Thoughts on Birkenstocks

Birkenstock website homepage.

The other day, while mindlessly scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I stopped for a few seconds as an ad for a Vogue article entitled: ‘BirkenShock! After 242 Years, Birkenstock Premieres at Paris Fashion Week’ caught my eye. Nevermind the fact that this means that all of the lovely internet cookies are doing their slightly scary work of keeping track of the fact, that yes, I have been googling Vogue a lot. What really struck me was the article’s meaning, however. Birkenstock? At Paris Fashion Week? Really? I chuckled slightly, and then sat back in awe, marvelling at what appears to be a genius piece of marketing strategy. Growing up as a child in Germany, I can safely say that, in my own experience, Birkenstocks were popular, but not cool, let alone fashionable. Practical? Yes. But not cool at all. They were worn widely but seemed especially popular in slightly musty smelling organic shops. Not at all like the health food, hipster-ised places today, but the ones you only ventured into when you had a genuine food allergy (dairy and wheat in my case) and had no other choice. You would be served by middle-aged, muscular, skinny women called Maike or Ortrud, that probably lived on a diet of sunflower seeds and herbal tea alone; fabulous non-conformists with sun tanned skin, crop tops and long skirts. The other place the cork soled shoe could be spotted almost with certainty every time was a doctor’s office. Pared with clinical white trousers, shirts and overcoats they formed part of the uniform of horror that greeted you for your set of vaccinations – a known traumatic experience of any childhood. Birkenstocks back then were and still are deemed as a health shoe; they were comfortable and practical, impeccably German and not the most aesthetically pleasing.

The short article in Vogue, too stresses their health aspect, but quotes Birkenstock’s CEO as justifying the brand’s venture into fashion by saying: ‘We have been in the fashion industry for so many years already! Go around and ask every top photographer and stylist, they are all wearing Birkenstock…’. And really, while flicking through the slideshow of the fashion show on Vogue’s website you do feel that the shoe slots right in. The fact that the article appears in Vogue alone lends them increasing fashion credibility. Birkenstock’s own website also highlights them as a shoe for creatives, interviewing a few Londoners working in the creative field (fashion curator Shonagh Marshall amongst them) to showcase just how fashionable they are.

The Vogue article

Birkenstock’s are, for me, one of those very straightforward examples of the constant volatility within the cycle of fashion and also the tension between what is popular but not necessarily fashionable at any given moment and period of time. Clearly for me, the article in Vogue perhaps suggest I get over my childhood trauma, and give into the fashionable comfy-ness of the ultimate German shoe. Different to many other fashion fads, at least this one promises to keep my feet healthy…

Sources:

http://www.vogue.com/article/paris-fashion-week-birkenstock

http://mag.birkenstock.com/the-birkenstock-appreciation-club/

A Comparison of the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe And the V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure & Pain

By Carolina Reyes

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Shortly after my arrival to London in mid-September, I was surprised to see advertisements for the V&A’s latest fashion display Shoes: Pleasure & Pain (June 13, 2015 – January 31, 2016). After all, it had only been a year since I had seen a similarly titled exhibition, Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe (September 10, 2014 – March 1, 2015) at the Brooklyn Museum, and it seemed unusual for two world-renowned institutions to put on exhibitions with such striking parallels within a short span of time.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.

 

Indeed, the advertisements featuring high-fashion model Nadja Auermann in crutches struggling up a set of stairs in a pair of sky-high and needle thin stilettos which surely test the acceptable limits of sensible footwear (even if for fashion’s sake) prepares the viewer for an exhibition more closely resembling Killer Heels – one that explores solely the high heel as a status symbol, fetish object and source of power throughout human history – than the one actually encountered.

The viewer quickly realizes that Shoes does indeed live up to its name, and whilst high heels and their association with fetishism and sexuality are certainly explored throughout the lower-level of Shoes, the wider range of artefacts, including pieces of footwear designed for men such as David Beckham’s “Brooklyn” football boots, provides the viewer with a more nuanced and holistic appreciation of the history and cultural significance of shoes.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

Furthermore, the exhibition’s examination of the shoe as a commodity and collectible item throughout the upper-level was an important theme, which I felt had gone unexamined in Killer Heels. And, by more closely scrutinizing the impact of globalization on the industry of shoe production, I found it fascinating to learn in this section that in 1986 China produced just eight per cent of the world’s footwear, whilst today it is estimated that six out of ten pairs of shoes in the world are made there.

However, although Shoes’ stark displays of footwear fanatics’ collections in this segment did showcase society’s irrational obsession, Shoes and Killer Heels alike, could have taken more critical stances on our perhaps excessive preoccupation with designer footwear. Instead, both exhibitions seemed to pander to our fixation to possess couture shoes and their connection to celebrity culture. For example, Shoes justified the inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choos because Carrie Bradshaw (a shoe fanatic in her own right) of Sex and the City exclaimed that she had “lost my Choo,” and greatly elevated the eponymous designer’s profile.

There were many similarities between Killer Heels and Shoes. Most notably, their utilization of documentary-style films to chronicle the creation of shoes from design to development, in addition to use of movie clips to draw connections between shoe styles and epochs.

Both Killer Heels and Shoes were beautifully curated and certainly each worth a visit (or a look at their videos online, see source links) as they provided the viewer with various, fascinating perspectives on iconic footwear from all over the world.

Sources:

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/heels/

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/shoes-pleasure-and-pain/

Lisa Milroy

Lisa Milroy, Shoes, Oil on Canvas, Tate, 1985

Lisa Milroy, Shoes, Oil on Canvas, Tate, 1985

I first came across the artist Lisa Milroy in an art class at school – we were told to look at how she arranged everyday objects into groups and grids and created contemporary still life paintings of plates, hardware, tyres, and books. However, for me, it was her repetitive depiction of clothing and shoes that inspired the watered down derivatives that graced the pages of my GCSE sketchbook.

One of her earlier works from 1985 ‘Shoes’ that is now in the Tate collection, shows what appear to be the same pair of black, pointed-toe heels, in different arrangements and angles. The removal of the shoes from their context and their repetition abstracts and transforms them into a pattern and a series of shapes. However, there is a sense of intimacy and identity, conveyed in the paintings that perhaps stems from her choice to use shoes, which have such a personal connection to their wearer. Her painterly technique and unusual compositions in the representation of dress create a sense of personality and evoke the characters of the wearers despite the absence of the body or surrounding context. Her work greatly influenced my short-lived artistic aspirations, and they were the marriage of my interest in art and fashion.

Lisa Milroy, Dresses, Oil on Canvas, 1985

Lisa Milroy, Dresses, Oil on Canvas, 1985

Her early work was extremely important to me, so I was both delighted and surprised to come across her work again, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Amongst the paintings and the prints was a long, floral dress hanging on the wall from a white coat hanger. The larger-than-life garment trailed onto the floor, its hem section suspended on a wooden stand. Upon closer inspection, you could see that the dress was in fact a painting – the floral pattern of the fabric was painted onto the material, creating a three-dimensional painting that disturbs the limitations of the square canvas and blank wall. Milroy’s work is no longer the painterly depiction of clothing, but is the physical item of dress. Titled ‘Dress-Paintings’, these works are paintings created directly on dresses, some of which are still wearable items of clothing.

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail,  2015

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail, 2015

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail,  2015

Lisa Milroy, One-To-One, Acrylic On Hand-Sewn Fabric, Hand-Painted Gloves, Wood, Clay, Coat Hanger And Nail, 2015

Milroy’s latest works question the definitions of what is art and what is clothing. Her ‘Dress-Paintings’ appear to be items of clothing in their form and three-dimensionality, but they are hung on the wall as objects of art. Her ‘Wearable Paintings’, further question how art is supposed to be displayed, with the body becoming the wall on which the painting is hung. They are different from fashion and objects of dress, yet they play on ideas of ‘fashion as art’, of the body as a site of individuality and self-expression through dress, and dress as a commodity. The art object is bought, owned and physically worn by its wearer – drawing comparisons to the exclusivity and projection of status in the consumption of high-end designer brands. Amongst the same repetitive prints and paintings at the Summer Exhibition, Milroy did something entirely unique; she created wearable art that at once highlights the absurdity of the art and fashion industries. However, she also created extremely beautiful and conceptual objects that are simultaneously art and items of dress.

 

Sources

http://www.lisamilroy.net/c/1000004/dresses

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/artist/lisa-milroy-ra

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/lisa-milroy-2220

Shoes: Pain and Pleasure Review

Heels by HM Rayne

Heels by HM Rayne

Adidas sneakers collection

Adidas sneakers collection

As the title  – Shoes: Pleasure & Pain – indicates, the V&A’s latest exhibition aims to grab the viewer’s attention. If not through the appeal of footwear itself, then by the suggestion of eroticism that is underlined further by the choice of Helmut Newton’s provocative image ‘High & Mighty’ of 1995 as both catalogue cover and poster. This photograph shows supermodel Nadja Auermann awkwardly scaling steps in shoes that are so vertiginous she needs not just crutches, but two burly male helpers to make it to the summit.  This photoshoot has been controversial – since its first publication there has been comment about its use of imagery of disability for a fashion spread. By using this as publicity the museum is therefore courting media attention and aligning the show with sex and fetish as key themes.  This may entice visitors, but what of the content and curation itself?

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

The exhibition is split into two parts – and that difficult central space in the Fashion Court is put to good use. Completely reimagined, the downstairs area is clad in deep purple – velvet drapes and deep pile carpet soften the interior and mute sound. It is a sensory experience to walk through the dimly lit galleries, conscious of the feel of the fabric, even if one may not touch. This is heightened by the contrasting bright red of some of the displays – and gives the effect of a louche boudoir, or peep show. In turn, the themes focused upon explore consumers’ and wearers’ desire for shoes, and span a wide historical and geographical period to underline persistent connections between shoes and sexuality.  It is no surprise that risqué lingerie brand Agent Provocateur was part sponsor of the exhibition: its ad campaigns and underwear mirror the sensory overload here.

Climbing the stairs, the mood changes completely, the visitor enters a clinical realm of brightly lit white space, that signals the exhibition’s shift from emotional connections to shoes, to focus on designing and making, before it twists back again to look at obsession, via several avid shoe collectors’ most treasured footwear wardrobes.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

This area shows everything from the shoes’ component pieces, to digital 3D designs and intriguing insights into functional, sports shoe design versus heel prototypes for fashion shoes.  If downstairs reinforced the idea of shoes as items of lust and myth, then here, one is opened up to the process of creation, with videos showing key designers, including Manolo Blahnik explaining their approach.  The fact that Sex and the City raised Blahnik’s name to international notoriety denotes another aspect of shoes’ status in recent years – as a staple media-trope of female desire and excess. And while this exhibition certainly plays to this idea, it makes clear men’s interest in shoes too, in relation to sexuality, but also obsessive collection and fetishisation of another kind – as demonstrated in one man’s collection of box fresh sneakers.

As with many of its fashion shows, entertainment plays a prominent role, and the exhibition is not short of spectacle. However, this is underpinned by a strong foundation of research and a desire to provoke visitors, not just to be dazzled by the array of beautiful objects, but also to think about their creation and cultural meanings.