Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sole searching for the perfect heel

Years ago I walked into Harrods in London wearing a pair of electric-blue Wellington boots. It had been snowing outside, the snow had melted and re-frozen into sleet which made the London pavements not only even harder on the feet than normal, but also highly slippery. This was no consolation to the blue-rinsed, tweedy county dowager whom I encountered in the loos - she looked me up, and she looked me down, and disapproval bristled up and down her well-bred spine.

I was a small-town South African girl who was unfamiliar with English mores and dress codes (Wellies in the country only, and green ones at that!)and this was the first time I had ever got a ticket from the Shoe Police. I got to know them better in Italy later on, but that is a story for another day. How was I to know this was such a narcissistic, shallow world where you really were judged by your footwear and not by practicality alone?

My first visit to Harrods was a lesson which instilled a lifelong interest and attraction to shoes, though. I love an elegant heel, a perfect shape, a high arch, exquisite details, peeptoes which show off Smartie-painted toes, a classic court, and oh yes!, the perfect boot. I may have left my idealistic girl self behind and become part of the painted, showy universe but, boy, is it seductive to be a grown-up and a lady.

The search for the perfect anti-aging wrinkle cream may continue but doesn't a girl feel fantastic every time she slips on a fine pair of shoes? I spend many happy hours windowshopping for what I can't afford in real life. In Sex and the City a pair of Manolos cost $400, in Johannesburg they cost the equivalent of your rent. Or the rent of a store in one of our fine upmarket malls, to be precise.

I wrote a story for Elle magazine a few years ago about women's obsession with shoes, which had gained the name of "Bootism". One thing which fascinated me was the Italian shoemakers and how they could engineer something within such a small space which could carry the weight of a woman on at least four inches, while pampering her back and feet.

Two years ago, you will be happy to hear, I went back to Harrods and headed straight for the shoe department. And what did I find there?!! Wellies, gumboots, or whatever you care to call them, wall-to-floor, flowered ones, sexy gold ones - and even an electric-blue boot or two. The gumboot was now the hottest thing of the season. Where was that disapproving Englishwoman now, I wondered? It seemed that my shoe choice had been an idea before its time.

My second time I wandered around looking at all the latest styles but was particularly mesmerised by the craftsmanship and design of the Louis Vuitton shoes. They were tres, tres elegant with the most interesting heel design I had yet encountered. I carried this interest home with me and regularly pop into the Johannesburg LV store to see their seasonal stock. I have also watched with interest what Louis Vuitton has been doing on the ramp with their recent collections (eg the African sandals produced for their 2009 Spring/Summer collection). It's art on a foot.

I have always loved the Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and vintage luggage but now a new seed is sprouting in my heart, a love of their witty, inspired, creative and very charming footwear.

It was Giselle Hon, the PR manager for Louis Vuitton South Africa, who told me about the latest developments in the LV shoe department. Most people know that Marc Jacobs took over as artistic director at LV but how many people know who Serge Alfandary is?. He's the Shoes Department Director based at
Louis Vuitton's Fiesso d'Artico plant near Venice. So, even though LV is a French label, the decision was taken in 2009 to establish the plant in Italy, in an area renowned for its shoe-crafting skills from as early as the 13th century.

Visiting the plant would be a dream come true, and Giselle has made the pilgrimage ... it's designed very simply, like a Louis Vuitton "shoe-box", with a steel screen enveloping the building, making it opaque from the outside. A big plus is that the plant is also environmentally green, with insulated walls, solar panels and a geothermal heating system.

One of the most attractive features of the plant is the contemporary artwork: which consists of, guess what, three outsized, shoe-shaped sculptures. The first to greet visitors is a white pump shoe sculpture by Jean-Jacques Ory, with a portrait of Botticelli's Venus within. It's not so much the Old Woman in the Shoe, more like an upscaled version of something Princess Di would have worn to Ascot.

Then, you can't miss it, on the lawns is a 4,70 metre glittering fish-scale stiletto called "Priscilla" by Joana Vasconcelos.

The whole place is a shoe fetishist's paradise and the piece de resistance inside the cloister is Nathalie Decoster's L'Objet du desir.

There is also a library inside dedicated to books on shoes. Oh my lordy, does that not sound like a dream come true? And there are orgasmic displays of shoes on the walls ...

There is an unbelievable amount of work that goes into making just one pair of shoes at the Fiesso d'Artico plant from painting of the edges with a brush, to bias seams and buffing. Each pair takes on average two days to make and demand between 150 to 250 operations, depending on how complex the designs are. Many operations are performed by hand, a real labour of love.

LV clearly believes in pushing the design envelope and, Giselle tells me, Sofia Coppola (of Marie Antoinette fame) is now designing a line of handbags and clutch bags, especially for the working woman.

It's all a long way from my blue Wellington days and hopefully my love of shoes can only flourish and grow the more I find out about them. No more shoe police for me!



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