Still head over heels - Issue 125 - Magazine | Monocle

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Some would say the opening shot in Hermès’ new autumn/winter footwear lookbook is surprising: it features a lithe leg wearing a black high-heel. The shoe has touches that are typical of the French maison: it’s made of sumptuous goatskin suede and possesses a playful flair courtesy of a pair of wings sprouting from the back, which look as if they could send the wearer airborne. Its spindly heel is not colossal but this is a black pump nonetheless – a riff on that classic feminine totem that some are saying is outdated and has been usurped by the utilitarian trainer.

However, Pierre Hardy, the charismatic creative director of Hermès shoes and jewellery, doesn’t find the look surprising at all. “Firstly, this [heel] isn’t high, it’s low,” he says in a thick French accent, smiling. We are nibbling on macarons at Hermès’ marbled HQ in Paris’s 8th arrondissement; Hardy is wearing his signature black spectacles and a healthy tan. “I think fashion has no ideal, no rules, no dogma, no moral,” he says. “It could look good, great, ugly, fun, sexy, vulgar, super chic, whatever. And that’s why most of the time it’s so difficult to speak about fashion. Do you know a good movie about fashion? I don’t. Any good essays? No. Because fashion totally escapes this effort to mentalise, regulate or rationalise it.”

He sighs occasionally, blowing out his cheeks, as he tries to explain something seemingly beyond explanation. Today, he says, “some people might say high heels are a little bit ‘off ’ . That they’re over; that the woman wearing this is not the right one; [that heels are] just dedicated to a certain type of ceremony. But maybe next season two or three designers will put the high heel in a show and – boom – it will be [back] again.” In this sense the fashion industry is little more than what he calls a “random mix” of ideas and products that become trendy almost on a whim.

Yet there is a deeper reason why stilettos have teetered off shop shelves and been edged to the corner of closets. “Probably the global women’s independence and power [movement] changed the vision,” he says. “In the past, women used heels to dress for men but now they don’t care. They say: ‘I’m going to wear the shoes I love, not for you but just for me.’ That’s a big difference. I don’t think trainers are repellent but there are still moments [when you want to look special] – that’s why you still have this high-heel collection.” Although he adds as a footnote: “I’ve never seen a man melt in front of a woman wearing sneakers.”

What Hardy thinks about shoes matters because he’s a titan when it comes to shodding feet. A native Parisian, he’s designed shoes for Hermès since 1990 (and jewellery since 2001). In addition to Hermès he created shoes for Balenciaga from 2001 to 2012 and launched his eponymous footwear brand in 1999 (Hermès bought a minority stake in 2016). He’s known for a graphic, bold style; his biggest hits include Hermès’ Oran sandals with their geometric, puzzle-like strap, and bulky black-and-white zigzag trainers for his own brand. Last season he unveiled a Sputnik stiletto for Hermès that was pink with a heel made of stacked silver discs and globes that gave it an industrial, antennae-like look. These pieces are as much sculpture as fashion item – you behold a Hardy design before you wedge your foot into it. “A shoe is a junction between art and accessory,” he says.

If you were to imagine a “fashion designer”, they would look and act something like Hardy, who embodies a creative type. A talented drawer and dancer, he is sparky, excitable, says exactly what he thinks and jumps between ideas, animating his points with an elastic face and restless hands. Sometimes, after going off on a lively tangent, he pauses and asks to be reminded of the initial question.

For three decades Hardy has been in the vanguard of an industry experiencing monumental change. In the past six or so years footwear has garnered much of the fashion world’s attention thanks to one item: the trainer. This has become the emblem of the broader sportswear and athleisure movements, which speak to what we wear but also how our lives have become more active. Whereas global high-heel sales have slumped (down 12 per cent year on year in 2017), athletic footwear amassed approximately $64bn (€57bn) in revenue in 2017 and is expected to reach $95bn (€85bn) by 2025. The trainer is the ultimate symbol of the way urbanites’ lives have shifted.

“To begin with they are usually more affordable than regular shoes, so they’re easier to buy,” says Hardy, charting the growth of trainers. But he says there’s another less tangible reason behind their popularity. “The big asset of sneakers is probably unconscious; the ‘use’ feeling that they give you is unbeatable. No other shoe can give you this feeling of freedom, movement and the memory of when you used to do sport when you were in high school,” he says. “It [reminds you of] this moment when you didn’t care about being elegant – just about being free and young. Like the sneakers we used to put on roller-skates to go dancing at the end of the ’80s. It was this fresh feeling of insouciance and not thinking.” He glances down at his choice of footwear for today – chunky white Pierre Hardy trainers – and smiles. “I’m getting older so I need some young feeling, at least on my feet.”

Trainers presented Hardy with something of a curveball. “[Designing trainers] was like a new job for me because it was nothing like doing a regular shoe with a leather sole and a heel. It’s like if I decided to design furniture tomorrow. It would be that different.” This is due to the contrasting materials, technology and starting points: with trainers you’re coming from a sportswear stance rather than what Hardy calls a “fairytale” for high heels.

The designer was ahead of the pack when he created his first trainers (for Hermès) in 1997. “It was genuine and organic; I didn’t go and study sneakers,” he says. More recently, though, he has had to keep up with developments. “Sneaker culture has evolved very quickly since the basic Stan Smiths, the lo-tech sneakers. Now, with sophisticated technology, there are automatically laced-up shoes, air cushions and so on. There are many types of sneakers. That’s another game in shoe design.”

The market dynamics are also wildly different. When it comes to traditional shoes Hermès primarily competes with other luxury players; with sneakers, luxury brands are also up against streetwear upstarts, sportswear specialists and mass-market giants. “Many people entering the Hermès store are wearing shoes from real sports brands, with a cashmere coat and a crocodile Kelly bag. So, yes, we compete with any type of [brand],” Hardy says. “Also, with sneakers, the brand is very important, whichever brand that might be. The brand is like an emblem because sneakers come from sport, which is based on teams. So unconsciously there’s this feeling of being part of a team. At Hermès we’re trying to build a recognition of the spirit of this team. It’s quite logical for us – after all, in the beginning, it was a house with roots in the equestrian sport.”

Does he think we’ve now reached “peak trainer”? That the boom will end? Chatter to that effect reached a crescendo last October due to a New York Times article called “The Season of Peak Sneaker Silliness”. Hardy remains unconvinced. “[Trainers are] such a way of life now, they’re not just a phase. People are doing sports and they’re going to the gym. There’s a consciousness about the body that changed a lot in the past five years in Europe; in the US it changed before that. Doing physical activities became a new rule.”

In order for something to replace trainers, he says, we need “something else – I don’t know, another social civilisation change. It’s like T-shirts. Will we not wear a T-shirt because they were so ‘hot’ last summer? Do you come back to ironing your shirt and putting on a tie? I really doubt it.” And from here, Hardy begins to lament the state of the fashion industry – and the world – in general. “Let’s face it, we’re not in a moment where people are thinking differently; not for the future, not for the best. In the ’60s we believed in walking on the moon, in progress; we believed that robots would save the world. But, globally, we’re not in this way of thinking now. So fashion has no reason to think differently. Fashion is not avant garde any more. But it was avant garde when the world was avant garde.”

The designer walks us through his latest Hermès collections, laid out neatly on white shelves alongside bridles and saddles. Hermès doesn’t release statistics for footwear specifically but ready-to-wear and accessories, including shoes, accounts for 20 per cent of total business (in 2018 the brand amassed €6bn in revenue). Each one of Hardy’s designs, be it furry sandals in orange for women or men’s trainers with yellow canvas tongues, begins with a drawing. “I sketch all the time,” he says. “It can be anywhere – if I don’t have paper I can take this and use it,” he says, grabbing a napkin. “It’s non-stop.” These designs are not merely whimsical illustrations but proportion-precise blueprints that inform the entire manufacturing process.

Hardy collaborates with specialists from Hermès’ in-house network – including embroiderers for detailing, silversmiths for boot buckles and the silk department for ribbon-like adornments – but Hermès’ actual shoe production takes place at several factories near Milan. The factories are familiar with Hardy’s sketches. “The drawings are such an efficient way to communicate,” he says. “It’s not like words, it’s something [the factory workers] can look at. At the end I take the [finished] shoe and put it next to the paper; it has to be the same. We’re correcting until it’s like the drawing.”

Hardy’s love of drawing sparked his initial interest in footwear. “When I was a kid I would draw eyes, umbrellas, cars and shoes,” he says. Yet for him, shoes’ enduring appeal comes from the way they transform our proportions. “Shoes really ‘stick’ to the body,” he says, smacking his hands together on “stick” for extra emphasis. “They’re like a second skin and, whether they’re light, heavy, high or flat, they redesign the body – the foot, the legs, the curve, the posture.”

Yet being a shoe designer can also be an affliction of sorts. Does he spend all his time glancing downwards at unsuspecting people’s clunky trotters? “Always! It’s an illness,” he says, roaring with laughter. “It’s terrible! Sometimes people say, ‘Oh no, you’re looking at my shoes.’ I say ‘No.’” He grins again. Then he looks down at my boots.

Pierre Hardy’s Parisian favourites:

Coffee stop: Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice
Galleries: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and Laffanour Galerie Downtown
Place to sit in the sun: Restaurant Loulou’s terrace in the garden of the Louvre
Activity: A morning run along the Seine and in the Jardin des Tuileries
Restaurants: Le bon Saint Pourçain, Takara, Le Bar des Prés, Cibus and Caffè Stern
Spot for a glass of wine: Café de Flore
Shops: 45RPM, Comme des Garçons and Hermès – and Pierre Hardy

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