Commas and All: The Magical Whimsy of Roger Vivier

BoF reviews Virgule etc., the new Roger Vivier exhibit curated by Olivier Saillard, and discovers that, in the right hands, exhibitions by fashion brands don’t have to be a dull, overly promotional affairs.

"Tempête, Grisaille et Sanguine," a Roger Vivier shoe at the "Virgule etc." exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo | Source: Roger Vivier

PARIS, France — A little under two years ago, the French government, in cahoots with an Italian-owned luxury accessories brand, enacted a little but determined intervention d’état. By buying up 80 percent of a private collection that was going under the hammer at a French auction house, it ensured that the precious objects, considered French patrimony of the highest order, would not leave the country to be scattered among collectors around the world. The prized lots? Hundreds of embellished, whimsical shoes designed by legendary footwear designer Roger Vivier, each pump a little feat of imagination, wit and artistic derring-do.

Thus the seed was planted for Virgule etc., a ravishing and surprising Roger Vivier retrospective that opened this week at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Vivier designed shoes for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent. And, when Christian Dior decided to label the pumps Vivier designed for his house “Christian Dior par Roger Vivier,” he acknowledged the young designer’s star power.

The last time there was a serious museum show dedicated to the work of Vivier was in 1987 (held at the Louvre, no less). The new exhibition is curated by Olivier Saillard, who also conceived the grand Azzedine Alaïa exhibition that recently opened at the Musée Galliera across the street (of which he is the director).

But there is a crucial difference between the two Saillard-curated shows. While the Alaïa show was independently conceived and funded by the city of Paris’ fashion museum, the Vivier exhibit is fully underwritten by Roger Vivier, the luxury brand that lives on 15 years after the death of its founder and is now in the hands of Diego della Valle’s Tod’s Group.

Saillard says he initially refused when the brand first asked him to curate the exhibit and that it was the irresistible lure of the archive the company had acquired at auction in December of 2011 — and the curatorial possibilities it opened — that persuaded him to take on the project. That, and the fact that Tod’s agreed to give him full curatorial freedom.

“I told them I would only do it if I could do it on my own terms. And they agreed to all my requests and suggestions,” Saillard told BoF.

His terms? To display the 170 pairs of shoes in custom-made glass cases, in the style of a 19th century museum. Dramatically lit — albeit similarly somber to the Alaïa show — the exhibition highlights the sheer artistry of Vivier’s output, from a surrealist pump that sits on a golf-sized, diamond-covered ball and the Mondrian clutch he made for Yves Saint Laurent to a feathered feat of construction featuring a “unicorn horn” and thigh-high yellow satin boots embroidered by Lesage.

In a playful touch that is typical of Saillard, the vitrines are thematically labeled after classical museum sections, with displays devoted to Egyptian art, the Northern Schools, and so on. The shoes, meanwhile, are given fictitious titles so as to pass for masks, sculptures and other artifacts of exotic provenance. While the conceit may prove somewhat confusing to the uninitiated visitor, it is an effective and witty, if somewhat austere, set-up.

Especially against the backdrop of Palais de Tokyo’s Saut de Loup hall, with its high exposed ceilings and monumental rawness, the beauty, playfulness and sense of colour of Vivier’s work shines with gem-like ingenuity. Some vitrines intersperse the creations of the house’s founder with those of Bruno Frissoni, Vivier’s creative director since 2003, but Saillard’s labeling withholds any indication of what year the shoes were created or who designed which pair. The fact that sometimes it’s hard to guess which shoes are historic and which contemporary speaks to the durability of Roger Vivier’s vision.

Saillard says he is well aware that the exhibit is a savvy marketing device for the Roger Vivier brand, but that its accessibility made him forget any reservations he may have had about it. “I really believe that I do my job for students,” he said. “Of course, I am lucky that my work is for many people, but I especially have students in mind when I work.” Fashion exhibits at Palais de Tokyo tend to be free, a democratic touch that excited Saillard. “I really believe in an exhibition that is completely free, and widely accessible to a broad public, including students. I like that idea. So to me this is not only promotion, it’s education. I didn’t want to do just a marketing exercise for a brand, there is too much of that already.”

Saillard is alluding to the flood of exhibits that luxury brands have been staging to tout their heritage. Most of these exhibitions, even when they take place in (rented) museums and respected cultural institutions, are, in reality, thinly veiled communication and PR vehicles for the brands that organise them.

For its part, the Vivier brand insists that the purpose of Virgule etc. (which is named after the comma-shaped heel invented by Vivier) is primarily didactic and cultural. “This is not targeted to reach new customers, not at all, we do marketing events for that. This is really something institutional, something cultural. It’s an homage to Mr. Vivier’s work,” Sabine Brunner, global general manager for Roger Vivier, told BoF.

“Of course, it will most certainly help more people to know about Roger Vivier, the man and his work, as well as to see him in his entire universe and not just think of the famous buckle when they see or hear his name,” she continued. (The buckled, pilgrim-style shoes designed by Vivier for Yves Saint Laurent in 1965 and worn by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour were an international best-seller.)

But why now?

“A year ago or two years ago would have been too early. It took us a little under ten years to build the brand (Tod’s bought the Vivier label in 2002) and we have reached a point where a lot of people know Roger Vivier,” Brunner added. “I think it’s the right time for these people to get to know more about Roger Vivier. We can now touch a broader audience and younger generations and thus bring Vivier’s legacy into this century.”

Whatever the motives, the exhibition sheds beautiful if scant light on a designer who could be considered a Picasso or Matisse of shoes. In the words of Saillard, “If I look at the shoes of Vivier, so delicately made by someone who was clearly obsessed, it confirms for me the idea that a person can dedicate their life to one single-minded artistic expression. The result can be a painting, a video, or a sculpture. For Vivier, it just happened to be a shoe. That is an idea I find very compelling and worthy.”

Indeed, it is Saillard’s passionate, light-hearted and somewhat unorthodox curation that makes this show stand out from the pack of exhibitions being staged by luxury brands. And there is no doubt that, besides serving the brand’s communication objectives, this is a serious curatorial enterprise meant to add to the discourse of fashion rather than sell shoes. Like any proper museum exhibit, for instance, the Vivier retrospective at Palais de Tokyo includes loans from other important institutions, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Toronto’s Bata museum, as well as from private collections.

As Elaine Sullivan, director of communications at Tod’s and Roger Vivier in London, touring the exhibit for the first time with a reporter, put it upon seeing the shoes she is very familiar with in their new setting: “See, when you hand it over to a curator, is just stops being a product and becomes something else.”