The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film is currently hosting the work of shoemaker Chris Francis. His work is at once sculptural, architectural, and avant-garde. Above all, it is thoughtful—viewers will notice historical allusions, inspiration from art movements, and social commentary that sparks a reexamination of both the reference and what a shoe can be. (Interestingly, SCAD is the only university in the world to offer an M.F.A. in accessory design, and the first in the U.S. to offer an M.A. in the discipline.) Form & Function: Shoe Art by Chris Francis runs through December 8, with an opening reception on September 19 from 6-8 p.m.
Below, we chatted with Francis about his unique shoes.
Why shoes? Was there an event, person, or experience that sparked your interest in this particular craft?
My fiancé inspired me. My first pairs were created for her; and to this day, I’m still her personal shoemaker. Shortly thereafter, I began making shoes professionally for musicians, which is when I realized the expressive potential of the form.
I’ve always been an artist. I think creativity is just inherently in me. It started to appear in my shoe designs, which were becoming wearable art objects. There was a point when I realized that shoemaking as a bespoke craft was really going to be challenging to pursue in a traditional manner. I saw the art world as a wide-open arena. There weren’t many shoe designers exploring the shoe as an art object beyond an accessory, so I took it to the extreme and directed my focus on the shoe as an artistic medium. I watched almost all of the custom shoe shops in Hollywood close, and felt the responsibility of keeping something very old alive in the modern world, which continues to inspire me to pursue this craft.
Clearly your work is akin to sculptural pieces of art. However, there is a sensibleness to them as well. Many are quite wearable. Do you see your work as functional art or avant-garde gallery pieces? Perhaps both?
Creating shoes as sculptural art pieces is a way for me to escape the other demanding practices of shoemaking. Adding the element of art keeps this process alive, fun, progressive, and [not] a brand producing on-trend, sellable products. Art allows for a freedom not found in retail. Most of the work in this exhibition focuses on the art of the shoe and the exploration of its form and function rather than solely its ability to be a profitable accessory for consumers. Shoes are theatrical objects. Being a shoe designer, maker, and artist all at once is like being a magician. I always need to know my audience.
With that said, I often create custom shoes for on-stage performances, which means they must meet many demands, including comfort, style, and durability. A stage shoe might need to be very avant-garde in its design, yet also be comfortable and allow the wearer to run and jump off a stage-riser every night. This is a very challenging dichotomy.
I also make shoes for other designers. My skill set of making them by hand has to compete with products often made by computers, sophisticated mass production machinery, or makers that are among the best in the world.
Each pair is bespoke, using very traditional techniques, correct? Why is preserving these methods important to you? How does this drive your design?
Each pair is meticulously handmade in-house by me. Many of the styles shown at SCAD FASH are from my very early work and show progression.
I understand the value of tradition and call upon it when necessary, but I operate progressively and believe that all tools, technology, and methods of creation are valid. My goal is to create modern pieces by any means necessary and without material limitations, while being open to all ideas and possibilities. Ninety percent of my process is carried out using hand tools. Most machines I have are either hand-built or modified to perform specific tasks. Interestingly, many are from the World War II era. I’m making 21st-century, modern, outside-the-box shoes, by using 20th-century techniques and hand tools.
I often fight the rigidity of tradition, but there is something about me that is very traditional. I’m operating in 2019 in a way that fashion houses operated in the early twentieth century—in-house and by hand. Many large fashion labels and houses all began with small hands-on operations much like mine, so I am keeping tradition alive in that respect.
Tell us a bit about your process, particularly the materials you are drawn to.
My process can range from being very spontaneous to very methodical, depending upon the creation. Some designs are built in the moment, and some have drawings as complex as blueprints. I first decide the intended function, then determine the easiest way from point A to point B with the least probability of failure. I envision every single shoe as failure before its creation. Potential failure is what drives me. If this was easy, I would move on to something more challenging.
The materials range from traditional leather to steel to concrete. I’m drawn to materials that are readily available and that can be found in everyday life. More than half of the shoes in this exhibition showcase that. Some were created using plywood found at construction sites, some have heels that are made from chair legs or are wrapped with textiles I’ve found on the sides of streets. Many of the shoes are hand-painted.
Most of my well-known pieces are made from the mind and heart and using a budget of less than twenty dollars. I really enjoy working with humble materials.
What does it mean to you to be part of the SCAD Atlanta experience and inspire and influence future designers and makers?
This is an opportunity that I never expected to happen. Having a solo exhibition in a museum where Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Pierre Cardin, and so many others have exhibited is an honor beyond expression. Being invited to show at SCAD is very special. Perhaps I can influence others who are starting out like I did: with a basic sewing machine, a heart full of ambition, and the drive to succeed.
Finally, of course, we have to know how we can score a pair?
You score them from me directly (I don’t sell in-store or online). Every pair is one-of-a-kind and handmade by me personally. I think that’s the beauty of the process, and I intend to keep it that way for as long as possible!