We talk, often enough, about clothes that blur the line between art and fashion. Think of Rei Kawakubo or Gareth Pugh. But what of shoes that do the same? Enter Chris Francis, the Los Angeles–based cobbler and true footwear artist whose goods do not blur, but exuberantly obliterate that line. “I don’t separate [those worlds],” he told Vogue.com on a recent call. “I see fashion as art, and oftentimes it has the same expressive motives as a painting or anything else.” After hopping freight trains for the better part of five years (“I used to spray-paint shoes on the side of trains,” he recalls), Francis’s work focused on art and carpentry, and ultimately creating rock ’n’ roll leather ready-to-wear. It wasn’t until a serendipitous encounter at a Vuitton party in 2011 that he would merge his craft in both wood and textiles: “They had a shoemaker there from France,” he recalls, “and I was watching him make shoes that night. The next day I just started trying to make my own. By the end of the week, I had a pair made. They’re pretty rough, but just being able to do that, gave me that confidence to keep going. I turned the kitchen into a workshop, went from there, and just didn’t stop.” By the end of his first year at it, he was making shoes professionally, catering largely to performance wear; his styles are worn by the likes of Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, and former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford. In his designs are hints of glam shoemakers gone by, talents like Terry de Havilland, beloved of Bowie and Bianca Jagger, and Fred Slatten, whose sky-high platforms were de rigueur on the Sunset Strip of the ’70s. But Francis’s footwear is no throwback—his designs are singular, and the subject matter contains multitudes: the paintings of Kazimir Malevich, groundbreaking British anarcho-punks Crass, Bauhaus architecture, Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” They come with varying degrees of functionality—some are designed for everyday wear, while others are museum pieces to be marveled at.
Photo: Courtesy of Chris Francis / @chrisfrancisshoes
Indeed, last year Francis took up a six-month residency at Miracle Mile gem the Craft & Folk Art Museum, crafting his shoes in-house. Using no pre-existing components, and traditional techniques that are—by current standards—all but anachronistic, the designer occupies an interesting ground between past and future. “[It was challenging], learning the traditions of shoemaking, and being able to refer back to them when I needed them, but break them as I needed, too,” he offers. “My vision of the shoes I wanted to make was of my own designs, I didn’t want to repeat what had been happening traditionally.” That background as a carpenter is an invaluable one where his process is concerned: “The formulas actually apply to shoes, and I’m more three-dimensional in the way I think. Shoes became a way for me to express my ideas a little bit better than with garments. With a garment, you need a body, but a shoe has its own sort of integrity without a person.”
Don’t expect to find these wares on the shelves at Barneys any time soon—creating a Chris Francis design can take anywhere from a week to two months, so wholesale isn’t in the cards. “Sometimes the simplest pairs take the longest. I’ve found out how complex simplicity is,” he says with a laugh. That means his business his a wholly bespoke one, and Francis works closely with customers every step of the way to create pieces that serve to complement the personality of the wearer—plus pragmatic concerns: “A shoe is not only an architectural piece that’s supporting vertical human weight, but it’s also supporting a mechanical load. It has to move with the body, support the body, and still look beautiful. It’s quite complex, and I think that’s what fascinates me to keep going and exploring it. I’m making pedestals for the people.”
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