Lady Gaga's shoemaker opens Manila flagship.
Koolhaas flew into town for the flagship opening of his brand, United Nude, in Newport Mall, Resorts World Manila, on Jan. 12. The Dutch architect-cum-shoe designer toured guests like Rajo Laurel around the black-and-white store, showing signature United Nude (UN) styles like the Mobius slide and the Loop sandal.
Frankly I'd been eagerly awaiting United Nude's store opening, because when I'd interviewed Koolhaas last year I really loved UN's aesthetic of fashion-meets-architecture of the shoe as a sculpted object you could wear instead of just, well, a shoe. It's a design signature that definitely sets United Nude apart, and the reason Koolhaas had to found his own shoe brand.
"One night while listening to Marvin Gaye in my student housing in Delft, I started sketching and cutting up a cardboard box and invented the Mobius shoe," Koolhaas recalls. He was heartbroken because his girlfriend had broken up with him, and to fill the void, started drawing.
Rem D. Koolhaas, founder and creative director of United Nude, gives a talk on shoemaking at the newly opened store.
"It was based on Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair from the 1929 World Expo, and became his most famous chair." Koolhaas kept cardboard models of the Mobius in his backpack and trotted it around parties, asking beautiful girls to try it on.
"I never picked up a girl this way it was way too desperate," he laughs. While he may not have found a new girlfriend that way, he did find a shoemaker who could execute the Mobius design.
"I was working for my uncle (famed architect and namesake Rem Koolhaas) on the Prada store in New York, and showed my colleague the shoe. He said, Why don't you leave it in my office? Miuccia Prada and (husband Patrizio) Bertelli are going to come and if I show it to them they could advise you.
'" The Prada couple did see the shoe and immediately asked about it Rem speeded to the office to meet them and they told him to look them up in Milan, where he could talk to Prada's head of shoes and bags, Fabio Zambernardi. Koolhaas did as advised and Zambernardi, in turn, suggested he talk to as many people as possible in Milan, so Koolhaas met with shoe designers like Sergio Rossi and the house of Versace.
While all the fashion folk seemed to like his designs, they said it wasn't their signature. Fashion meets architecture: The Loop sandal "It was my signature, so they advised me to create my own brand and start my own line," Koolhaas says.
"I hadn't really thought about that, but a couple of months later I was introduced to Galahad Clark, a seventh-generation shoemaker from the Clarks shoe family, and he said, If you want to make these shoes and the brand, I'm your guy.'" They became friends, set up the company and, after going through various iterations of the logo (the graphically catchy NU was switched around to UN), chose the name, which means "people coming together from all over the world and working in a transparent way without anything to hide.
" Prototypes of the Mobius, the sole of which loops around like an infinity symbol, couldn't be formed on a traditional shoe last, so they had to go back to Italy and Sergio Rossi for more advice on product development. "Sergio really liked the shoes and introduced us to a very technical shoe specialist, Maurizio Martignago.
We had to figure out how to construct a shoe not based on any traditional shoemaking and more on industrial design products." When they finally manufactured the Mobius, it became United Nude's signature style: an elegant woman's slide now available in different heel heights and colors.
The Eamz style takes inspiration from the Eames chair. The Loop, another architectural sandal, was the second concept, followed by the Eamz, inspired by Charles and Ray Eames' chair: "I was inspired by the one in Galahad's apartment in New York and made something very similar," Koolhaas says.
"We sold the shoes in some of the top stores in the world, and because it was so different, it sold out everywhere." United Nude started opening shops in New York, London and Tokyo, basing its design and development center in Guangzhou, China.
Koolhaas says the flagship store in Amsterdam was designed more as an installation than an interior, with light boxes he calls "the wall of light." Once the brand was established, United Nude started collaborating with fashion designers.
"There was no point for us to put our shoes on the runway without clothing, and we didn't want to become a clothing brand," Koolhaas says. They approached Iris van Herpen, a Dutch avant-gardist who was a protege of Alexander McQueen.
"She only does haute couture for celebrities, collectors and museums," notes Rem. "We started making all these difficult-to-make, crazy shoes.
" Their first of 10 collaborations was the now-iconic Fang shoe, of which only 16 pairs were made. Other notable designs included the Thorn and Synesthesia, styles that went viral when Lady Gaga wore them to events.
Futuristic shoemaking: This platform boot with floating spike heel shows the more daring side of United Nude. This led to United Nude directly being asked to make a shoe for Gaga.
"She was launching a perfume (Fame), and filmmaker Steven Klein, who did the campaign, came up with this idea to have little naked gold men climbing all over her." UN ended up making Gaga's shoes based on that idea: they 3D-printed 12-inch heels, strengthened them with fiberglass, and within three-and-a-half weeks created black ankle boots with little gold men climbing over them for Gaga, who wore the boots coincidentally with an Iris van Herpen dress at the Fame launch in New York.
By now United Nude was well outside the bounds of traditional shoemaking, employing high-tech methods like laser scanning, 3D printing, silicone molding, vacuum casting, even slush rotational molding, a technique usually reserved for making rubber ducks and toys. They used that technique for a collaboration with the legendary architect Zaha Hadid before she died.
"She was a huge shoe collector and shoe lover, and one of her favorite shoes was the Mobius," Rem says. Out of a number of shoe concepts they settled on one that eventually became the Nova: "It didn't even look like a shoe it's a shoe inside of a shell," notes Koolhaas.
Sneak attack: The Bo Easy men's Mono Geo While these limited-edition United Nude x Zaha Hadid Nova shoes are the most expensive design UN's ever made (initially retailed for US$2,000, the few remaining pairs now cost $5,000), Koolhaas says his brand is "exclusive by design, not by price." Indeed, though not cheap, United Nude's shoes are reasonably priced for designer shoes, starting from P8,000 upwards.
Upcoming collabs include a dance shoe with Lady Gaga's choreographer Richy Jackson for the Mother Monster's "Enigma" show in Las Vegas, a men's high-heeled shoe for model/dancer/singer Shaun Ross, and a tech-heavy shoe for "bionic" pop star Viktoria Modesta, half of whose left leg is prosthetic. Koolhaas has also taken United Nude in a more lifestyle direction, extending the brand's future-sleek aesthetic to watches, backpacks, sunglasses, jewelry, and even hats.
They've ventured into car design, are working on a proposal for big furniture companies, and Rem, who designs his own pants, is even toying with the idea of finally going into fashion. "But I'm not really a fashion person, more of a design person," is his disclaimer.
Knowing his penchant for a challenge coupled with innovation, never say never. The United Nude store is located on the ground floor of Newport Mall, Resorts World Manila.
Follow me on Instagram @theresejamoragarceau.