Let us introduce you to your new favorite footwear designer, Chris Francis.
You’re designs are amazing, is it true that you are self taught? Thank You! Yes, I began making shoes in 2011 after watching a guest shoemaker hand-stitch men’s shoe soles at a Louis Vuitton party. That was the first time I realized that making a shoe by hand was possible. I didn’t know of any schools for shoemaking, and internships weren’t available to me, so I taught myself. By the end of the week after the Vuitton party, I had made a wearable pair of boots in my kitchen. My first designs were all inspired by the seventies, partly due to my girlfriend’s shoe collection. I would look at her shoes for reference, and I learned mostly by interpreting what had already been done. I frequented the shoe sections of all the luxury house stores, always looking at details and techniques. My designs eventually became very much my own and I found that I had developed my own design vocabulary and my own vision, progressive to what had already been done.
Why shoes? In the beginning I just really loved shoes, I had wanted to be a shoe designer but didn’t realize it was possible. Now shoes have become ways to lift small-scale architectural models and ideas off the ground. I was a builder before I became a shoemaker and because of that foundation, I approach design very architecturally. I see the shoe as a structure that supports vertical human weight even while in motion upon the short span of the foot arch, so it really is a wearable act of architecture. In my realm of the shoe, I can launch ideas quickly and utilize a vast amount of materials on a minimal budget, which is quite the opposite of building on a large scale. The shoe has seemingly endless possibilities and is able to bridge so many interests. I believe that in some contexts, a shoe design can be as much of an act of art as any painting or sculpture, and my motives for designing shoes are purely artistic. I can express myself with a shoe like no other form I have experimented with, every pair is a portrait of the moment I am in, I can document sound, a feeling, a point in history or a vision for the future, all in the creation of a shoe design, there are no limitations.
Has there ever been a concept that you couldn’t make into a creation? Sure, I’m surprised when any concept actually works out! It takes sometimes three or four prototypes to see a concept live in reality and disasters are a regular occurrence. I exist happily in an experimental realm where I question design and function in the hopes of finding answers that come in the shape of shoes. Some designs end up as noble attempts and become sculptures, while others break through multiple barriers and become wearable. To not experiment and remain within the ‘known’ parameters of shoemaking would be considered a failure, in respect to my designs.
Some designs I’ve made that appear to be successful to others, I regard as ultimate failures due to their commonality and lack of experimentation. My definition of success is the manipulation of potential failure towards a visually or structurally pleasing outcome, but this may not be true for others, everyone makes their shoes or their art for different reasons, and there is no right or wrong definition for success and failure. Many times I fail to hit both marks in a single design but I have often regarded piles of rubble to be more inspiring than some of my shoes that meet the traditional definitions of success.
I think footwear is one of the hardest facets of design, would you agree? In my case it is extremely difficult, all of my shoes are designed and handmade in-house, which is not very common anymore. I make clothing and handbags too; sometimes I am working on shoes, jackets and handbags at the same time, which is extremely challenging because all are created with different mathematical formulas and orders of construction. Stage shoes need to dance, tap twenty guitar pedals, run, jump, look beautiful and be comfortable. Clothing needs to do the same but accommodate a wide range of motion and be very well tailored. Everything is made-to-measure and every body type is different. Handbags have lots of structural integrity, multiple compartments, hardware and design features, they can be really challenging. Shoes for the art museum need to fit imaginations and have a reason to be on a pedestal, they stand in a still sculptural state without a human model so they really need to make an impact. Every shoe has a different set of variables, material wise as well as structurally and visually. I think everything in the creative world of fashion, shoes, jewelry and art that are authentically made and thoughtfully designed is difficult but shoes, from my perspective, are the most difficult objects I’ve ever made.
Growing up in Kokomo, Indiana was footwear always something you saw yourself doing? Not at all, I was a painter and even as a child I had been painting and making art. I gained recognition for my paintings in high school, which enabled me to travel and study with established artists. My vision of the world broadened, so I began looking for ways to leave my hometown. I graduated high school a semester early with scholarships to Maryland Institute College of Art where I studied fine art but found myself gravitating to the third dimension and becoming more sculptural. While attending MICA I really became fascinated with avant-garde artists and art movements, that inspiration can still be found in my shoe designs. I was not interested in designing shoes until I had settled down in Los Angeles, where I began spray-painting shoes all over Hollywood. Nike noticed some of my artwork and commissioned me to design an ad campaign, which featured graffiti artists.
What materials do you most like to work with? Materials are not limited to any preference; I believe material exploration is vital to successful experimentation and unique outcomes, so I prefer new discoveries in material use to set ways. My newest collection makes use of concrete, steel, wood, glass, acrylic, copper, brass, rubber and leather. The inspiration came from Brutalist Architecture and it is currently on display at the Architecture + Design Museum in Los Angeles. Material use and choice are so important when designing a shoe, the shoe is so small that every surface hardness, texture and color all play a role in the outcome of the overall design.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? I would probably end up choosing to explore architecture and structural engineering, being a shoemaker has actually led me to think more along these terms. Although, I love what I am doing, I get to make my art and people get to interpret it. I’m fortunate to have gained recognition for my work so early in my career, and to be able to attend my own museum exhibitions as a living artist in my own time, there isn’t a complaint I could have. I think I found my calling!
What’s one thing that’s truly surprised you about your design journey? That others have appreciated my designs enough to accept them as a valid form of art, and that the designs have bridged art, fashion and architecture and have been allowed in museums. I would have never expected that, I set out to learn and have fun and to invent a world that I was happy in and it’s been an amazing journey. I’ve met wonderful and fascinating people and have really been fortunate with the opportunity that have come my way.
What kind of legacy would you like to leave to the design world? The legacies that move me are the ones that educate and inspire. I hope to make innovations and discoveries that could do the same for future makers and designers. I would hope for a legacy that inspires minds to open to all forms of art and design and look beyond barriers and categorization. One that inspires self-education and stands as an example that one can come from regular beginnings and build their dream. — Instagram.com/ChrisFrancisShoes