The word Artist has become ubiquitous in the 21st Century. Everyone is now an Artist, from Doctors to Scrapbookers, so I try to use it sparingly! Now you know I mean it when I state here that Roger Vivier was a true artist among designers. Ever since I saw the sparkling show (by brilliant curatorial upstart Olivier Saillard) of his work ( Virgule, etc. in the Footsteps of Roger Vivier ) in Paris this month, I have been asking myself "What makes Vivier's work stand head and shoulders above other shoe designers?" Maybe you have been wondering about this too, if not, maybe you should, not only because he changed fashionable shoes forever, but also because he was one of the 20th Century's greatest designers.
Vivier was the consummate designer (great bio here) wildly imaginative yet refreshingly concrete, always working in three dimensions, with a particularly complex understanding of form and it's interaction with his materials. He demanded more from himself than most shoe designers, creating each element of every silhouette himself, as well as the shoes themselves, including completely original, often counterintuitively shaped heels.
By contrast, most shoe designers work out their designs in sketch form, the last shapes having been determined by committee according to the fashion moment, and shoe craftsmen and engineers in the factory work out the relationship of the shoe to the last and heel, to be worked on by the designer later. Very few designers have had such an intimate relationship with the objects they create as Vivier had, functioning on so many levels simultaneously.
Cristobal Balenciaga and Charles James, Vivier's contemporaries and the two great fashion formalists of the 20th century, made their reputations by sheathing the human body underneath their clothes in independent forms, almost using bodies as hangers for their wonderful works. A shoe designer doesn't have this luxury, as the relationship of shoes to feet is inescapable, and there is a great temptation either to decorate or minimize the fashionable shoe forms of the day as a consequence. By contrast, even Vivier's Minimal shoes seem Maximal, as each line, shape, and material is pushed to the edge of its capability.
The two great shoe innovators of the 20th Century, Vivier and
Salvatore Ferragamo, have in common their completely original approaches to form
and materials, as well as being hands on designers and craftsmen, but
Ferragamo's approach seems very grounded in in craft, whereas Vivier is
reaching for the stars. Ferragamo has long been a household word, with a
large family to carry on his work, while Vivier, originally hidden
behind the Christian Dior and Delman labels, was a one man band. He was
worshipped by designers and fashion hounds throughout his long career, but only came
to prominence when his legacy was acquired by Diego Delle Valle in 2000,
continuing his work and aesthetic with the designer Bruno Frisoni.
Frisoni is one of many excellent designers working today who are are
more followers than leaders.
I first saw Vivier's lasts (the wooden forms that shoes are made on) at the wonderful Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (who mounted their own Vivier exhibit earlier this year) in the early 90's, and they completely blew my mind. Take a look at the contrast here between a Ferragamo and a Vivier last ....... The Ferragamo was something I could actually imagine as a young shoe designer, a good solid last for a frankly wearable shoe, while the Vivier lasts seem like they were shaped by a supernatural being. The wildly refined wooden last with its extraordinarily intricate form changes and edges was a revelation to me. Take a look at how each last has a completely different focus .... the first one has a full toe area, the toe in the second last is very narrowed down in every direction, and the third (the masterful Vivier touch) has an asymetrical angled toe which extends one of its sharp edges into the body of the shoe!
Vivier had the ability to distill each moment of time and fashion directly into his work. His work in the 30's and 40's is not yet visionary, but when he collaborates with Christian Dior in 1953 to help him fully express the post-war ultra feminine New Look, something clicks and his work changes shoe silhouettes forever. He then collaborates with Yves St Laurent in 1965 and comes up with the famous Belle de Jour shoe, named a couple of years after its creation when it was worn by housewife/call girl Catherine Deneuve in the Louis Malle film in 1967. It so perfectly evoked the spirit of its time that it became the most copied shoe of the 60's, if not of all time, and 50 pairs a day flew out of his shop.
Fashion silhouettes had become straightened out and elongated, and his shoe reflected this new attitude. A symphony of squares, it is one of his most gravity bound creations. Starting with the chunky heel I would lay you odds that he originated, mirrored by the square toe he definitely invented, echoed by the square "Pilgrim" buckle and squared inner line of the shoe, it was something a Modern Woman could actually run in.
If he didn't actually create the Stilletto heel (there are differing opinions) he certainly pushed it to its limit by manipulation in myriad ways that no one else could ever have figured out, then he did a complete turnaround in 1965 with the Belle de Jour shoe as the anti-Stilletto. It seems to me a typical Vivier move to explore every facet of a tall skinny heel, then abandon it never to look back. An interviewer asked Woody Allen which of his films is his favorite, and he said whichever he was working on at the moment, everything else was already finished. I can sense the same spirit in Vivier's work, each phase has his complete attention and whole-hearted commitment, then he is onto the next thing that stimulates him. He had so many ideas, along with the means to express and realize them, he just kept them coming. Look at the variations in this drawer, I can just see his designer's mind working, turning the shoe and its buckle (it was originally simply called "The Buckle Shoe") every which way .....
The first thing that distinguish a Roger Vivier shoe is its sculptural quality: the ultra refinement of its silhouette. This intensely refined form has the quality of movement, there isn't a static centimeter on any Vivier shoe, and they almost have a built in sense of perspective. They seem to be vanishing into a horizon line, perhaps into or out of moments of our our lives in his shoes. Their Beauty Intensity Quotient (BIQ ~ a term I just coined to fit this subject :-) is extremely high. Like the high notes that shatter glass, they are so animated and have such strong personalities, you can feel the vibration of almost every shoe buzzing inside their glass cases. They are also the result of an exotic aesthetic that reflects all of fashion history through its lens and focuses it on the moment the shoe was created.
As fashion icon and current Vivier muse Ines de la Fressange aptly says in the video linked here, "Each shoe elicits an emotion, perhaps this is the role of fashion."
Here are three shoes that personify Roger Vivier to me. The first hot pink beauty has an extraordinarily animated silhouette, at once suggesting the 17th Century and the 1950's streamlined shapes of Raymond Loewy. The shape of the heel evokes to me the court shoes of Louis XIV, which had to have their center of gravity moved in to support the foot in the absence of metal shanks, and thanks to shanks, Vivier could turn the heel outward (it was called the goat's hoof heel), while the hot pink color could even be a wink at Louis' red heels. Then the visual date stamp of the shoe abruptly shifts to the 50's in its fluid grace, and the undeniable Vivier mark is made upon them by the dipping interior line intensified by punctured petal shapes threaded with a rather casual bow, and the shaping of its knife sharp asymmetrical toe. Detail detail detail, I can see his mind working, leaving nothing unaddressed in the design of this shoe until it cannot be perfected any further. Et voila, an iconic Vivier!
The second shoe is a wildly embellished coral Maharahni number that doesn't sacrifice any of the integrity of its design to its fervid decoration. Again it combines the aesthetics of the 18th century and the 1950's with a liberal sprinkling of 1001 Arabian Nights, with its confined turned up Aladdin slipper toe. This shoe is literally dripping with jewels that are actually dangling off its surface! Impractical, yes, but extraordinarily animated and exciting. The tone on tone coralness of the shoe is something else that intensifies the vibrancy of this shoe and keeps it in the realm of perfect taste and harmony.
Contrast the coral confection with the purity of this green velvet pump. Since he didn't have to make allowances for the crunchy decorative beading, Vivier could shape the shoe more intricately so we can see the little curve above the same confined Aladdin toe calling our attention to its remarkable shape (shared with Ferragamo and often copied) then the inner line of the shoe undulates ever so slightly to intensify our experience of the green green green plush velvet surface, finally exiting at the curve of the back of the heel in one seamless line with the rather Empire heel whose surface seems to join the ground in a perfect arc.
There is not one straight centimeter in either the silk or the velvet shoe, while the crunchy jeweled shoe is all stops and starts through its embellishment, masterfully choreographed by Vivier.
With his prodigious output throughout 50 years, the eye and hand of a sculptor, and laserlike focus on every detail of design and construction, no one person has had more of an effect on the world of shoe design. As Manolo Blahnik proclaimed to me (name drop alert!) at one of his early personal appearances, before the shoe and accessory market exploded, "Without Vivier, there would be no shoes!"