It’s 20 years since Christian Louboutin’s red soles and towering heels turned shoes into fetish objects seen on the feet of everyone from Madonna to Victoria Beckham and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. As next week’s retrospective of the designer’s career at London’s Design Museum shows, his lace-up boots and studded sneakers, not to mention sexually charged images of voluptuous women wearing nothing but Louboutins by “Blue Velvet” director, David Lynch, helped change the understanding of shoes in society.
He was not alone, however, and is not the only shoe designer being honoured by an institution this season. This July the exhibition “Vivienne Westwood Shoes” will be going to Berlin, having spent last year touring Selfridge’s Ultralounge in London, the Linda Sursock Palace in Beirut, the Parlour Gallery in Moscow’s Tsvetnoy Central Market, and the Bowes Museum in County Durham. Westwood is also in talks to take the show to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013 and Taiwan’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Elsewhere, the work of avant-garde cobbler Kei Kagami was showcased at the Steinbeisser space at Amsterdam’s hip Lloyd Hotel last winter and will feature again at the Portal Gallery in Perth in July 2013, and the Dutch leather and shoe museum in the Netherlands, March to May 2013. Finally, the first North American exhibition of Roger Vivier shoes opens at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum on May 9 2012. In other words, shoes have officially walked into the cultural sphere.
“Shoe shows are easy wins to guarantee an audience, as women really love shoes,” says Beatrice Behlen, senior curator of fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London, which owns more than 650 pairs of shoes, from Roman leather sandals to Biba peep toes. Louboutin has 3,000 women on his customer books who each own 500 pairs, and one who owns more than 6,000 pairs, according to Donna Loveday, the Design Museum’s head of curatorial. And the 2003 Manolo Blahnik show at the Design Museum is still its most popular exhibition, ahead of the more recent Hussein Chalayan, Matthew Williamson and Zaha Hadid exhibitions. Likewise, the Westwood shoe show at The Bowes Museum, held in June/July 2011, saw a 225.5 per cent increase in adult visitors over the same period the previous year.
“These were the highest figures we had seen for 10 years from the moment the show opened,” says Joanna Hashagen, keeper of textiles at The Bowes Museum. “It brought in a completely different audience to the museum – younger, more fashionable – and from further afield.”
High visitor numbers are not just thanks to the variety of styles and aesthetics on display, but the approach to the displays. The Design Museum placed Manolo Blahnik’s elegantly embroidered courts behind glass cases like jewels. “We very much focused on his design process and his decorative elements like embroidery,” says Loveday. For Louboutin’s show, the museum is making the designer and his sexy heels more accessible, with open display spinning carousels and personal objects. “I wanted to convey who he is, his roots, how he designs and what is it about his shoes that is so appealing,” says Loveday.
At the Westwood show blown-up graphic panels of famous catwalk shows including Naomi Campbell tumbling from her sky high platforms purposely dominated. “It made people concentrate on them as if they were miniature works of art, not just wacky, sexy shoes,” says Hashagen.
The innovative Steinbeisser space at the Lloyd Hotel allowed Kei Kagami’s designs (think heels sculpted into burning steel flames) to be presented in an everyday, yet unexpected environment where people can examine them closely. “Placing shoes in a bar was experimental, just like Kei’s shoes. We wanted to show how he worked and not have any distance from the object,” says Martin Kullik, curator of Steinbeisser and creator of the Kagami retrospective. As for Roger Vivier, Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Bata Shoe Museum, says the decision to juxtapose shoes against the designer’s original drawings shows a different side of the couture cobbler. “We’ve mixed things up – arranging one of his shoes in the same manner as his drawings to compare and help contextualise the conditions in which the shoes were made.”
‘Christian Louboutin’ is on at the Design Museum from May 1 to July 9 2012, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD, 020 7940 8790, www.designmuseum.org