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NEW YORK — In the weeks leading up to the New York collections, some designers take their minds off their work by taking a quick vacation. Michael Vollbracht, creative director of Bill Blass, chose instead to immerse himself in women’s shoes.
Vollbracht has been commuting to Toronto, where he’s designed an exhibition called “Beads, Buckles and Bows,” opening today at the Bata Shoe Museum, a nine-year-old temple of footwear founded by Sonja Bata of the global Bata Shoe empire. Vollbracht was introduced to the Batas by Beth Levine, the shoe designer, who had invited him to design an exhibit there in 1999 focused on footwear embellishments.
“I hate doing one thing,” said Vollbracht, who has worked as an illustrator, artist, TV guest star and part-time curator in addition to fashion designer. “I love diversification and working on lots of things.”
He said he felt the Bata Shoe Museum, given its obscurity to the U.S. audience, needed a little p.r. boost on Seventh Avenue, so he agreed to help design the latest show and encourage his colleagues to visit the museum. With a collection that spans 4,500 years of footwear history and includes 12,000 samples — from Eskimo mukluks to shoes that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley — the museum is a font of potential inspiration, although Vollbracht admitted the shoes that will be featured in his spring collection come from Christian Louboutin.
“This museum is a woman’s dream,” he said. “You can get so many ideas here from the buckles, bows and embellishments.”
Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the show, worked with Vollbracht on the installation of about 100 styles that illustrate the adornment of footwear from just before the French Revolution to the present, including recent examples from Vivienne Westwood, Dolce & Gabbana and Salvatore Ferragamo, as well as Sixties styles from Roger Vivier. It is organized chronologically, beginning with styles that close with oversized buckles (the adornment being demonstrative of the owner’s wealth), then showing the abrupt change to more austere styles following the French Revolution, and finally, winding through footwear history to show platforms decorated with a rainbow of rhinestones and Westwood’s aggressive design of shoes embellished with spikes.
Vollbracht’s job was to create a framework for the shoes, which he said was inspired by a Lord Snowden photograph of Sister Parrish sitting in a room that was entirely swathed in muslin. He re-created the scene with about 500 yards of fabric draped around the room, except for one wall that features a 9-foot-tall blowup of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Swing,” an appropriate selection for its references to the French regime just before the revolution.
“It gives you a sense of romance,” said Vollbracht, who plans to return to New York following the opening to begin the casting lineup for his show on Sept. 9. “I love to do things like this, because I can get away from the clothes for just a minute. When you come back, you get a fresh sense of what you’ve done.”
— Eric Wilson