There's a designer out there with the name Koolhaas who calls himself a shoe architect. This is Rem D. Koolhaas, nephew of Rem Koolhaas, the high priest of High Modernism. Several years ago, the younger Koolhaas teamed up with Galahad Clark, whose family started the Clark shoe company in England, to build something called United Nude. Their latest creations are collaborations with the Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen and with Uncle Koolhaas’s erstwhile partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Zaha Hadid.
United Nude’s niche is the combination of high design, technology, and fashion to form creations that push the very notion of a shoe to the limit. A collaboration between Lacoste and Hadid produced a line of shoes that wrapped around the foot and calf in an abstraction of what a gladiator might have worn. But the latest Hadid creation is even more striking and, some might say, absurd. Hadid, with United Nude, pulled the shoe’s parts apart into horizontal layers, and then shifted them to create a cantilever for the heel that hovers almost seven inches over the ground. As objects, Hadid's Nova shoes look as if they would make Louboutins seem eminently wearable, but the company claims (and a video seems to show) that they have figured out the balance so that you can stride in confidence from your eminence.
The van Herpen shoes are, the designer claims, based on an interpretation of a banyan tree: They consist of a mass of injection-molded vines or roots surrounding the foot. I do not quite see the metaphor, as these strings do not root the shoe so much as they transform it into a clump that only hints at the foot’s shape. This is in keeping with van Herpen and several other contemporary fashion designers’ interest in fashion not as clothing the body so much as cloaking and extending it with forms that transform it into a piece of sculpture answering to the complexities of our environment.
The United Nude designs are, in other words, modern in the most profound sense of that descriptor: They question the relationship to what we know and what is—both physically and in terms of a notion of what it means to be human. The body is not the measure of all things, nor is it a perspective based on what we sense of the world, gravity, or the coherence of time and space. Instead, these designs worm us toward other possible realities.
What makes these shoes unique, on the one hand, is that they extend the possible through such a direct attachment to—or attack on, depending on your view—the body. On the other hand, they are rooted in the craft that the Clark side of the company brings to bear on the work: fine leather hides inside the plastic and rubber, and the hand finishes, with great precision in care, what the computer has started. That is one of the hidden strengths of all great Modernism: whether it is Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House or a classic Jaguar, they are beautifully and expensively made.
That also limits this kind of modernist objects’ effect. While the radical nature of their form restricts their appeal to a defined audience, the cost associated with creating such crafted Modernism further limits their clientele to those who can afford to accept and act on such views through purchase. For the rest of us, these shoes are just one stride too far—though we might enjoy watching the moneyed avant-garde striding off with elegance into an unknown and post-human future.