these punk-inspired heels are wearable art
Chris Francis grew up on thrash metal and now makes bespoke heels for rockstars, artists, and the sartorially adventurous.
Los Angeles-based shoe designer Chris Francis swears his exuberant creativity comes from falling from a roof onto his head as a child. Currently exhibiting "Form & Function: Shoe Art by Chris Francis," at The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, he has created hundreds of handcrafted shoes in many strange and interesting forms. This includes couch-heels, Facebook-heels, and Bauhaus inspired heels, which he says are all completely wearable.
“The shoes on display at SCAD FASH are technically all are wearable. Art is a way for me to relax and explore new ideas that likely won’t make sense on the store shelves,” Francis says. “Sometimes I won’t exhibit a piece if it is too wearable or too much like a store product.” Most of the shoes are his fiancé’s size, he explains, as she likes to “test them out.”
Growing up in a small Indiana factory town, he spent his youth playing in abandoned steel mills and auto factories and has an obsession with punk that stems from a childhood of “thrash metal, garage bands, and skateboard ramps”. Experimenting with glass, concrete, metal and plastic, Francis has had metal poisoning twice and concrete poisoning once from creating the extreme shoes.
Now 43 years old, Francis views his Los Angeles garage workspace as a place where punk is still alive. After making his first shoe in his kitchen, his bespoke creations have now been worn by rock legends like Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, and former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford. i-D sat down with Francis at SCAD FASH to learn more about these beautifully crafted punk-inspired creations.
Have you always been creative?
Yes, since as far back as myself or anyone in my family can remember. My drawings were outside the norm as a child and I had great attention to detail. I became very fixated on painting in middle school after falling from a roof, subsequently causing head injury. I was completely paralyzed and blind for what seemed like a half hour after the fall. My head swelled and from that point on I was extremely creative.
What did you do before you made shoes?
I wore many hats. I was a finish carpenter in Hollywood building bars on the Sunset Strip. I built recording studios where I met many musicians. I hung off high-rise buildings as a rope access installer for giant super graphics. That moment was when I decided to pursue art. While hanging outside the 73rd floor and looking down at hawks flying beneath me, I realized the danger of the profession and thought that art was a far better investment towards my future. When I returned to Los Angeles, I began making leather jackets in my kitchen.
The first shoe you made was also made in your kitchen. Can you tell me about that?
I had been making leather jackets and handbags for about a year and was invited to a Louis Vuitton party where a bespoke shoe-maker from France was hand-stitching shoe soles in front of guests. I was so inspired that I attempted to make a shoe in my kitchen the next day and somehow managed to make a wearable pair of platform boots by the end of that week.
You've created such a collection. Do you have any favorites?
I’ve got lots of favorites for all kinds of reasons. "Shoe Machine," inspired by Russian Constructivism, became a marquee part of this exhibition. Even though it didn’t look like any known shoe of mine—it wasn’t understood—I really believed in its potential and thought it had power both graphically and imaginatively to set the stage for the entire exhibition. "Audacity of Huge" is also a favorite because it launched the Brutalism collection and a new realm of sculptural thought for me. Although made to last and possessing the ability to support human weight, "Audacity of Huge" is not very wearable by a conventional definition. Yet, the shoe doesn’t need to be worn.
Tell me about the shoe that gave you lead poisoning?
I was working on a shoe called "Hard Cuts" which required an Oxy-Acetylene torch for the brazing of the metal. I traded a pair of shoes for the torch and with only a brief tutorial on how to use it, I began bronze brazing the hard-cut concrete nails together without wearing a respirator. I inhaled the fumes of burning Zinc and Cadmium for several days, which led to bone crippling pain. Needless to say, I didn’t complete the pair.
What's your process for coming up with new ideas?
Living life and paying attention to the world around me is the best inspiration I’ve found for new ideas. I’ve chosen shoes as my main expressive medium so it helps me stay focused. Art has no limits, and I think that can be overwhelming. Too much freedom can almost serve as a prison, but by staying fixated on one form, it helps me focus my energy efficiently and stay very productive.
Where are the shoes made now? In your kitchen?
I got thrown out of the kitchen a long time ago. My studio is operated from a house in Los Angeles that has a designated room for every part of the process. It’s very much like the punk houses I used to hang out in as a kid. These places were very creative with music happening in the garage, skateboard ramps in the back yard, ideas all around. My workspace makes me feel like punk is still alive, at least in one small place in the world.
What shoes are you interested in creating right now?
My future plans are not limited to shoes; I plan to create handbag collections as well as revisit clothing design. I’ve taken shoes both as art pieces and as wearable accessories unusually far and with no restriction of creative ability; I intend to expand the concept of the entire house to include forms outside of just footwear. I’m very open-minded. If retail makes the most sense for the delivery of an idea, I’ll cross that bridge and artistically approach retail. Right now though, it’s mostly museums and galleries that are my arenas, so art pieces make the most sense.