First, Michel Vivien invited us into his cozy workshop in Rue de Nice in Paris, and then we got a chance to see an incredible maze that is his small footwear factory on the outskirts of Milan. He spoke to us about the profession of a shoemaker as well as about his own attitudes, beliefs and the story of his life, which can truly be considered exceptional. He is a man in love with femininity and a creator of fine elegant shoes in the best Parisian tradition.
Spy News Magazine: While preparing for this interview, I have found that there isn’t much information about you outside the narrow professional circle. Is it because of your natural shyness or does it stem from the desire to maximize control over your own image?
Michel: For me it is very natural; and the truth is that I am quite shy. For example, over the years people have asked me which celebrities I have made shoes for. I never answer this question, although name-dropping celebrities could have been really beneficial for me in a commercial sense. I do not need to be out there at the shop window, I am not a product! I create shoes and I would like my work to speak for itself without promoting my humble person. To sum up, I live without screens; I don’t have a computer or a television. You could say I have protected myself from excessive communication.
Spy News Magazine: Let’s go back in time to how it all began. You were born in , correct?
Michel: I grew up in Annecy, a beautiful town on the shores of a magnificent lake. When I was twenty years old I entered the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. One of my teachers was Pierre Alechinsky, a very famous Belgian artist and a founding member of the CoBrA avantgarde group. Soon I dropped out of school as I wanted to go off on adventures. However, I continued to paint and I have never stopped painting.
Spy News Magazine: Can you now say that you’ve had your share of adventures? How have they shaped you as a person we see today?
Michel: I can say that I’ve had plenty of adventures! My life between the ages of 17 and 25 was full of romance and I’ve met many wondeful people. I had that drive of youth that made me want to actualize myself in a particular profession that would allow me to develop my skills and to earn a living at the same time. At that time I was always thinking about women and how to dress them, how to create accessories for them. It turned out that among my Italian friends there were two Neapolitan brothers who manufactured footwear. We started a partnership, which wasn’t successful, but it was then that my main adventure that continues to this day has begun.
Spy News Magazine: Would you say that an image of a woman and femininity in general is the main or perhaps the only thing that truly interests you?
Michel: A shoemaker is a delicate profession because we have to deal with the mechanics of movement. We have to consider physical things like strength and balance. Today people walk on hard surfaces, but it is not natural for human feet. I’m mostly interested in the process of constructing the “architecture” of the shoes, especially women’s shoes. When I’m creating shapes for women’s shoes it feels like I’m tenderly caressing the lines. I have to be very careful to maintain the balance between aesthetics and functionality. I’d like to think that I’m helping women to be more elegant and therefore more attractive. I make a fantasy into reality. And the greater the fantasy – the better the product, it becomes more exclusive. I also love the process of making the heel, sculpting its shape.
Spy News Magazine: Shoes are also our points of contact with the Earth, even if the heels lift us above its surface …
Michel: You are absolutely right, it is the point of contact with the Earth. It’s like we are connecting to the power source through the heels. While working on a line of the shoe and the height of the heel we create a balance mechanism; we make the lines that adhere to the shape of the foot. When a woman stands on ten centimetre heels, her pelvis moves forward and the center of gravity shifts, at the same time both shoulders move back and the back becomes straight. The woman has no choice but to lean on her partner and this changes everything: the woman’s state of mind changes and she becomes more vulnerable. However, I do not like going to extremes, as I’m always thinking about functionality. My shoes are not something extraordinary, like a sculpture or an artwork. They are made to be worn. For the same reason I don’t use certain materials. They may be vivid and attractive yet fragile, which makes them unsuitable from a practical point of view.
Spy News Magazine: How would you describe a Michel Vivien woman?
Michel: I’m more interested in how a woman spends her days, not her nights. Let me explain: I’m concerned with those parts of a woman’s life when she is active. I do not make shoes with extremely high heels that would make your head spin. The maximum I go to is ten centimeters, which is high enough. It’s difficult for me to describe a Michel Vivien woman… In one word: she is a Parisian!
Spy News Magazine: It is thought that the true professionals can give the best definition of the profession they are in. How would you describe the profession of a shoemaker?
Michel: I have studied this craft in a classical tradition and I continue to follow this tradition. This is a technical profession and I am very serious about it. Shape is the most important thing, it underpins everything. I was lucky, I have good hands. I have been carving the prototypes for shoes and heels by hand from the very first day. But before that I make numerous experiments, and then I draw sketches. At the same time I choose the materials for the future collection. Working with color is a very exciting process for me. My collections are not a series of separate models; they have to have a certain idea, to create a story. And then begins the «kitchen» – that’s when we go to Italy!
Spy News Magazine: Please tell us about the Michel Vivien brand. How have you decided to launch your own line, after you have worked for many great fashion houses for quite a long time?
Michel: I was lucky: I became an independent stylist and people have helped me a lot early on in my career. My first employer was Carel, a typical Parisian shoemaker. For four years (from 1986 to 1990) he has organized many fashion shows, where I learned about such masters as Thierry Mugler and Martin Sitbon. A beautiful start, isn’t it? Carel was a little crazy, because he has entrusted me with style development as soon as I started working for him. After that I have worked for Michel Perry for five years; these were wonderful years as we have collaborated with Sergio Rossi, Casadei, Jourdan and many others. I had total freedom, the best working tools and the only goal was to make the most beautiful shoes in the world!
After some time, I decided to focus on the Parisians, which has led me to Givenchy, Dior and so on. It is also true that despite my youth I have already been perceived as a veteran of the industry when I was barely thirty years old. I decided to start my own line because of my inner desire for freedom; I was not interested in commerce. I launched the first collection under my own name in the summer of 1999. However, having already launched my own Michel Vivien brand, I continued to work with other fashion houses, but only when the projects were close to my heart. So I took part in creating the collections for the house of Dior, for Lanvin under Alber Elbaz, as well as for the final seasons of Yves Saint Laurent.
Spy News Magazine: You knew Yves Saint Laurent well. How would you describe him as a person?
Michel: Meeting him was like “the Order of the Legion of Honor” for me. I was there with Mr. Yves Saint Laurent during his last years in high fashion. Along with such personalities as Loulou de la Falaise and Madame Muñoz, I was part of the in-crowd and I could literally touch the living legend. Yves Saint Laurent was larger than life and it sometimes seemed scary, but at the same time he was very magnetic and attractive person.
Spy News Magazine: What are you most proud of as the creator of Michel Vivien brand?
Michel: Without any false modesty, I should say that my brand is very niche. My collections do not have a “bis” line (editor: a line of footwear duplicating the main collection but made from cheaper materials). The production process can be classified as “luxury”, because I choose the best of everything: the materials, the methods of manufacturing, the technology and so on. The cost of production is not restricted by anything. There is only one condition – to have absolutely the highest quality possible. Immaculate quality is very important for me at all stages from conception to production.