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Obituary: Roger Vivier

A CERTAIN mystery surrounded the person of the great French shoemaker Roger Vivier.

He had been a famous bottier - a French trade name that covers shoe as well as boot-making, in both of which forms he became an expert. Yet, on his death, few people knew who he was, or what he had been. He flitted in and out of the fashion worlds of Europe and America like a gilded dragonfly, shimmering with all the colours of the rainbow. A solid workman, dedicated craftsman but, like his best creations, almost illusory.

He had the good luck to be an orphan, brought up by an aunt who encouraged his early artistic tendencies. He started his multi-faceted career on the stage, as a supernumerary at the old Theatre de Belleville, where he met the Austrian theatrical designer and decorator Paul Seltenhenmammer, who persuaded him to take up design rather than drama. Vivier had attended the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts for a brief studentship. He dropped out in order to devote himself to shoe creation as a humble apprentice in a relative's workshop.

Roger's first customers were Mistinguett and Josephine Baker. These music hall stars spread his name in the theatre world, allowing him to open his own atelier in 1937, on the Place Vendome, an expensive chocolate box of a jewellers' shop in the centre of Paris. After his founding of the Maison Vivier he became associated with all the leading dress designers: Christian Dior, Schiaparelli, Gres and the shoemaker Bally.

During the Second World War, he emigrated to the United States, where lack of suitable materials made him turn to the creation of unusually exquisite hats that somehow managed to defy wartime regulations.

On his return to France after the Occupation, he found the Paris fashion scene in a ferment of creativity. The clodhopper wartime wooden soles were out, and a new elegance and sexiness returned to feminine footwear. Using skilfully engineered metal structures, Vivier produced graceful cantilever and lightweight shoes with a distinctive high stiletto heel, a style that changed women's appearance in a dramatic way, for they almost had to learn a new manner of walking and standing around. There had been previous attempts to popularise the dizzying heights of such heels, but they were not so well engineered and were made usually of wood, so that the most slender makes often snapped.

Vivier made high heels that were no longer associated with fetishistic porno publications. They were intended to emphasise a lissom calf, a pert ankle clad in sheer silk or in the new nylon stockings. The seductive back seam with its expressive, subtly curved line was the perfect extension of the witty high-level heel and plunging instep descending into ten pretty toes. Such shoes improved a woman's entire silhouette.

Vivier worked with all the top fashion houses - Pierre Balmain, Guy Laroche, Balenciaga, Nina Ricci. For Yves Saint Laurent he conceived in 1965, for the Mondrian dresses, square-heeled glace kid moccasins with Puritan-style bright metal buckles, best-sellers by the thousands for the rest of the Sixties. He also created true Sleeping Beauty slippers of crystal on decorative tinsel heels and African-style fetishistic sandals, the acme of refined taste.

His ultra-smart boutique on the Avenue Montaigne had to close down at the end of the Sixties, but he went on working, and became artistic director of Myris, where he invented the seamless plastic-soled and plastic-heeled sandal, one of the most popular examples of pop French footwear.

His clients ranged from superstars of cinema and theatre to pop idols and royalty: Marlene Dietrich wears his creations in Hitchcock's Stage Fright and other great stars like Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Jeanne Moreau, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida were all shod by him. Vivier excelled himself when he created for the Queen's Coronation an exquisite pair of golden kid-skin shoes studded with three thousand tiny garnets. The Queen of Iran ordered hundreds of pairs of shoes from him in the Fifties, and among Imelda Marcos's notorious collection there were examples of his art.

Many of his shoes are now in fashion museums like the Musee Galliera museum of costume in Paris and even in art galleries like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was in that beautiful Paris museum that an exhibition in homage to Vivier's craft was held in 1987, drawing immense crowds.

Yet he remained an unobtrusive, modest person. I saw him once in his later years ambling along the streets of the old quarter of Toulouse, where he spent the happiest years of his life: a sweet, smiling "gentle man" walking on the arm of a faithful companion. He had at one time been married to Andree Fabre, by whom he had one son, but the marriage ended in an amicable divorce.

His decorations include Officier des Arts et des Lettres and the Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. He was deeply interested in modern art and interior decoration, and to the end of his life continued sketching his unique, inspired, fairy-like fantasies.

James Kirkup

Roger Henri Vivier, shoemaker: born Paris 13 November 1903; married Andree Fabre (one son; marriage dissolved); died Toulouse 3 October 1998.