United Nude’s fairy-tale success story is one born from romantic disappointment. Rem D Koolhaas, the footwear company’s creative director and co-founder, was studying architecture when he broke his heart over a girl, leading him to ‘scale down architecture to its smallest and most vulnerable size, that of a woman’s foot’. The story has a happy ending; Koolhaas’s initial designs were praised by Miuccia Prada and Sergio Rossi before he met Galahad Clark, a seventh-generation shoemaker and member of the Clarks dynasty, and launched United Nude in 2003.
Since then, the brand has become known for producing some of the world’s most technically advanced footwear, with designs that are instantly recognisable thanks to their clarity, elegance and innovation. Koolhaas (not to be confused with his architect uncle Rem Koolhaas) studied architecture at TU Delft (Technical University of Delft), and this training is evident in his sculptural shoes. ‘For each design I always start from a very clear and basic concept that is either a play on space or on gravity, which can be defined as an architectural approach,’ he concedes.
Breaking the box
United Nude’s designs have always pushed boundaries in the footwear field, even from the brand’s inception. ‘Back then, shoes in general were rather boring, so we saw a good opportunity for presenting different shoes with a new story,’ Koolhaas explains. Happily, the past 15 years has seen the industry start to take more risks, a development Koolhaas welcomes. ‘I think that the sharing of information through the Internet has led to this massive cross fertilisation in all creative fields, including shoes,’ he confirms. ‘We were one of the front runners in breaking the box, and I think we still are.’
A number of high-profile collaborations have helped United Nude stay ahead of the crowd. Koolhaas has worked with Dutch designer Iris van Herpen on nine consecutive Haute Couture catwalk shows, created a bespoke design for Lady Gaga’s Fame perfume launch (with 12-inch heels), and teamed up with architect Zaha Hadid to create the distinctive Nova shoe. ‘We work with people who bring new things to the table,’ says Koolhaas. ‘People who are different enough from us while being compatible enough to gain strength by joining forces, people with great talent, and people we inspire and who inspire us.’
For spring/summer 2015, the brand is continuing to innovate and has launched several new concepts, including the abstracted Lo Res range. The Lo Res Earth sandal looks set to be one of the shoes of the season; a unisex design, the shoe features an ergonomically shaped footbed, which conforms to the wearer’s foot, while its rounded toe and cleated rubber outsole lend a sport-luxe feel. Successes from previous seasons have also been reimagined for spring: note the Jacky boot with its bold geometric heel now available in new materials and colours.
For Koolhaas, innovation will always go far beyond new colours and materials. The designer is known for pioneering new manufacturing techniques and his championing of 3D printing is a prime example. Even so, he believes it will be some time before printed pumps become the norm. ‘In the near future 3D printing will probably only function as a more exclusive and niche production method for small quantities, say for a catwalk show or limited-edition design.’ United Nude’s next 3D-printing project will be produced alongside the industry’s market leader, 3D Systems, and will see five famous architects and designers create shoes to be shown at Salone del Mobile in Milan.
'The shoe that made me'
A line of watches and the Lo Res car are the two upcoming initiatives that Koolhaas is most excited about at the moment. The designer is also looking to introduce a new shop concept. United Nude stores typically feature dark décor with light installations providing movement, atmosphere and a spotlight for the shoes; in future, he hopes to create something a little less extreme and a little more practical to reflect a wider product offering.
Despite these diffusions, the Möbius shoe remains the design for which United Nude is known and its first success. It marked a new era in footwear manufacture and was the first to blur borders between industrial design and fashion. Its use of a single strip to form the sole, heel, foot bed and upper led to the invention of new construction methods and new materials. It remains Koolhaas’s favourite. ‘It’s perhaps my most iconic design, but, besides that, it is also the shoe that made me change my profession, started my career, made me change where I lived. In other words, this was not just a shoe that I made – it was also the shoe that made me.’