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Walking in Zaha’s Shoes
Women’s shoes are a fraught topic, deeply political and personal in their expression of taste and choice. Coco Chanel’s pointed quip, “A woman with good shoes is never ugly” gets to the heart of the matter. Women are continuously judged by their appearance, but just what constitutes “good” is in the eye of the beholder, informed by an endlessly shifting ground of culture and money.
Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA ventured into shoes and fashion through a 2008-09 collaboration with Lacoste. More than Frank Gehry’s designs for postmodern spats from the same year, Hadid’s Lacoste shoes provocatively intertwined questions about luxury, utility, and gender. They merged her own professional interests in biomorphic streamlining with the faster-paced world of shoes and fashion.
The result was a sinuous update of the gladiator sandal, beginning with a minimal, glove-like shoe embossed with a reptilian grid of scales and extending up and around the calf in a curving tendril of leather that clasps the leg just below the knee. The shoes wink toward a gentle bondage and create an aggressive armature for the body, suggesting a kind of lithe fierceness. They are not typically feminine, with their flat soles and athletic posture, and, like Hadid’s late architectural designs, they contradict the most typical notions of structure and function with their gravity-defying upward spirals.
I only came to know these shoes personally through a chance encounter in the gift shop of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in summer of 2015. There, under the sale table, piles of the oversized asymmetrical custom Zaha Hadid shoeboxes made about a dozen pairs in black and purple available for 90% off. There is nothing that advances the relationship between high fashion and consumers more than a sale—and at 90% off their original price tag, the shoes suddenly became accessible.
I wear these shoes only occasionally and can report that they do, like all good fashion, shape the attitudes and environment around them. They are light and comfortable, and the straps (mostly) stay up as long as there are no actual gladiatorial bouts.
Credit: Liane Swanson
Last spring, I wore them to teach my large undergraduate architecture history course on the day that we talked about the 1990s, the rise of global architectural stars, and their emphasis on luxury and clearly identifiable brands. About 20 minutes into the 75-minute class, the strap on the right shoe dropped from my knee to my ankle, having been neglected as I paced the auditorium stage. We all laughed together as I struggled with my shoe, which had become the perfect prop for talking about the perils of “dynamic fluid grids” and untested architectural experimentation.
Let me state unequivocally that I love these shoes, despite their idiosyncratic need for attention and their absurdly overpriced luxury marketing. They point to the best and worst in architecture—the admirable desire to experiment and push boundaries and the more problematic association with frivolous expense that serves no discernible social purpose.
I also wore these shoes on April 1, 2016, the day after Hadid’s untimely death at age 65. Hadid fought to the top of a profession notoriously closed to women and, like her famous peers, reveled in her successes and was unapologetic for her failures.
While not “good” in Chanel’s classic and squished sense, Hadid’s shoes, for me, suggest a path forward for women in architecture that is less framed by those conventionally pretty expectations and more empowered by a limitless and self-determined possibility.
Kathryn Holliday, Ph.D., is director of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington.