The influential fashion columnist for the International Herald Tribune, Suzy Menkes, recently noted that major fashion houses have been switching their attention to feet and producing fantastical shoes. In this context Balenciaga’s Sandals was among the highlights of the Paris autumn–winter 2007–08 collections. One of the most inventive shoe designs of recent years, these ‘closed-toe cage sandals’, as the fashion house describes them, were the most colourful in a series of three cage sandals that were produced. They were frequently cited in magazine and newspaper reports worldwide and on countless websites, including Vogue’s style.com, which featured them among the top ten accessories of the season.
The House of Balenciaga was once a pillar of Paris haute couture, and its founder, Cristobal Balenciaga, was one of fashion’s most revered artists. When Balenciaga retired in 1968, the couture house closed and, later, the company was reorganised into a ready-to-wear fashion house. Nicolas Ghesquière was appointed creative director in 1997. By 2000 he was exerting a potent influence on fashion with Balenciaga becoming one of the hottest labels of the current generation.
Ghesquière’s collections can change radically from season to season. Underlying his work is a rigorous approach to fit and construction, the integration of complex detailing and an intrepid use of materials and techniques that combine the luxury of couture fabrics and finishes with industrial-grade synthetics. As a result, his work fuses the classicism of haute couture with a contemporary, streetwise and often sci-fi or sports-influenced aesthetic. This tone carries through to the accessories Ghesquière creates for Balenciaga which, since 2001, have been designed in collaboration with the French shoe designer Pierre Hardy. Hardy’s influence on the distinctive, sculpted line and incisive detailing of Balenciaga’s footwear has been considerable.
Snowboarding was the inspiration and starting point for the cage sandals series. The direct reference is the bindings that secure a snowboarder’s boots to the board. It is quite uncanny how closely Sandals emulates the structure and detailing of snowboard bindings, especially the interlocking plastic sections and padded straps. In search of an authentic note, the Balenciaga team initially began collaborating with an American manufacurer of snowboarding equipment. In the end, however, it was the fashion house’s European shoemakers who fabricated the numerous moulds and fittings that were required. Ghesquière’s final design can be seen as two shoes in one as the multicolour sections form a detachable exo-skeleton – hence the notion of a cage. The towering stiletto heels and combination of colours transform the sandals from utility sportswear to high fashion, feeding the insatiable appetite for new and ever more startling footwear.
Roger Leong, Curator, International Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)