Not many people view shoemaking as an art form, but a new exhibition dedicated to shoe designer Roger Vivier is set to change that perception. A highlight on the Paris Fashion Week schedule, "Virgule, etc: In the Footsteps of Roger Vivier", opened several days after an exhibition dedicated to Azzedine Alaïa, which shares the same curator, Olivier Saillard.
"When [the brand's creative director] Bruno Frisoni approached me, I initially refused as I had committed to Alaia. But when I saw all the shoes they collected, including styles recently acquired at auction, I had to say yes," says Saillard, who is also the director of the Musée Galliera in Paris.
Held at the Palais de Tokyo, the exhibition is not your typical retrospective. Instead Saillard has mixed more than 170 pieces from the brand's past and present, from the 1930s up to the current collection designed by creative director, Bruno Frisoni.
"We wanted to mix all the shoes together in order to create a series or theme, but not in a chronological way. I'm not comfortable with chronology because I am against the idea of fashion which dies each season," says Saillard.
"Vivier in the past and Vivier today may not look the same, but there's no disconnection in terms of philosophy. Style evolves yes, but you can really see Vivier's legacy of modernity. The fact that it is still timeless today is an incredible achievement," says Frisoni.
This point is brought home through the exhibition's design which is described as "stepping somewhere between seriousness and fantasy", according to the show catalogue. The scenography is designed to resemble the hallowed halls of a 19th century museum (Saillard references the Louvre and Prado) with all the shoes and bags encased in glass boxes that are lit up like artworks.
Saillard has also added a playful touch by naming each vitrine after a room in the Louvre or an art movement, be it Pop Op Art or Department of Egyptian Antiquities. Each shoe is given a made-up - and often humorous - name.
"For me, Roger Vivier shoes are art pieces - they are the equivalent of haute couture. I proposed to curate a little Vivier museum, but at the same time I wanted to introduce something funny, and to play with this idea of art and shoes. It lets you digest [the exhibition] in an easy way. It's not overwhelming," he says.
Jokes aside, the shoes themselves are the highlight. Many are on loan from private museums in Toronto and New York, or from private collectors, making it the largest collection of Vivier shoes to be displayed.
Visitors can view some of Vivier's earliest creations from his time at Dior in the '30s and a collection of African mask sandals made for Yves Saint Laurent in 1967. Other highlights include lesser known but no less enchanting styles including a pair of gingham slingbacks made for Brigitte Bardot.
More modern creations include Frisoni's first ever buckle shoe created for the brand's relaunch in 2002 and a pump covered in feathers from the spring-summer 2010 haute couture collection.
"Selecting the shoes was challenging," says Saillard. "I would like to create a second exhibition, but I think we have the most important pieces. We chose shoes that were very strong in Vivier's DNA or in the history of Bruno [Frisoni]. We tried to choose pieces that were in the best condition, but it was hard to know what not to include. Even the most simple styles are the most interesting."
Although Frisoni tends to avoid the archives when designing collections, you can't help but notice that both designers share a common vision of shoemaking. Frisoni says the exhibition has also shed a new light on his mentor.
"When you look at Vivier, it is about perfection. It's not just about the time, it's about beauty and timelessness. To me, it's the shapes and proportion that stand out. Vivier was concerned with the everyday wear of sophisticated women," he says.
Visitors can also view a series of sketches and collages made by Vivier and Frisoni, while another section features shoes encased in plexiglass cubes which were made by Vivier in the '50s and '60s.
More educational is the room dedicated to all the heels invented by both designers (Vivier is credited with inventing nearly 20 different styles), from the curved Choc heel to the infamous comma or virgule. For those who can't visit the exhibition, there is an app available for an inside look.
"I imagine people will be surprised when they see the exhibition. I hope they will appreciate how shoes can be an art piece. I am always touched by people who create objects of beauty and dedicate their lives to creating," says Saillard.
"Virgule, etc: In the Footsteps of Roger Vivier" Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Until Nov 18