It’s fitting that, when they went up for auction last year, a pair of Marie Antoinette’s shoes – silk kitten heels in mint and champagne silk – fetched a phenomenal €50,000. France’s fashionable elite has always had a passion for glamorous footwear, no one more so than the doomed queen. But the French affinity with elaborate footwear isn’t confined to history. As Paris’s current shoe designers demonstrate, this love is still very much alive and celebrated on the feet of well-heeled Parisiennes.
Walk this way
Walking into the city’s Roger Vivier boutique is a revelation. Not for nothing was the eponymous designer known as the ‘Fragonard of the shoe’. Be it in plumes of feathers erupting from a heel, a leather shoe strap sculpted into the shape of a rose (with the heel spiked with lacquer thorns) or a pair of wedges festooned so theatrically in silk flowers that the actual body of the shoe is almost concealed, Roger Vivier shoes are works of art for the feet. Embroidered, decorated and dappled in gemstones, their opulence speaks of women whose usual walk is no further than from the limousine to the hotel lobby, even in the relatively simple flats with the iconic square toe and buckle. While his claim that he created the stiletto heel has been contested and is a topic of debate, there’s no denying that his spiked heels – pencil thin and lethal looking – were pioneering.
A galaxy of stars
As well as producing his own designs, Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior, working with the man himself and then his successor, Yves Saint Laurent. Over his long career, he created footwear for a starry client list, including the gold pumps for the 1953 coronation of the British queen Elizabeth II, and shoes for Catherine Deneuve during her career-defining turn in Belle de Jour, Ava Gardner and Gloria Guinness.
What defined his work was a sense of theatricality and unashamed excess, and his legacy lives on thanks to entrepreneur Diego Della Valle’s purchase of the label in 2000. As its brand ambassadress Inès de La Fressange has said, ‘Brands like Vivier are pillars, they are monuments of fashion; they are names we don’t forget.’ Under creative director Bruno Frisoni the artfulness of the shoes hasn’t been forgotten, either; they are still handmade, and many are made to order. It’s at Rogier Vivier that you can find an atelier hand-painting silk bluebells to adorn a heel strap, for example.
Red carpet, red soles
That combination of seductiveness and attention to detail is also integral to Christian Louboutin, the Paris-based label founded in 1991 and beloved of the red-carpet contingent as well as the fashion elite. Louboutin trained under Vivier, and inherited his joie de vivre approach to footwear. As his muse, long-time friend and renowned fashion personality Daphne Guinness declares, ‘Christian is an artist who has chosen to make shoes his canvas.’ Certainly, it’s a canvas that’s emblazoned with colour; he famously painted the soles of a pair of heels with red nail polish one day because he felt something was missing.
The red soles have gone on to define his signature flamboyance: a flash of seductive scarlet as a woman kicks up her heels. ‘I wanted to create something that broke rules and made women feel confident and empowered … It’s an expression, I like my customer to be fierce.’ Whether it’s in a heel studded in spikes, in a gleaming Cinderella-inspired glass slipper or something emblazoned in neon graffiti, it’s hard to believe she’d feel anything but.
While his pieces are somewhat more low-key than those at Roger Vivier or Christian Louboutin, Paris shoe designer Pierre Hardy has proved just as experimental in his pieces since he launched his own brand in 1999, having previously created shoes at Dior and Hermès. Taking a geometric, technical approach, his footwear has become known for its ‘block’ heels, futuristic metallic finishes and bold use of colour. He says of his pursuit for the perfect pair of high heels: ‘It’s a question of balance, balance between the shape and the volume of the heel and the shape and volume of the foot,’ although he also admits, ‘I have no rules at all.’ Breaking rules and creating footwear that defies convention, Paris’s shoe designers are continuing to tread their own path.