too willing to put their devotees to the test with a plethora of tricky statement styles to negotiate. From the towering sickle-shaped platform ankle boots in Olivier Theyskens’s final show for Nina Ricci to Alexander McQueen’s marvelous armadillo-like creations last spring to the offending nine-inch heel-less platforms made by Noritaka Tatehana for Lady Gaga, the last thing shoes have looked over the past three years is grounded.
Extreme shapes aren’t necessarily new, however. Mention the shoe-as-insane-design-object craze to Sergio Rossi’s creative director, Francesco Russo—the man behind the ubiquitous Yves Saint Laurent Tribute heel—and he will tell you that all paths lead back to André Perugia (1893–1977), the visionary French surrealist designer who made shoes for Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli. By the mid-20th century, Perugia had come up with an extremely tall heel-less shoe—employing the same strong steel shank under the sole, counterbalanced by a heavy weight at the toe, that’s used today. And it was the scientific formula underpinning Perugia’s 1953 corkscrew-heeled pumps that Russo utilized for the striking spiral heels in his fall 2009 collection. “Shoe design is just like architecture,” he says. “It’s based on numbers. There are statistical rules that determine whether a structure like Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing will stand up. Equally, the stability of the spiral heel depends on where the heel’s tip will touch the ground.” The difference between Perugia’s midcentury proposition and Russo’s 2009 reality lies not in design principles but in technological advances—whereas Perugia’s shoes were a visual idea that couldn’t actually be worn, the Sergio Rossi atelier experimented for three months to ensure that their coiled heel would remain rigid under body weight.
Indeed, it is the increasing access to technologies usually associated with architecture and product design that drives the most progressive footwear today. Philip Delamore, director of the Fashion Digital Studio at London College of Fashion, cites the accessibility of CAD (computer-aided design) software as the single most important factor affecting how shoe designers work. “Traditionally, shoes were defined by the shape of the [shoe] last, which of course represents the form of the foot,” he says. “But with 3-D modeling, you can sketch an idea in space—like the McQueen armadillo shoe shape—and address matters of structure and comfort later by scanning the last and locating it inside the shoe. If you look inside the McQueen, there’s a pretty conventional shoe in there, situated on top of that massive platform.”
A completed 3-D design can be used to create a cast for injection-molding multiple shoes. Or, most mind-boggling of all, the shoe can be “printed” in its entirety from the computer. Chinese designer Chau Har Lee, whose sculptural Lucite shoes were a highlight of the NewGen showcase at London Fashion Week in September, is a devoted convert to the 3-D design process. “I used to wrap paper and masking tape around a last so I could form a pattern to work from,” she says. “It was hugely time-consuming. But now I can immediately see on a screen what the shoe is going to look like. My Rapid Form shoe was designed entirely on the computer and then digitally ‘printed’ in one piece of resin. A laser beam darts across a platform, dropping layer after layer of liquid resin. Once finished, all the liquid drains away, and you’re left with the remaining resin shoe.” Because of the new technology, Har Lee’s Rapid Form shoe took a mere 28 hours to go from a 3-D drawing into a prototype fit for production.
This instant turnaround is a boon for designers wishing to cut costs and reduce lengthy manufacturing schedules to meet ever increasing retail demands. But how has the digital footwear revolution eased the plight of consumers who need to, you know, walk? “In view of all this technology, it’s astonishing how little we really know about feet,” says Delamore, who is embarking on a new research project with podiatrist Trevor Prior. The two will use 3-D foot scans and pressure readings to make recommendations on how to achieve that holy grail of footwear: a comfortable high-heeled shoe. Of course, many have tried over the years to bring high heels down to earth, and the lust for impossible shoes has not waned. After all, it’s hard to imagine Lady Gaga rocking Easy Spirits.