The elves and the shoemaker

Think of a shoemaker of the Forties and Fifties and - if fashion history is your thing - you may well arrive at Roger Vivier. The man who created the slender, high-heeled shoes to go with Christian Dior's 1947 New Look, Vivier was so celebrated that Marlene Dietrich wore his heels in Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950). And Queen Elizabeth II wore shoes by this Frenchman to her coronation.

Yves Saint Laurent has a collection of Roger Vivier shoes. Indeed, Saint Laurent choose him to create the groovy buckled flats to go with his groundbreaking Mondrian shifts of 1965. Vivier has been the subject of extensive exhibitions and a richly illustrated coffee-table tome (Vivier, by Pierre Provoyeur, Editions du Regard, 1991).

Josephine Baker, Elizabeth Taylor and the American fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland have worn his shoes. Fashion academics still argue over whether it was Vivier, or the Italian, Salvatore Ferragamo, who invented the stiletto heel. But what is much more interesting is that Vivier, aged 89, has just come up with a new collection.

In the past few years, Vivier has spent much of his time in the south of France. But so far this year, he has been making plenty of trips to his native Paris where a shop with his name above the door (his first since his store in the French capital's rue Royalle closed its doors in the late Seventies) opened this spring.

Roger Vivier's shoes are now available in London in the new Freelance store in Neal Street, Covent Garden, which opens today.

This brings us to another story that began in the Forties. While Vivier was cladding the choicest of feet, another French company - the Rautureau Apple Shoe Company - was set up, with rather more mass-market intentions. It grew into the company now headed by two descendants, Yvon and Guy Rautureau, better known today as the men behind the funky label Freelance and Jean Paul Gaultier's shoe collection.

Today, the brothers Rautureau have funky footwear pretty much wrapped, what with the Freelance line (which for this summer includes Jelly shoes, but with high heels, for adults), the No Name line (sought after by those who like platform sneakers), Spring Cort, traditional sneakers (as worn by John Lennon on the cover of Abbey Road and, more recently, by pop chanteuse Vanessa Paradis) and Pom D'Api, which is a collection of children's shoes.

What the Rautureau brothers lack, however, is awesome elegance. For that, they, and their father before them, have always looked up to the undisputed grand master of French shoe design, Roger Vivier.

"Roger, he is God," is how the brothers put it. They grew up near Vivier's second home in the south of France. Their father, Jean Baptiste (after whom the brothers' men's shoes collection is named) was a contemporary. To keep the Roger Vivier label alive became their labour of love.

And so it was, after much discussion about which shapes were to be reintroduced, that the two brothers sponsored a collection of four shapes for shoes by Vivier. Each style is now offered in suede, patent and leather, and in colours including electric blue.

One of the Vivier designs features the sculpted, extremely high heel, called Troubadour, which he first introduced in 1958. Another is a high- heeled mule (best in jewel-red suede). There is also a Louis heeled court and a classic court shoe. In Paris, these four styles in many colours have their very own shop (13 rue de Grenelle): in London, Vivier will have his own corner within the first Freelance boutique.

While it is relatively easy to find vintage clothes - depending on what one is prepared to pay - it is rather more difficult to find and to wear vintage shoes, because they tend not to be able to stand up to being put on. Thus it was only by remaking Vivier's shoes that the Rautureau brothers could re-introduce this great fashion.

So with these shoes comes a story of a Parisian orphaned boy who wanted to be an actor, but by the age of 20 had discovered shoes; who had his own label twinned with that of Dior in the Fifties, then went back out on his own in the Sixties and made shoes for Pierre Balmain, Jean Patou, Guy Laroche, Nina Ricci, as well as Saint Laurent, and who has shod the feet of Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda. Now a younger generation of starlets in the making can apply.

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