Chris Francis Creates Shoes Made For Gawking

Shoe designer Chris Francis explains what inspired his bold shoe designs currently on display at the Craft & Folk Art Museum.

Chris Francis at work
Chris Francis at work. Photo by Brilliant Collective (Betsy Winchell/Jennie McGuirk), courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

“The magic of the shoe is that. . . it sort of announces you’ve arrived,” says LA-based shoemaker/designer Chris Francis, currently artist-craftsman in residence at the Craft & Folk Art Museum. There you can find him at work, and see the first exhibition of eye-popping shoes that demonstrate just what he means by an “arrival.”

Francis, who usually works alone in a garage east of downtown, was raised in industrial Kokomo, Indiana, on a musical diet of punk and glam rock. He spent several years riding freight trains before settling in LA and becoming custom shoemaker to performers who — like him — believe music and outrageous shoes are essential to life.

DnA met with Chris during the installation of the show — entitled Chris Francis: Shoe Designer, curated by CAFAM’s Holly Jerger, and learned just how much his shoes take their inspiration from music, architecture and machines, not to mention Tristram Shandy, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his childhood in a gritty Indiana town.

Francis 9 (1)
Untitled, leather, found plywood, screws, washers, paper, canvas, rubber 2015. Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum. CF: ” I’m actually trying to mimic the motions of machines rather than making shoes that just resemble a machine; I want to actually get to the motion because I love industrial design.”

DnA: Basic question: how did you become a shoe designer?

CF: I was at a party at Louis Vuitton, and they had flown a shoemaker in from France and that was the first time I’d seen a shoe being made by hand in front of me. I was fascinated by it. I stayed by him all night and watched him, I probably annoyed him. And the next day I was hard at work trying to figure out the mysteries of the shoe.

I had a boot made by the end of the week. And it was horribly wrong, but it was wearable.

DnA: And before this you were a carpenter?

CF: Yeah, yeah, so I went to the wood shop and I’m making the shoes out of wood blocks; they’re very heavy. And I built the last by hand because I didn’t have a last (the last is the form.) I sat on a park bench in the dog park and I carved the last by hand and then I just didn’t stop. I just kept going and going and going making more shoes.

And most of them in the beginning, they were just complete failures, structural failures you know it’s like building bridges. Because I wanted to build high heels, because I wanted to manipulate form and try to make wearable structures kind of how I was building houses in different places around town.

So I guess I was building shoes more like a carpenter than a shoemaker; that’s how I became a shoemaker I guess.

Francis 4
CF: “These were inspired by the book Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne, and these are another absurd pair of shoes exploring shape and class — and how one might want to announce their social class with a longer pair of shoes, which is the story in a lot of footwear throughout the centuries. Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.”

DnA: And then you set about learning some of the traditional skills of the shoemaker and did you learn from some local shoemakers?

CF: That was very difficult. I couldn’t get an internship.

A, I couldn’t afford an internship and B, they are not really offered. It’s a bit secretive, I mean people hold their secrets to the shoe, they don’t want to just hand someone the keys to the Kingdom on how to make a shoe, and I completely understand that.

So I learned from going shop to shop looking for tools, any kind of a loose tools I could find to make a shoe because they don’t really make the tools anymore. I would ask a shoemaker if they had a certain tool, and then they would all give me one tip on how to make a shoe. But no one would have time to sit me down and do an internship so I guess I learned from every shoemaker in town how to make a shoe.

DnA: Do we have a lot of shoemakers in town?

CF: Most of them are repairmen now, but some of the old repairman were shoemakers.

But once shoes started being made overseas it became so hard to be a shoemaker now as in custom shoemaker as not a lot of people buy custom anymore, they buy off the rack.

DnA: Are your shoes wearable?

CF: They are fully wearable, I’m not sure where you would wear them, but it would be someplace fun I would think.

I think that’s the magic of the shoe that might be being forgotten now, the presence that it might give somebody when they walk into a room, it sort of announces you’ve arrived.

DnA: Do you test them on someone do you test them on yourself or on friends?

CF: My girlfriend tests all of them out.

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CF: “These are mainly about absurdity. I was getting a bit bored with the traditional form of the shoe— and trying to push it into a different level. At the time I was very inspired by Cubism and African masks so the actual cloth on this was mud cloth from Africa; it’s hand-dyed with natural oxides from the ground, and the whole shoe is made entirely by hand with about five hand tools in this particular pair and several others. I was exploring only making shoes by hand.” Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

DnA: In terms of the exhibition how would you define what your work is about?

CF: The new body of work consists of more machine and architecture-based shoes. What I gravitate towards in the shoe sort always comes out I guess in the form of architecture. So now it’s very difficult for me to make typical shoes as I want to be making structures. I also associate certain colors with songs and shapes and forms.

DnA: What do you mean by that?

CF: I was a carpenter, and so I make shoes in a way that a carpenter would make a shoe. My lines are rectangular rather than rounded and they’re about machines and factories like the factories I grew up beside when I was a kid.

I’m trying to get to that point to where I was as a kid, with all these very hard stark lines in the sky like smokestacks and hard metal and bland color in some ways.

But I love vibrant colors, so I’m trying to mix that and also a lot of these are about sound in a sense. They are a visual interpretation of music for me.

archi shoes
CF: “The heel is inspired by the Junker & Ruh German shoe machine, Model SD28 (a pre WWII lever operated leather stitching machine for shoe makers and saddlers). Also IKB (Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer) comes into play in terms of the sense of failure, because this took several attempts and me being very persistent. I’m just sort of intemperate and dislike giving in. I had this vision locked in and I was gonna do it.” Photo by Frances Anderton.

DnA: Fashion maven Simon Doonan has a theory that fashion innovators tend to come from unglamorous towns. Can you relate to that?

CF: Maybe. I mean we scrubbed the soot off the houses in the 1980s, so things were a little a little drab.

But that’s sort of what I love though now and what I miss, and if there’s a way to make that wearable I want to try to do it.

It’s formed me, where I’m from, and it’s in the way I walk or talk or anything about me, even the way I hold my wine glass.

DnA: How do you hold your wine glass?

CF: Sort of like it like it’s a can of beer.

It’s funny, I play both roles because I design the shoes and I make them. But on one side of town I introduce myself as a shoemaker and on the other side of town I’m a shoe designer.

Indian-inspired shoes
CF: “These are these are kind of a cross between sort of a glam rock aesthetic that I have on some of the pieces and also just being inspired by going to stores in Little India. All the festive colors and other cultures really fascinate me and they come out in the work. I love travel and I haven’t gotten to see a lot of the places that I want to see. So I make shoes in which I’m fantasizing about going to these places.” Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

DnA: You’ve said shoes are kind of foreign to people and yet we all wear shoes. What do you mean by that?

CF: Well, I guess what I mean is we haven’t maybe looked at a lot of shoes as art; we see them as products that we buy, we wear, and then also the process of how they are made is a mystery to many people.

And that’s one of the things we wanted to do here at the museum is bring the shoe shop here and make it a bit more interactive so that you see that the shoe can sort of be in a different realm and can be expressive like a painting and can take on a different form rather than just being an object for the market shelf. Maybe we could think of them in a in a different light.

Artist photo 2
Chris Francis at work in his studio, 2014. He has assembled a large collection of old and new shoemaking tools and machines. Photo courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

DnA: Do you make any shoes that are regular wearable shoes or are they all intended to be art statements?

CF: I do make regular wearable shoes, I generally do them on custom orders.

They’re usually stage wear and then for those shoes there’s a lot of engineering that goes into them. I research how the performer moves and behaves onstage and the shoe has to really be durable for the road and for performance. It has to do a lot of things. And be comfortable at the same time.

DnA: In your workshop do you play music for inspiration and do you play it very loud?

CF: Yeah, I play it very loud. The neighbors love it.

I play music of all types. It could be anything, something from the 20s or something from a language I don’t even understand. I love all music.

Francis 2
Untitled, hand-carved and hand-painted/dyed fruit crate, cigar box wood, leather, printed woven textile, skin tassel, natural glue, linen, nails, 2014. Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of Craft and Folk Art Museum. CF: “In my work I refuse to destroy art or vintage material that’s already been made into art. That’s very important to me, because I like to preserve history and to preserve art and textiles, so to destroy anything or desecrate art or textiles would be counterproductive.”

DnA: Then you find time to read Tristram Shandy and some of the longer classic tomes?

CF: Yeah, I do. At night I study a lot of things; I have to keep my mind entertained at all times.

There’s no one locked interest. The fixed interest is the shoe, but I can relate any information that I absorb in the evening into a pair of shoes the next day.

DnA: Can you say why you’re so fixated on shoes?

CF:  I don’t know, but it’s been a long fixation — since I was riding freight trains and painting shoes in the second dimension. There’s actually still some shoes up in places that are painted from that era. But I don’t know why it’s such a fascination.

Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of the Craft & Folk Art Museum
CF: “he Sex Pistols button came off of my uncle’s jacket. He gave it to me when I was a kid and actually went to one of the shows. The patches on the shoes are from my pants when I was riding on freight trains and they’re all sewn on with dental floss; that’s what I used to sew with when I was on the train. And then there’s pieces of the walls of CBGB’s from when I would go to shows there. The bristles that remind one of a Mohawk are broom bristles from my shop.” Photo by Noel Bass, courtesy of the Craft & Folk Art Museum

DnA: But it is about the shape of the shoe, not the wearing of the shoe?

CF: No, I like to see them on shelves. . . more than on people.

DnA: Are you wearing your own shoes?

CF: Yeah, I made these on the side of the street. Downtown, by hand, just to see if I could do that I guess.

DnA: I mean these are pretty nice elegant leather boots with a little bit of a heel; you’re not going to put yourself in a one foot stack?

CF: Oh, I do, I wear platform shoes if I go out to go to a rock ‘n’ roll show or whatever. Sometimes I’ll wear them pretty high. Sometimes I wear higher heels than the girls.

Chris' own shoes
Chris Francis wears his handmade leather boots. Photo by Frances Anderton.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Chris Francis: Shoe Designer runs through September 6, 2015. For the duration of his exhibition, Chris will be relocating his shop to the museum.

Sunday, June 14 | Between 1:30-3:30pm

Shoes into Sculptures, a CraftLab Workshop for the whole family! $7 adults/$5 children/ Members FREE                                                                                                                                                                                                           Bring in a pair of old shoes and join shoe designer Chris Francis to take those shoes apart, learn how they are made, and turn them into a funky sculpture.