Roger Vivier: Sculptor of Shoes


5 October 2013

Roger Vivier (1907–1998) may not be a name commonly cited in popular parlance, yet his shoe designs are some of the most recognisable – and replicated – in the world. They are now the subject of Virgule, a retrospective at Paris' Palais de Tokyo. Known as "the Fabergé of shoes", Vivier created designs that spanned the extremes, from ornamental extravagance to effortless simplicity.

Celebrated for fusing subtlety and refinement with an opulence and whimsy, Vivier's shoes were distinct in shape, structure, form and function.
Having studied sculpture at the Ecole des Beaus-Arts as a teenager, it was Vivier’s first job at a shoe factory that sparked his interest in footwear. Here, he saw an opportunity to feed his fantastical imagination and translate dreamlike designs into physical, wearable forms.

Vivier saw his work as being to create miniature sculptures for the feet. Speaking to Vogue in 1984, he said "To wear dreams on one’s feet is to begin to give a reality to one’s dreams and to nourish the hope that they will bring on other dreams."

Opulent work with materials such as kid skin and his use of ornamentation including faisan feather and coral garnered Vivier fans, including Josephine Baker, Wallis Simpson, Marlene Dietrich, Jackie Onassis and Diana Vreeland. Indeed Vreeland, Vogue's editor-in-chief between 1963 and 1971, was so enamoured with Vivier's designs that she displayed examples of his artistry alongside 18th-century artisans in her 1977 Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition Vanity Fair.

Vivier had made his name in the 1950s when he began to collaborate with Christian Dior, creating footwear to compliment the couturier’s notorious New Look. It was during this period in 1955 that he established Christian Dior created by Roger Vivier, the first ready-to-wear designer label shoe line.

Yet Vivier's most famous innovation had arrived a year earlier, when he was recognised for integrating the stiletto heel – a style famed for its particularly long, thin high heel that alters a woman’s posture – into the wardrobes of his elite clientele. Vivier is credited for redesigning the stiletto, which had existed in primitive forms since the 19th Century, into a wearable shoe. His innovative design offered more support to the heel by integrating a single rod of metal or steel encased in wood or plastic.

This development of the stiletto extended towards further invention of heel shapes and styles. The virgule (or comma) lends its name to the Palais de Tokyo retrospective and is one of Vivier's most copied creations. It was also one of his most complex works, with the designer reported to have consulted with aeronautical engineers when designing his swooping heel in the shape of an exaggerated comma in 1963. The virgule’s predecessor was the choc or shock heel, which featured an inward-curving heel and instigated Vivier’s affection for the curvilinear in shoe design.

While some of Vivier’s most celebrated contributions to footwear embraced curvature, his experimentation with straight, sharp lines was just as popular. Featuring a geometric, square heel, Vivier's pilgrim-buckle pump was the result of a collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent, designed in 1965 to accompany the young designer's Mondrian collection. Two years later the style trickled down into the mainstream market, when a Saint Laurent-clad Catherine Deneuve sported the shoe in the film Belle de Jour. Two hundred thousand pairs were sold that year, marking Vivier’s transition from an insider’s secret to a global tastemaker.

Saint Laurent was one of Vivier’s many collaborators, with designers eager to match their garments with Vivier’s spirited, distinct creations. With Emanuel Ungaro, Vivier presented his take on space age with clear plastic glass slippers and calfskin boots in metallic silver. Other collaborators included luminaries such as Cristobal Balenciaga, Madame Grès and Guy Laroche.

Throughout his 60 year career, Vivier’s take on femininity and ornate craftsmanship inspired a legion of shoe designers who have followed in his footsteps. As a young apprentice to Vivier, Christian Louboutin – famed for his fondness of fetishistic footwear – applied the lessons of femininity and sensuality in shoe design that were favoured by his mentor, while Manolo Blanik is also known to have taken inspiration from Vivier’s vast oeuvre when he re-launched the stiletto in 1974 in the form of the needle.

Vivier died in 1998 and since 2003 his self-titled brand has been led by creative director Bruno Frisoni, who hopes to utilise Vivier's legacy to fuel the revival of the maison. According to Olivier Saillard, the curator of the Virgule exhibition, Frisoni faces a challenge similar to a writer translating a foreign language text: "He must be faithful to the underlying structure of a work without compromising the expression and the originality of his own creation." Frisoni has big shoes to fill.