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Shoes that are wearable sculptures

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
  • Kobi Levi makes shoes that are unique works of art and also wearable
  • His shoes, which look like cats, dogs, toucans, chopsticks, bubblegum draw large online following
  • It takes about a month from sketches to creation from metal, wood, leather
  • Lady Gaga wore a pair of his shoes in her video, "Born this Way"

(CNN) -- To see the Kobi Levi's "shoe creatures" might make you wonder how it's possible to teeter on high heels inspired by chewing gum, chopsticks or toucans. But the Israeli designer says they're intended to be worn -- just ask Lady Gaga, who wore a pair of his shoes in her video, "Born this Way."

Levi says he's not necessarily out to make money off his whimsical creations. He has a job designing and developing a line of women's fashion shoes in collaboration with an Israeli shoe store chain. For him, the shoe is just a canvas for creating something unexpectedly beautiful.

CNN recently talked with the very unusual shoemaker and below is an edited transcript.

CNN: First things first: Are the shoes wearable?

Kobi Levi: They're always real shoes; it's never supposed to be just a toy. I make each pair one by one, and they're strong; technically, it can function like any other high-heeled shoe. It just looks kind of more crazy than usual so people sometimes cannot believe that it is wearable. Technically, it's wearable if somebody's brave enough to actually put themselves in them.

Production is another story. With a commercial shoe, when you make something more creative that's pushing the limits, on the factory side they don't care how it looks. They want to produce, they want to make more and more of a quantity; it's a business.

As a designer, I don't mind if it's not going to be a big quantity, I just want it to be the best, no matter if it's one pair, two pair or million pairs. It's really a big effort to get the right shape and usually, in production, they don't care... So for now, I make every little thing by hand. I make the first one, so nobody can tell me it's impossible, it's too crazy -- there it is! It's real; it's on the table, all the development is done... The thing is about art mainly, more than just to duplicate and sell in mass production, which I'm not objecting to; I just want to make it the right way, first.

CNN: What advantages does the shoe as a canvas offer over traditional 2-D forms of art?

Levi: It is more challenging! A shoe is a very complicated object to design, it involves a lot of mini architecture: materials, techniques, tooling. All the shoe parts -- upper, insole, heel, sole -- need to be created perfectly together to give the whole picture. The end result is a real fantasy sculpture that can have another life when is worn, and not only on display. My "shoe creatures" have another appeal when you see them on the feet.

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CNN: What goes into making each pair?

Levi: Each new design can take about a month. Each one is its own experience but it starts with an idea. I sketch it from different angles to see first in a two-dimension drawing how it looks.

If it looks good I continue through to three-dimensional. I need to create all the tooling myself, make the heels by hand, the insoles, all the inner structure with metal pieces to hold the curve in the right position. If it needs a platform, I carve it by hand from cork, foam rubber or other material. For the upper part I make the pattern cuts, test materials, and then cut it from chosen materials to create the first pair.

Basically, any first pair is like the first real sketch, the model. When you make it next time it's gonna take less time and be much better because you know the most difficult points or what can go wrong, so you can make it again. Usually, for a new design, I make just one or two pairs. Basically this is the process for now.

CNN: Where do you get ideas from?

Levi: Well, everywhere, literally! An idea can just pop up and I decide to explore it, or I can choose a theme/concept and design with related images. I can work with an iconic image of an animal or character, or "freeze" a situation (like "Chewing gum"), or play with the foot/shoe shapes themselves (like "Double boots" or "Mother&Daughter"). Or, totally another thing: choose a surprising inspiration, or choose an obvious, predictable one but design it in a different way than expected.

CNN: Have you always wanted to be a shoemaker?

Levi: I was always fascinated with the forms and shapes I saw in footwear, and liked the fact that it is an object to wear. I looked at it as "wearable sculpture." I studied art in high school and somehow footwear was making its way to my sketches, drawing and sculptures. So, during college I decided to focus on my passion in my design studies.

I've studied fine art since fourth grade. I remember the first "shoe piece" in 10th grade. We were asked, in sculpture class, to "draw a sculpture" with a metal wire, just bend it to create a three-dimensional shape with no cutting. Just one line! I created a high-heel shaped silhouette and made it open and close to be able to put a foot in.

CNN: How did your career in commercial shoemaking start?

Levi: Shortly after graduating my design studies in college, I got an offer to join a startup shoe project -- an interchangeable footwear. It was just an idea at the time and I developed it to an actual product technique with Mark Klein, who founded "Skinsfootwear." We worked together until 2008. After that I made a small men shoe line here in Tel-Aviv, and now I'm collaborating with Shoofra, a shoe chain store in Israel, designing a women's fashion shoe line under the name "Shoola."

CNN: Which do you find more fulfilling, commercial or artistic shoemaking?

Levi: Both. It is amazing to see the reaction to my artistic creation all over the world. It is always amazing to get e-mails from people and magazines, books, TV shows that liked my work and want to feature it. And, it is great to walk on the street and see women wearing my designs.

CNN: How did you come around to artistic shoemaking?

Levi: I want to design and create free from any other aspect but the design itself and show my own point of view in footwear design. This is my own "design language," a more fun, cartoonish -- but stylish and sophisticated -- approach to footwear and high-heel design. It starts with an image and/or concept and "transforms" to shoe design.

CNN: Which are you proudest of?

Levi: Well, they are all "my children"...

CNN: What kind of shoes are you wearing right now? What styles or brands are in your closet?

Levi: For men, it's more challenging than for women: they buy much less, so the market offers much less. I wear some styles from my men's line. I like Puma sneakers -- they have a lot of good designs with a nice twist.

CNN: Might we see evidence of this kind of whimsy in other parts of your life?

Levi: Yes! I think. I do hear "you have a weird-strange-different sense of humor," but usually after a laugh, so that's good.

I can say about myself that I like to enjoy what I do, professionally and personally, and not be too "heavy" about things -- have a laugh with it -- but at the same time take it seriously and be true and total with my passion.

I like smart humor, where you can enjoy both the fun aspect as well as the meaning.

CNN: Are you making any money off the artistic shoes?

Levi: No, not at all. I made some custom orders, one for a shoe museum in Belgium and one theater in Sweden -- so they order it as an art piece. That's why I don't even think about the money part when I make it. I just buy whatever's needed or as much as needed until it's perfect and then it's just my own art at this stage.

But I get a lot of requests these days: "Where can I buy it?" "Can I order it online?" I'm checking options to see how it can be more affordable and more doable, because it's not really making any sense to make each one by hand. It takes too long, I'm gonna lose my mind because sometimes it feels like a sweatshop.

CNN: How did Lady Gaga end up wearing a pair of your shoes in the "Born this Way" video?

Levi: She's my first celebrity. I just got an e-mail from [Lady Gaga fashion director] Nicola Formachetti's studio asking for my shoes for the video. I couldn't believe it, because actually I could just imagine this pop star -- this mega superstar, the most famous one -- who everyone's trying to get to wear something of theirs. I was like, is this possible?

I thought, I should need a really tough agent to get me to her because it just cannot be! I was amazed. It made me feel really good that the design made its way there -- that's it -- no tough business and I was really impressed because they get all kinds of things thrown at them and they still look for something new to use in her videos. And they found my stuff. It's crazy.

When I sent the shoes for that video, I was sort of expecting them to be cut out, but they're there. It's pretty vague, you may not notice, especially because the video is very dark and it's more like makeup and staging, it's less about fashion, but apparently people noticed. I didn't say anything before or after it came out and then I got e-mails asking, "Are they yours? I didn't know."

Then friends of mine yell at me, "How can you not tell me this? Why didn't you say anything on Facebook?" I didn't wanna make a deal. I assumed maybe it would be noticed, maybe not. But it's great, I'm very happy about it.

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