Walk of Fame: The genius of sole man Roger Vivier

A master of shoe design, Roger Vivier invented the stiletto. As a new book reveals his startling imagination, Olivier Saillard explains how the Frenchman turned footwear into artwork.

Roger Vivier's talent was a product of the 1920s. Featuring radically shortening skirts and dresses up to the knee, the decade consequently placed the emphasis on accessories. Young women went out dressed in straight, monochrome dresses, and handkerchiefs whose apparent simplicity clashed with their shoes, handbags and feathered fans – ostentatious, flaunted accessories.

Throughout his entire life, the French bootmaker, who studied sculpture at Paris's École des Beaux-Arts in 1924, would never lose sight of the punctuation embodied by the shoe. On a slender mule or pump, Roger Vivier would place a butterfly with fabric wings, a hummingbird escaped from its golden cage, or a bouquet that would never wither. He transformed the foot, which had to assume the new role of a refined bouquet holder; he domesticated the Chantilly lace that he attached, flanked by a satin ribbon, on to the upper.

The shoe designer also made forays into jewellery when he created elegant ladies' shoes dripping with gemstones, drop beads and embroidery. A craftsman of delicacies, he expanded his repertoire of fragile confections in 1964 to include jewellery that can be attached to any shoe. A master at the art of embellishment and an amateur milliner, he used colorful plumage favored by hat makers for ornamenting fascinators and straw hats. He decorated pumps with the feathers from pheasants or kingfishers, until all that was missing were the wings.

An iconoclast and a puppeteer, he took ankles by storm in 1967, when he created exotic shoes with African masks, feathers and raffia in a clever nod to African art for Yves Saint Laurent.

Though they cannot speak, Roger Vivier's shoes have no trouble expressing themselves. They are naturally, plastically photogenic. In 1942, he was the assistant, for a time, to the photographer George Hoyningen-Huene in New York, and was comfortable with both ornament and simplicity. He knew how to find the equilibrium between forms, motifs and materials to create his designs, which are veritable pictograms of their time period. Embroidered or in patent leather, his shoes seem designed in one stroke, whether they are roughly sketched or clearly defined.

On women's feet or in the pages of magazines, his creations needn't be pointed out to be recognised. Over the course of his stimulating collaborations with Christian Dior (from 1953 to 1962) and Yves Saint Laurent (from 1963), and under his own name from 1963, Roger Vivier responded to the demands of fashion collections like an artist responding to his patron.

And yet he never lost sight of his own authorship. The pair of flat, square-heeled pumps covered with a large buckle that he created to accompany Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian dresses in 1965 – among the most widely copied shoes in the world – expertly served the couturier's iconography, and, more essentially, founded his own.

In 2002, almost four years after the passing of its founding creator, Bruno Frisoni was named artistic director of Roger Vivier. His work resembles that of an author who tackles the exercise of translating a text. He must be faithful to the underlying structure of a work without compromising the expression and the originality of his own creation.

Manipulating, like Vivier, his taste for design and collage, and skillfully practising the discipline of haute couture, Bruno Frisoni's intention is to capture a sense of fragility and delicacy.

A new book celebrates both the vintage and current designs. And yet, well before editors' infatuation with fashion books, Roger Vivier was the subject of several publications in which he was recognised for the major contributions his work represents.

He was also the subject of many exhibitions, including one at the Musée des Arts de la Mode in Paris in December 1987. Since the 1960s, his creations have been in the most beautiful museums in the world.

Whether vehement and expressive or silent and reserved, Roger Vivier's marvellous chiffon shoes trace the trajectory of a new profession that constantly reinvents itself.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
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ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
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