Interview: Valerie Steele on Noritaka Tatehana

published on 24 September 2014

Niamh White talks to fashion curator and writer Valerie Steele about shoe designer Noritaka Tatehana and the symbolism of his work.

Niamh White talks to fashion curator and writer Valerie Steele about shoe designer Noritaka Tatehana and the symbolism of his work.

Glass shoe by Noritaka Tatehana

Niamh White: You have been quoted as saying Noritaka Tatehana is one of the greatest shoe designers of our time. What is it about his work that you find so exciting?

Valerie Steele: Well, I think that he is one of the greatest fashion shoe designers of our time, and I think what’s most amazing is how original he’s been and how influential he’s been. With these ultra high heeled, yes ‘heeless’ shoes, he’s created a completely new silhouette. And it’s kind of extraordinary how it’s been picked up, other people have been imitating it. Also his shoes are extraordinarily crafted, each one is really a kind of work of art, they’re quite extraordinary. So I think both in terms of originality, and influence, and technical expertise, he’s really fantastic.

NW: The stiletto heel has dominated the 20th century and helped to coin a very particular aesthetic ideal for the female body. Tatehana's shoes alter the weight distribution of the wearer onto the toe and thus changes the shape of the leg and the style of gait. What do you think is the implication of this?

VS: I think it’s the fact that he has the foot lifted up quite radically, and yet doesn't have the spike heel. So there isn't any of the kind of phallic woman symbolism that’s implied by a high heel. It is quite extraordinary because it does lift you and elevate you off the ground, but in a very very different way. Almost in kind of an expansive way. So I think it's almost the absence, and you keep thinking... how can this be? That you’ve got the foot lifted so high and yet there is no heel. I remember Daphne (Guinness) saying that when she got use to it, she found it harder to walk in high heels because the heel would get stuck in little holes in the sidewalk, and then it becomes much more a question of balancing.

NW: But it also changes the shape of the leg, the style of the walk, it alters everything.

VS: Oh it does. It alters everything and it gives it a very strange, almost mythological, a kind of animalistic look. It's a very abstract non-human look. So it's half way between being animal-like and being robotic, like another species. I think it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s Japanese because there you have a culture that's been fashion crazy since the 8th century AD. And yet one that had a very different history of fashion and aesthetics. And he himself is very, very interested in the history of Japanese aesthetics and Japanese crafts, and sort of the idea of a platform - a Japanese platform was behind some of what he was first experimenting with.

NW: You have charted the history of both Eastern and Western cultures' fascination with extravagant shoes. Are there key similarities or differences in the ways that shoes been imagined or regarded by each? Are there any key instances when one has informed the other?

VS: You certainly see this interest in being raised off the ground in both. In Eastern cultures from the Ottoman empire all the way to Japan and the same in the West with the chopin in Renaissance Italy. There is the same association with high stature and high status, and also the same interest in changing the woman’s gait and her walk. So all of that is there. But in the East, you don’t have the same fetishisation of the heel, as being the  quintessence of erotic femininity.

NW: Tatehana is especially inspired by his research into the Oiran from the Edo and Meiji periods in Japan who were high ranking courtesans. They exaggerated their height by all means possible, with high platformed geta shoes, wigs and hair pins. This desire to be tall relates to a broad number of cultures and periods. What is it about elevation that is so desired? Does the correlation between stature and status translate to a contemporary audience?

VS: I think so, although the lines have blurred between the idea of a high shoe primarily a status signifier or primarily an erotic signifier. Because in the West, although initially it started primarily as a status signifier, by the 18th century you already see that its associated with erotic femininity. So as my supposed ancestor Sir Richard Steele, said back in the 18th century, women were more attracted to a man's red heels than to a good heart. In other words, to their aristocratic status. The high heeled shoes, and particularly red heeled shoes for men, connote it. But then by the end of the end of the 18th century you have shoe fetishes, like Rétif de la Bretonne wondering around Paris, following women in high heels then stealing their high heels and masturbating into them, so that's your classic shoe fetish right there already.

NW: Then there is also the geta shoe. There are three pairs by Tatehana in the show and they are hugely ornate and absolutely beautiful, but their history is that of a tool that keeps the feet clean and dry, to keep them out of the mud. Yet there's this trajectory into seduction and desire when they became part of the Oiran attire. Is this characteristic of a shoe? Are they pre disposed to being eroticised?

VS: Yes, you see in Japan, there is very much a sense of turning life into art. So that everything, from the way food is served to the way geta is decorated, becomes highly elaborated and aestheticised. And again that goes way way back, to long before the Edo period and before geisha. You find in 10th century Japan, in the capital of Heian-kyo, you find people like Lady Murasaki Shikibu talking in her diary about the importance of every little detail of how you dress, and the look of everything.

NW: You can really see that in Noritaka’s work. There is sculpture, there's painting, there's craft, and all of which contribute to the shoe design.

VS: He’s very interested in sort of reviving older craft techniques that are on the verge of dying out and then incorporating them into contemporary accessories.

NW: Yes absolutely, and mastering those crafts too.

VS: Exactly.

The important thing is to realise the symbolism is not in the shoe, it's something that we project onto the shoe. We have a millennia long history of projecting a lot of fantasies onto shoes and feet.

NW: I also wanted to speak to you about the transparent glass shoe that we have in the show. The shoes play on the Cinderella story. They appear beautiful, fragile and treacherous all at once. Do you think that an idea of 'peril' is significant in the history of the high heel? Is the potential for danger part of the appeal?

VS: Absolutely. I mean, it's this idea of femininity as being dangerous precisely because it is beautiful and attractive. That goes way way back and again has amazing cross cultural roots. It seems to be very much related to early fertility ideas about spirits who are dangerous and will sort of lure you into the water or into the underworld.  

NW: And also do you think it's inherent in the heel itself, in the pain it causes by manipulating a body or even the shoe as a weapon?

VS: I think shoes are among the most symbolically complex and overdetermined of all garments. and I think that a whole array of different fantasies and sexual fantasies are projected onto shoes. The important thing I think is to realise the symbolism is not in the shoe, it's something that we project onto the shoe. We have a millennia long history of projecting a lot of fantasies onto shoes and feet. And many of them do touch on pain, pleasure, danger, seduction etc.

NW: Tatehana's shoes have been brought to life by Lady Gaga and Daphne Guinness who wear them not only in performances or high profile appearances, but also out on the street and in their everyday lives. How important is having these kind of elaborate shoes worn and encountered out in the real world? What is the impact when they are?

VS: Well I think its very important because it takes them out of the realm of just a performance object. If you see Gaga wearing it in a music video, it's just a kind of a performance costume. But if you see Daphne running around in them and suddenly rocking back on her heels to stretch her calves, and then leaping up on a platform, it's a different thing. She is completely acclimatised to them. I have worn these shoes and despite practising with ankle exercises and calf exercises, I can only wear them for a short period of time. It's not so hard standing or walking in them, but your legs get very tired very fast. But the fact that someone like Daphne wears them in everyday life, then does begin to say okay they could conceivably enter into the repertoire of shoe shapes.

NW: And do you think they could?

VS: Oh I think so, probably not the super high ones like the ballet fetish ones 18 inches of the ground, but you can certainly imagine one doing a 5 inch one and learning how to walk in that.

NW: And on the other side of this, the shoes are incredibly sculptural and obviously we're exhibiting them in a gallery context. Do you see fashion as art? Can shoes be sculpture?

VS: Well I think actually that fashion is gradually being reconceptualised as art. I don’t think its happened yet, but I think it's in the process of happening - just as cinema, photography and jazz became accepted as art. And I think that the presentation of shoes and haute couture clothes within a museum context is a very important and necessary stage in the transformation of our view of clothing as art.

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