Yet there's shoes and shoes and in Belgian Anne Poesen's world another type of footwear – mainly influenced by architecture and following the principles of civil engineeering - is definitely possible.
Poesen usually employs in her footwear rather unusual materials including wire steel, woven carbon and kevlar fibres, and often moves from the pure shapes of architectural features such as bridges for inspiration.
A passionate shoe fan since she was a young girl, Poesen got to the fashion industry after a BA and an MA in Civil Engineering and Architecture at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. After following a course in footwear design at Ars Arpel in Milan and working as a pattern maker for La Perla, she started collaborating with prominent companies including Terra Plana, Parc and Avance as shoe and bag designer and became a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts Sint-Niklaas (SASK).
Poesen's studies and personal interests in architecture are reflected in all her foowear, from her first experiment, the “Trix” sandal, passing through the elegant “Bow” and the ironic and fun “City Walker” sandals that look as if an embossed map of a city had been wrapped around the wearer's foot, to the “21H12T” shoe in white woven glass fibres designed for a Belgian architect and also exhibited at the SONS (Shoes Or No Shoes?) Museum in Kruishoutem, Belgium.
As a child, were you already fascinated by shoes?
Anne Poesen: Yes, I always wanted to design footwear since I was a very young girl. I used to look at shoes in shops and make shoes for my dolls and for myself. I even remember developing my own pattern making system for shoes. Since I don't come from an artistic family even my parents couldn't understand where that came from!
How come you studied civil engineering and architecture rather than fashion design?
Anne Poesen: Both my parents are scientists and my father is a university professor, so they wanted me to do something that could grant me a “proper” job, since fashion is generally considered as a more artistic discipline. They were worried also because at that time there were no courses in shoe design and there is no footwear manufacturing in Belgium so there are not many jobs in this sector. Architecture has always been one of my interests, so in the end I opted for civil engineering and architecture at the University of Leuven. I loved studying, but my passion for footwear seemed stronger, so while at university I started exploring the possibilities that my studies could offered in other fields. I eventually came up with my first shoe, the “Trix”, in which you can clearly see the influence of architecture. It's a very simple sandal in which the heel and the sole are made from just one piece and one single strap folds between the toes and the sole. It looks a bit like a chair and it's made out of carbon fibre and rosewood, materials that are also used in designing furniture. As I said I designed the "Trix" while I was studying and a Dutch shoe maker, René van den Berg, made it since at that time I didn't have any proper shoemaking knowledge.
Do you ever regret studying civil engineering and architecture?
Anne Poesen: No, I don't. My background allows me to look at things from a different perspective compared to people who only studied fashion and also to question and analyse things in a much more in-depth way. One of the things I've always loved is the knowledge behind the shoemaking process. I guess that's because I have a sort of analytical mind, but that's what you learn when you're studying to become an engineer – organising yourself and finding a solution for every problem. Thanks to my studies my designs also look simple, even though, if you look closely, you realise there is a lot of work behind them and I also try and employ more experimental materials, combining aesthetic qualities and structural solutions together. The “Bow” sandals that I originally made for myself moving from bridge constructions are for example made with a special kind of wire steel covered in sole leather that can bend and then flips back to the original position. This is the only way you can make such as shoe, because if you made it with a different material, the bow would lose shape after a while, so it's only possible to come up with that shape using this elastic material.
Do you feel that some of the solutions employed in your designs are directly borrowed from your studies?
Anne Poesen: In fashion the clothes hang on the body, but in shoe design you have to physically carry a person, so you have to take into account other shoe-related issues such as the balance, the structure and the weight of a person. These are the same question I would ask myself if I were working as an engineer and I think this crossover between architecture and shoes is what makes designing so interesting to me.
Do you prefer working as a freelancer or for other companies?
Anne Poesen: I like both as they allow me to have different experiences. I never had the ambition of making my own collection and I'm not even sure I would be the right person who could have her own collection - at least for the time being. I'm not an arty person who makes thousands of drawings a day, if I have an idea, I really want to work it out, analyse how I can make it better and improve it. I like the overall process, the fact that you can go from idea to final product. At the moment I'm working for a commercial company and this is a completely different experience compared to what I did before. But I like this side of shoe designing as well, since it shows you how things work in real life and at the industry level and it allows you to follow the entire process from design to pattern and sample making till the product comes into the market.
Is there one particular design of yours that you saw being developed at a higher level and that you felt particularly excited about?
Anne Poesen: The first City Walker shoes I made were developed from three of my passions – footwear, architecture and Milan, where I lived for one year. Then I developed the shoe with a company from London in China. As you may guess this was a completely different experience compared to that of making a classic shoe in Italy or Portugal as these shoes are made using biodegradable EVA, a kind of foam, so they are made in a mould. While working on this project my engineering skills became very useful as I could talk with the people from the factory about the density of the material, the hardness, the thickness, the percentage of foam and the elasticity. I remember they were almost shocked to see a young woman who knew so much about the technical details behind the footwear and this made me proud as I felt I was applying my knowledge at a very high level.
What do you hope visitors coming to the exhibition at the Nederlands Leder & Schoenen Museum will bring home?
Anne Poesen: I hope my designs will make them smile and prompt them to think differently. Usually when something is well designed, balanced and aesthetically pleasing, you feel happy or peaceful about it. This is what I'm trying to do with my designs - injecting into them that perfect balance that only a carefully thought product has and also adding to them an unexpectedly fun twist.
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