Best Shoes Ever

How Alexander McQueen's "armadillo boots" charmed Lady Gaga, Daphne Guinness, and Barbie.

Only a handful of people are actually wearing the single hottest fashion item for Spring 2010. It's not being mass-produced. It's barely sold in stores. It'll run you up to $10,000, and that's if you can get your hands on a pair. Which you can't.

Alexander McQueen's "armadillo boots," those giant claw-like pedi-crustaceans that lifted models a foot off his Paris catwalk last fall, are unquestionably the oddest and most brilliant thing to come out of couture in recent memory. Beer heiress and Steven Klein muse Daphne Guinness has a pair. So does Barbie. Lady Gaga, who first wore the gem-encrusted hooves in her "Bad Romance" video, can't seem to take them off.

In its sheer exorbitant inimitability, the armadillo is the Avatar of shoes.

Not since Jean Paul Gaultier strapped his infamous cone bra on Madonna in the 1990s has such a defiantly impractical wardrobe item become a cultural touchstone.

At a time when most news out of the fashion world revolves around the ill effects of a down economy—labels folding, stores closing, once-great houses like Christian Lacroix now struggling to survive—it's nice to see a designer make something that towers so high above the bottomline. Who cares if you can't buy or walk in them? This is art.

"It's almost like having a Brancusi on your feet," says Guinness, who wore a tan-colored set to a party in November celebrating the 15th anniversary of NARS cosmetics. They were four sizes too big, she says, but surprisingly comfortable. "I know it sounds bizarre. They look difficult but they aren't. They're not heavy. They're very, very deceptive and very clever." The editors of British Vogue disagreed, blogging about their efforts to take a stroll in the boots, which ended when they "miserably failed to make it further than the Vogue fashion cupboard."

McQueen, a London-based designer who has always had a flair for the avant garde, debuted the shoes in a collection called "Plato's Atlantis" and inspired by Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, among other sources. An early Twitter adopter, McQueen teased the shoes for weeks with dispatches lobbed out from earlier stages of the creative process: "HUBBLE PALLET," "NEBULA," "MEDUSA," he tweeted in rapid succession on Sept. 21; "The Creationist?" on September 22; and finally, on September 24, "Today we Christened…The Armadillo." The world finally got a look at the mammoth boots when McQueen became the first major designer to live-stream his runway show on October 6. It was the ultimate democratic experience of high fashion: Everyone could see them, no one could have them.

In all, 21 pairs of the shoes exist—20 from the runway show and one additional—and good luck if you want a pair. According to a McQueen press officer, most have already been sold to private collectors, "people who understood they are pieces of art rather than just 'shoes.'" The company has been inundated with requests and is now considering auctioning off what few pairs remain, "for charity purposes." They range in price from $3,900 to $10,000, depending on the material and embroidery, according to a clerk at the New York McQueen store.

Each pair of armadillos was hand-made in Italy, in an elaborate process that spanned five days and involved 30 people, using material from three suppliers and passing through three factories. The heel is 24 cm high, or nearly 10 inches. They are, in the words of a representative for one down-market shoe company that does a healthy business "adapting" high-end styles just beyond the reach of copyright law, "not knock-offable." In its sheer exorbitant inimitability, the armadillo is the Avatar of shoes.

(And McQueen knows from knock-offs. Two days after debuting the armadillo, he filed a lawsuit against Steven Madden Ltd., accusing the mass-market shoe purveyor of ripping off the Faithful bootie from his fall collection.)

In the months since their debut, the shoes have had a polarizing effect, drawing jeers from some who find them offensively impractical and raves from most corners of the fashion world. The New York Times called them a case in which "form topples function." New York Magazine found them to be "beautiful hooflike monsters." Women's Wear Daily had one word: "scary." That no models fell during the runway show was generally taken as a miracle.

"To me, it's beauty and the beast," says Beth Dincuff Charleston, a fashion historian at Parsons The New School for Design. "It's almost like they're orthopedic or corrective. It's scientific. It's fashion design but it takes into account an awareness of the body that's beyond even most brilliant designers." She compares the armadillo's current cultural moment to Yves Saint Laurent's groundbreaking use of see-through fabrics in the 1970s and Issey Miyake's molded plastic bustiers.

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None of this is to say the boot is remotely sexy. But neither is natural selection, the melting of the polar ice caps, the return of humanity to the same primordial sea from which we emerged. After his show, McQueen told The New York Times that he had no interest in "playing it safe" in these uncertain times, that "the world needs fantasy, not reality." That he gave us a $10,000 dystopian fantasy about the outer limits of evolution is of a piece with his usual genius. That these crazy shoes have become a hit with a 23-year-old pop princess and her legions of admirers should be taken as a good sign: Not everything is cheap or cute, not even now.

"My boyfriend does not like that sort of thing, and I think that is where there are clothes that please men or conservative tastes, and there are these other explorations," Guinness says. "I imagine the conflict with these types of pieces lies in the question, 'Is fashion art?' To which I would reply, 'Yes.'"

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.