High Drama

Shoes Fit For A Museum

The legendary designer Roger Vivier is the subject of a new show in Paris that emphasizes the relationship of his shoes to art history. Sarah Moroz reports.

A new exhibit in Paris celebrates Roger Vivier as an artist as much as an iconic shoe designer. Entitled Virgule (Comma), after the inverted heel he created that so resembles the punctuation mark, the designer’s imagination is made plain. He livened up what footwear could be with the contours of the shoe itself, as well as decorative touches like gold thread, glass beads, tulle, and embroidery.

Vivier, born in Paris in 1907, started his own label in 1963, after a full decade working at Dior. He created the curved Virgule heel as a signature, to differentiate his work post-Dior.

The exhibition of his work at the Palais de Tokyo, which opens Wednesday, displays 170 shoes, well over a hundred pairs of which are pure vintage. Pulled from collections across the globe—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bata Shoe Museum, private collections, and the Roger Vivier archive—the exhibit gives a great spectrum of the imaginative range at work.

Displayed in a main hall lined with transparent cases, each is like a glass slipper menagerie. The walls are light gray, decked with fashion sketches by both Vivier and Bruno Frisoni, the creative director the brand since 2002 (Vivier died in 1998). Frisoni has had his own eponymous label since 1999, and has been known to use playful touches on his shoes too, such as ruffles and flowers.

Though there have been tribute exhibitions to Vivier before, this one takes a fresh approach. The indefatigable Olivier Saillard, curator at the nearby Palais Galliera fashion museum, grouped the shoes by visual themes, without heed for chronology. He christened each theme after different art movements: the Department of Egyptian Antiquities (gilt and vermeil), the Gallery of Post-Impressionists (beautiful prints), the Corridor of English Paintings (satins and silk failles), the Italian and Spanish Sculptures (lace overlays and voluminous tulle). In his hands, footwear becomes museum treasure.

The labels next to each shoe are invented by Saillard, each given a make-believe name like an improv actor creating a persona based on a single prop. The labels cite neither dates nor materials, just imaginary titles. There’s the Nuit étoilée (Starry Night) for a patterned blue pump. There’s Portrait d’un Nabi en Marche (Portrait of a Nabi in Step, Nabis being a group of artists from the 1890s) for a patterned Mary Jane with a bow flourish. There’s the Tête Réduite (Shrunken Head) for a leather and rooster-feathered sandal that looks like an ancient totem and climbs up the calf. There’s the Campbell’s Soup Can, a red velvet and PVC bootie, like something members of The Factory would have worn in deference to Warhol.

A pamphlet with information about each shoe is available – but we almost don’t need it: the conjured “personality traits” Saillard assigns each shoe—based on the fantasy of color, architecture, arch, and silhouette—are even better. (For completists, there’s a Roger Vivier iPhone app that also has additional information tied to the exhibition.)

The sheer variety in the design aesthetic is what confirms Vivier’s illustrious status. There’s the renowned “chic Pilgrim” buckle shoe, worn by Catherine Deneuve in the 1967 film directed by Luis Buñuel, Belle de Jour. There’s a pump with a playing card that Saillard dubs the Tricheur de Trefle (the Cheater of Clubs). There’s the pom-pom slipper, which cheekily uses a blush brush in lieu of a tassel. Though he was primarily known for women’s footwear, Vivier also created custom pieces for men, notably a pair of zip-front brown leather ankle boots for Cary Grant, and black crocodile ankle boots for John Lennon.

Vivier knew how to do drama -- whether big and sculptural, shimmering, or sleek and elegant. He may be known for the Virgule, but the feeling of his new exhibition more closely resembles an exclamation mark.

(Virgule, Etc., Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 2nd to November 18)