Founder and Creative Director Rem D Koolhaas exclusively talks to Jayne Green about the launch of his footwear brand, United Nude and why he doesn’t see himself as a shoe designer…
What inspired you to create your eponymous shoe label?
I wasn’t necessarily inspired to start a brand. The only reason we started United Nude was because it was the only way to get the shoes made. Back then I would have been happy for somebody else to produce my designs, but everyone, including Miuccia Prada, was saying that my designs matched nobody else’s signature and that therefore I needed to start a new brand for it.
I started designing shoes because I was looking for love while being heartbroken over a girl and scaled down architecture to the its vulnerable scale, that of a women’s foot.
Since the launch of United Nude’s first shoe named Möbius how have your architectural designs evolved in your SS18 collection?
I’ve always considered myself an architect, and not a shoe designer. I’ve learned a lot about shoes over the years but I would not introduce myself as a shoe designer. Growing up in an architectural family, my uncle and father are both architects – I learned how to look at architecture from a very young age. When we traveled we always visited architectural sites. My designs are mostly about structure, materials and other spacious and architectural concepts. So it is hard to say how it continues to influence or evolve in my work. So how have they evolved? Well, we are making more comfortable shoes than on day one as I have learned more and more about shoes, but it is still architecture for the foot.
You have already collaborated with a whole accolade of renowned designers such as Issey Miyake, Zaha Hadid and Iris Van Herpen. Is there anyone else you would love to collaborate with?
There are many people I would like to collaborate with, but I could not name one person in particular right now. As a designer, I am interested in working with people that are among the best at what they do, and that are doing something very different from what we are doing. Here we can join forces and make something cool and new together. Since moving to LA, I have become more interested in other creative fields: film, music and art. So I could see myself, or UN as a company, collaborating with people different from where we come from. We have collaborated with fashion designers and architects, but crossing over into other creative fields is the next logical step.
Do you feel a certain level of pressure to maintain such forward- thinking designs, especially since Möbius initiated the union of industrial design and fashion?
No, I don’t feel the pressure in creating forward-thinking design, but I do feel the pressure in creating good and useful design. I think that it is one thing to create something that is very special and beautiful and quite another to create something useful and comfortable – while at the same time still remains interesting. I think there is a much bigger challenge in smaller margins than extremities. It is the task of us as designers to make the world a better place and a more beautiful place. If we can combine the beauty and better in one, mission accomplished! Where do you gain your inspiration for your innovative designs? Pretty much anywhere. It usually comes to me when I’m in an in- between space like when I am traveling. I always bring a notebook or sketchbook. Mostly when I am by myself, it’s like looking into a mirror of my own brain and which has functioned as a sponge of everything around me, and it is at this self-time of quiet that I squeeze the sponge and ideas pour out. The more critical and difficult part is how to figure out which is a good idea and which is not worthwhile and this is not always easy. Sometimes I cancel ideas which then later someone else coming up with the same or similar idea becomes a big success. This type of self curating doesn’t always lead to the biggest successes.
Your initial designs were praised by Miuccia Prada and Sergio Rossi before you met Galahad Clark, a seventh-generation shoemaker and member of the Clarks dynasty, and launched United Nude in 2003. If we were a fly-on-the-wall what would we overhear at said meetings?
There were so many different meetings, but some in particular: Miuccia Prada had invited me to meet their creative director Fabio Zambernardi in Milan. At that meeting he was very positive about my designs, but also said again that I would need to start a new brand for them. They had actually discussed whether they would help me start a brand, but they were very busy, as they had just taken over several companies including Jill Sander and Helmut Lang, so they didn’t do it. Two years after that in 2001 while visiting Sergio Rossi at his Milan Showroom he had asked for a foot model to try on the Mobiüs prototype shoes. He spoke to his son Gianvito Rossi, who was also present in our meeting, in Italian: “my father really likes the concept of your shoe and he wants to help you guys in whatever way you want.” At this point they offered us two options, which were to work with their factory, or to meet with a shoe expert he worked with. We then drove for three hours and met their expert, the great Maurizio Martignago, that same day. Galahad and I had many conversations, mostly on how to start a brand: how to do and not do things.
You are currently showcasing a Vegan Collection. What made you formulate such an ethical addition to your portfolio?
Though leather is a very beautiful material that has a certain characteristics that no other materials have, I’ve always had difficulties with using leather. For instance, I have never owned a leather jacket, as I don’t feel comfortable putting my body in someone else’s skin. While manmade materials are improving, I’m happy and as soon as possible, to one day become an entirely vegan brand. With my background in architecture – I’ve always grappled with and been cognizant of sustainable, and ethical issues in the design, and making of things. Wherever possible we try to incorporate elements of the sustainable and ethical in all levels of the design process.
What is your plan for the near future, and where do you hope to take United Nude in the next five to ten years?
Besides being a global brand UNITED NUDE is also really a lab for experimentation. I would like to see it further mature since we are in my eyes a very experimental and young company. I would like to make better products that people can enjoy while we can inspire where we can. We have always been considered an inspiring brand. In design schools we are often used as an example of how boundaries are pushed and crossed between different creative disciplines.
Tell us about your biggest challenge that you have faced with United Nude and how you have overcome such difficulties
We started the company as a global brand, which I think was a mistake. It was always difficult to represent the true core of the brand in so many places, at the same time, while we were also experimenting and finding out who we are and what the brand is. External forces such as the economic climate have been turbulent, especially with the fall and rise of the Euro has very much affected us. Also, the digitalization of retail has been a huge challenge, which would have been easier to adapt to the challenges if we were a newer brand. We constantly have to reconfigure how we operate due to the digital revolution of this age and time.
How would you describe someone who wears United Nude shoes?
Our Customers are in general strong individuals with clear individual taste and a clear appreciation for design. They can see further than trends, hype and fashion with an open mind. Our goal is to create the best design we can, and not be about trend, and our wearers can appreciate this.
Your shoe designs are very futuristic and unique, with such an artistic flair being present would one find them practical?
Something that may not look practical on first glance may be more practical than it appears, through the functionality. Our designs can be futuristic and unique but comfort, wear-ability, and the longevity of the footwear are very important to us – so we try to balance the two, always! If our shoes cannot be worn, it is not really a shoe but an art piece, which we also sometimes make in collaboration, or as a special project.
The biggest challenge lies for us and I think for any designer, to create original meaningful products that are useful, sustainable and comfortable.
United Nude is available at Saks Fifth Avenue, City Centre Bahrain.