What goes into a pair of $1k shoes?

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The power of heels: World’s Top designers muse on shoes

Women’s shoes are often regarded as small torture chambers for our feet, designed to give us an instant leg-up in the glamor charts while reducing us to an eye-watering hobble come the end of the day.

But there is so much more to the female footwear story than this one, painful, cliché.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum explores the extremes in footwear from around the globe, presenting some 200 pairs that mark both historical and conceptual landmarks from the vertiginous platforms of the 18th century Manchu, to the teetering Vivienne Westwood heels of 1990’s.

Inspired by the exhibition, CNN Style spoke to four international shoe designers — whimsical veteran Manolo Blahnik, arbiter of glamor Charlotte Dellal of Charlotte Olympia, forward-thinking conceptualist Pierre Hardy, and red carpet mainstay Stuart Weitzman — about their own shoe philosophies, delving into these tiny feats of design to discover the imagination, history and overall complexity of fashion’s most popular accessory.

Manolo Blahnik

Spaniard Manolo Blahnik is the designer and founder of the eponymous luxury shoe brand.
Spaniard Manolo Blahnik is the designer and founder of the eponymous luxury shoe brand.

On improving upon nature: The feet have always been the inspiration, the trigger for all things. If you have horrible feet, I always see the challenge to make it better. I love that very much; it’s part of my culture.

A shoe is completing a woman in the sense of converting the foot into something else. Even the ugliest foot is going to be okay with a shoe that I do. This is the redeeming quality of a shoe well-made.

On the trap of nostalgia: This is a very confused period. People are too young to know that the proportions and the platforms and the 70’s were just repulsive. They think it’s just fabulous, but it’s not. People don’t have memories anymore after the huge confusion of the internet. Too much information. Maybe eventually they’ll come back and say “Ha! This is horrible,” and then go back again to normal things, beautiful, elegant things.

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On the wealth of history: I’ve always love extremities in statues, Greek and Roman, in museums all around the world. My mother was completely addicted to museums and I was addicted too.

Some of the shoes [I design] go back to Greece and the Hellenistic period, and things like that, but they’re completely different. Nothing like that was in Hellenistic times. My mind works that way: I just put details that remind of me of that kind of period. You’ve got moments.

Sometimes I really go into historical moments. For instance, I did a shoe — the Morfia — and the front is inspired by when Alexander the Great went to Babylon. There he got married with the wonderful Roxana. This idea came from an 18th century print. Eighteenth century prints of the imagination are not exact, but you know, this is the idea where it came from.

On perfection: I like to do with absolute perfection the best I can. This is really my challenge nowadays. As you get to a certain age, you’ve got to do the best you can because it’s the only way you can really get satisfaction.

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The Anglo-Brazilian Charlotte Dellal founded her shoe label, Charlotte Olympia, in 2008.

On the high heel as object of art: I love collecting beautiful things. I love objects and, to me, the shoe is a wearable object that stands alone beautifully. It looks good on the foot, off the foot, or on your mantelpiece.

Just from a design aesthetic, they have a wonderful shape and feel. With the high heel, there’s the negative space between the heel and the ball of the foot, as well as the shoe itself. It becomes sculptural.

On the transformative power of accessories: It’s a cliché in saying, but I do think accessories — shoes particularly — change an outfit. You can literally dress up when you put on a pair of high heel shoes. It changes the whole thing: the posture, the attitude, the feeling. Everything. It elevates you in every sense of the word; it makes you feel somewhat special. You feel that bit different with high heels.

On pain over pleasure: As a female designer, I get to wear my products, so I really know what it’s like to live in them, walk in them, wear them. I am the fit model.

I think that a lot of women accept that shoes can be painful, but I like to make them as comfortable as they possibly can be. It’s not so much about “Oh, they look beautiful, you’ll break them in after a few days, or a few dances.” It’s very important for my shoes to be functional, not just look pretty. It’s not about compromising one for the other.

French designer Pierre Hardy originally trained in fine arts and dance.
French designer Pierre Hardy originally trained in fine arts and dance.

On the future present: Fashion is short-view sci-fi. It’s sci-fi for tomorrow, not into a century or two centuries.

There is something about the projection that you have to reach to create new shapes and to invent a new type of object, but at the same time fashion talks about femininity and about elegance and about chic. All these notions are from the past, almost historic, and make reference to ideal shapes that we already know.

That’s something I love about fashion: to combine the desire for the future not with nostalgia, but with the knowledge of what was before; to try to combine those two opposite elements.

There was a period when people were much more prospective, and believed much more in the future and in progress — for example, in the 50’s and the 60’s, and even the 70’s sometimes. But nowadays we embrace a lot of different periods, a lot of different styles altogether. I think regarding artists and the history of art, our period is very baroque moment, a much combined moment, not a new aesthetic moment.

On feminist footwear: In our society, you know, civilization, walking barefoot is forbidden. Totally. Even if you aren’t aware of it, this taboo is included in your mind. It’s an obligation, a constraint. I think shoes and this love of shoes is a way to twist this constraint into a pleasure. It’s the definition of feminism or desire. Because you don’t have this reason to go barefoot, let’s make the shoe as glorious as possible.

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