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In Praise of Ugly Shoes

Leigh Kamping-Carder

Fashion and art are now irrevocably intertwined. Gloriously impractical and surprisingly sculptural, ugly shoes may be the new affordable art

One Friday afternoon in March a New York newspaper sent me to the flagship Prada store in Soho. My mission? Report on the vehemently ugly Spring 2008 line of designer shoes.

My editor had pointed to a three-page photo spread of the season’s shoes -- with their outlandish colors, complicated textures, and chunky heels -- and scoffed. “They’re so ugly, right?” she said. Yes. They were ugly. An affront to the slender stiletto of a red-soled Louboutin.

One Prada pump was red velvet, with a pink bow on the toe and a candlestick heel sculpted to look like violet petals; another had the same design but in lilac and chartreuse; another was sewn from wavy panels of multi-colored suede -- mint green, purple, yellow -- with cut-out panels along the sides.

I found them, propped like artifacts in vitrines, along a silver wall on the bottom floor of the Prada emporium. A woman in her 40s perused the designs. She wore a white coat with a fur collar trim, modest jeans, slouchy boots. Her hair was blonde and hung straight on either side of her plain face. I asked her what she thought.

She loved them! She explained to me that the flower-heels were “fun” and “inventive” and “off the wall.” And as she gushed, a pair of male Prada employees, clad in black suits, approached her.

“Hello, darling!” exclaimed one, sounding faintly Italian.

“You look so healthy,” she responded, grasping the arm of the other, with the silver-streaked pompadour. “So tanned!” They kissed on either cheek.

After a few minutes of chit-chat, she returned to my side, and I asked her if she would ever buy a pair of the shoes.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I don’t have a top choice yet, but probably one of the ones with the crazy heels and maybe one of the interesting sandals. That’ll be a start.”

Then I asked her for her name.

“Cindy Sherman,” she replied.

Yes, that Cindy Sherman, the photographer who is best known for her Untitled Film Stills, a series of self-portraits in which she cast herself as the heroine of fake genre movies. A comment on feminism, art, and the male gaze, her work appeared in more than one of my college art-history exams and, evidently, made Sherman rich.

When I got over my art-nerd awe (“I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you!” is what I actually said), I began to feel a little strange. There was something off-putting about encountering Sherman at the haute-couture stronghold, kiss-kissing the salesclerks and prepping a wish list of party shoes. Here we were in Soho, the former stomping grounds of the avant-garde, contemplating $700 pumps as if they were tulips for the picking.

It’s no great revelation that whatever still exists of the avant-garde has left the streets of Manhattan. The art world of today is a boomtown, shaped as much by the whims of investors and auction houses as collectors and artist collectives -- if not more. No doubt this was the source of my angst over seeing Sherman at Prada.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but remember something she said about the flower heels -- that they weren't just shoes but pieces of art. It was a sentiment echoed by other women I interviewed that day.

Fashion and art are now irrevocably intertwined. Japanese artist Haruki Murakami designed Louis Vuitton’s ubiquitous rainbow logo bags. Last year, Richard Prince collaborated with both Marni, the fashion brand, and Marc Jacobs. Silkscreened Warholian images adorn T-shirts across the globe. And Miuccia Prada herself has been exploring the practice of commissioning art through her foundation, the Fondazione Prada. So why not go the other way? Why not mine the shelves of designer showrooms for cheap, quality sculpture? Could couture be the new affordable art?

Consider, if you will, the Prada flower-heel.

Shoes, like art, are transformed by the spaces they occupy. Prada’s Soho address, for example, was once home to the downtown branch of the Guggenheim. It’s fitting -- because when an average woman visits the building, she doesn’t intend to shop. She goes to behold. She goes for the same reason that she goes to an art museum: the contemplation of objects with an aura of grandeur. Of history. Of magic.

Designed by star architect Rem Koolhaas (for $40 million), the space is more gallery than department store, meant to show off itself, rather than the products for sale. Its layout is anti-retail. The ornate doors open to a small, high-ceilinged, industrial show space, which swoops into a wooden half pipe, creating a slope to display a cluster of mannequins. On one side runs a staircase, leading shoppers to the basement and the warren of rooms packed with racks of clothes down below.

The uniformed employees are surprisingly friendly, like hip docents meant to guide one’s wanderings. Shoppers, however, divide into two groups: tourists gawking at the fancy items on display and slim women whom the salesclerks call by their first names. Just as in the strange public-private hybrid of an art gallery, Prada has unspoken rules. While technically everyone is allowed in, not everyone should stay. There is a hush that descends upon the guests. There are visitors, and there are members. Don’t touch unless you mean it.

It’s no wonder. For the average woman, designer shoes exist only on reruns of Sex and the City or in glossy magazines. Regularly, the $400 objets are reduced to thumbnail images in advertorials, their leather and velvet turned to cheap paper. On the pages my editor showed me, it was no different. Of course, we thought they were ugly.

This is, in many ways, exactly how we experience art: through photographs in art magazines, auction catalogues, or on cloudy university slides. Given this as evidence, Jackson Pollock’s work, for example, doesn’t stand up to criticism. In a Google image, Number One (1948) turns to scribbles; there’s no way to look up close at the careful dribbling of industrial paint that lends it its magnificent complexity, no way to examine its shimmer.

So too with the Prada shoes. In reproductions, the flower-heels are garish. Up close, they have a texture and a gloss, a sculptural elegance, a careful sewing together of materials. Their heels shine as if fired under a glaze; their straps are a fuzzy matte; their buckles are lozenges of gold on slim straps. The colors aren’t tacky -- they come from the fevered brain of Van Gogh, from the Tahitian landscapes of Gauguin.

After all, a woman doesn’t buy these shoes to match an outfit, in the same way that one doesn’t buy a Cindy Sherman or a Jeff Koons to match the sofa. Instead, the flower-heels are emblems of impracticable luxury, of a ridiculous age and of a brazen aesthetic. It’s their very ugliness that makes them artistic.

Appreciating such wild art -- Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, et al. -- used to be a sign of a certain expertise or of an edginess. These days, art buyers are hardly different than stock traders, doling out cash for the canvas that will bring the best returns down the line.

To name just two recent examples: in May, Mark Rothko’s No. 15 (1952) sold for $50 million at auction; the seller, collector Roger Evans, had purchased the work only nine years earlier for $11 million, a record price at the time. Even amidst mutterings of a recession, Koons’ Diamond (Blue) (2005) sold for $11.8 million last November. This was below the estimate that Christie’s had promised the owner of the seven-foot wide steel sculpture, Benedikt Taschen, but well above the $3.5 million he had reportedly paid for it in 2006.

Prada fans, however, invest almost exclusively in aesthetic pleasure, since there’s little to gain from having last season’s shoes in the closet. Their monetary usefulness is about as fleeting as actual spring flowers. True, it’s fashion. It’s superficial. But isn’t there something pure in the appreciation of it, something that has been absent from the art world lately? Seven hundred dollars may be an absurd price to pay for a pair of pumps, but a sculpture for less than four figures isn’t a bad deal. And just think, you get two!

It’s important to note that the flower-heels are not characteristic of Prada’s fashion ethos, which has favored clean lines and elegant design since Miuccia debuted her first ready-to-wear collection in 1989. (She reluctantly took over the fashion house from her grandfather in 1978.) Rather, they are part of a larger, season-wide trend towards outrageous colors and gaudy detailing.

However, unlike the other spring 2008 shoes, Prada’s heels are as homey as they are psychedelic. They don’t look like 1980s pink plastic punk shoes (Marni) or cork-soled peep-toes with garish gold logos (Gucci). They look like folk art. They are ugly like pottery is ugly: unrefined, assembled as if without skill. In their materials -- velvets and ceramics -- the pumps mimic what used to be called “women’s art.” Their awkward colors seem quilted together, the bows added as an afterthought, as if Miuccia had some extra fabric lying around. They seem to show the touch of a human hand. Can Koons say the same?

This quality of improvisation, combined with what must be a carefully plotted design, elevates the shoes beyond mere footwear, beyond mere objecthood. It takes a lot of planning to make an artwork seem spontaneous.

In the New York Times Magazine's annual Art Issue (with Miuccia Prada, on the cover), writer Michael Kimmelman examined Miuccia's forays into commissioning artists, such as Dan Flavin and John Baldessari, for her private collection. For Prada, this was a relatively new venture. “Until lately, Prada insisted, art and fashion were distinct enterprises: She kept the openings of the art and the fashion shows separate, and kept art out of her stores and advertisements -- and out of the clothing. Prada rolled her eyes at the mention of Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress or Louis Vuitton’s Richard Prince handbags. She also used to like to say that fashion is fun but frivolous, and fundamentally commercial, while contemporary art is serious and intellectual.”

But today, art is Koons’ giant stainless steel balloon animals on the roof of the Met and Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skulls that fetch $100 million at auction. Art is the spectacle of four automobiles suspended from the ceiling of the Guggenheim atrium: Cai Guo-Qiang’s “I Want to Believe.” Art is Cindy Sherman at Prada, contemplating which heels she’ll buy first.

If today’s best art is an admixture of calculation and swagger, why not look to fashion? After all, we want something beautiful as much as we want that visual shock, that gut-punch feeling of seeing something new. We want the thing that makes us cry, “That’s so ugly!” What else will keep us staring, keep us talking, keep us wandering the aisles of the store in Soho or the white cube gallery in Chelsea?

Perhaps Sherman put it best when she explained to me why she liked the flower-heels: “They’re just so bizarre!”

Leigh Kamping-Carder is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her work has appeared in the New York Observer, the Brooklyn Rail, and others.





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