Oct 9th, 2017, 02:27 PM

Zoe Lee: The New Vivienne Westwood of Shoe Design

By Lindsey Joy
Image Credit: Zoe Lee
A shoe-in for timeless modernity.

Recently, I received a last-minute invitation to go to two Paris fashion events that were closing off Paris Fashion Week. With little more information in hand but plenty of curiosity in tow, I boarded the m├ętro stop from my quaint and charming (some might say "sleepy") neighborhood in the 16th arrondissement. Forty minutes later, I stepped out into what felt like a different world, somewhere in the 20th. As I made my way to the bar where the event was being hosted, I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole; gone were the Haussmann style terraces lined with flower beds, the neighborhood boulangeries, and the families walking their kids to school. Instead, gritty streets lined with graffiti-ridden storefronts, flickering lights, and a few dodgy characters on street corners smoking cigarettes greeted me. I had left my safe little haven of the Parisian Upper East Side and reemerged from the subterranean world into a lively version of Harlem.

Image Credit: Zoe Lee
Image Credit: Zoe Lee

But the adventure was worth it. Besides getting the opportunity to see a completely new part of Paris, I was also privileged to be a plus one at a cocktail party hosted for Zoe Lee, an up-and-coming shoe designer that I had never heard of, and one who would soon capture my attention by the time the event was over. Through the course of the night, and over some free wine and tapas, I learned that Lee was half-Japanese, half-Canadian and had spent the majority of her adult life splitting time living between London and Paris. What really piqued my interest, before I even saw some of her designs, was learning about her impressive and inspiring work background. While pursuing a Fashion Womenswear and Print degree from Central St. Martins College of Art London, Lee took a year off to work with designer Alexander McQueen (also a graduate of St. Martins), prior to the legendary designer’s tragic death in 2010. After graduating in 2004 from the Royal College of Art London with a Master of Arts in Fashion Womenswear specializing in Footwear, Lee continued to cut her teeth working with the evocative designer Vivienne Westwood, designing shoes, handbags, and other accessories for the label. After several years working with an array of other British designers, Lee launched her own line, Zoe Lee Shoes, in 2012. In 2013, Lee moved to Paris and opened the first Zoe Lee shop in the Marais ( 19 Rue du Parc Royal, Paris 75003 ) and the following year, she opened up her studio in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. In speaking with Lee, one probably would not guess she had such a prestigious background in the fashion industry; mellow, sweet, and down-to-earth, the designer emanates a sense of genuine kindness that is often missing in successful prodigies.

The Designer, Zoe LeeThe Designer, Zoe Lee. Image Credit: Zoe Lee

Beyond her pleasant disposition, what struck me the most were the actual shoes. Littered throughout the restaurant, displayed creatively (and sometimes haphazardly) on the shelves above the bar, were samples of about two dozen of Lee’s designs. Now, for someone in the fashion industry, it may come as a surprise that I am not a huge shoe fanatic (shh, don’t tell anyone, lest I get my “fashion girl” rights evoked). I have worked on my feet most of my life, so my shoes are lucky if they have a 6-month lifespan, and after a decade of spraining my ankles in dance, I barely wear heels for more than 15 minutes. That being said, the creativity and uniqueness of Lee’s shoes instantly captivated me. There exists a paradoxical blend of old and new, retro and modern, sweet and edgy in her shoes which results in innovative, whimsical designs that have an almost fairytale quality about them. Some of the shoes have a '50s-era feel and shape to them with thick, slanted, low heels and laced tie-ups. Closer inspection, however, reveals some truly unique and modern design components: lucite heels, hand carved wood, and printed/woven leathers to name a few.

The designer's shoes on display at her promotional event, Image Credit: Lindsey Joy
One of the styles from Lee's current collection, Image Credit: Lindsey Joy
Image Credit: Lindsey Joy

One can tell by looking at the craftsmanship of the shoes that they are impeccably made. Lee’s shoes are constructed by an artisanal, fifth generation shoemaker in Vigevano, Italy, outside of Milan. The leather and various other components of the shoes are sourced and constructed in Italy and France. The insoles are lined with memory foam for comfort and each sole has a square, rubber injection for anti-slide benefits. In addition, there is a sustainability factor to Lee’s company, as many of the exotic skins used as material are sourced from factory stocks, where the quantity is too small for a normal production run and would otherwise go to waste.

One of the designer's custom-made "lasts" which are used as molds during the shoe-making process, Image Credit: Zoe Lee

McQueen and Westwood’s influences are omnipresent in Lee’s designs, but she blends their aspirational trademark styles with a practicality that is often missing from her mentors’ final products. This is congruent with her mission statement to create designs that are both individual and timeless. Avoiding “themes” in her collections —which seem to pervade the fashion industry these days, and not necessarily in a good way (Do I really want a dress, shoes, earrings, and a matching phone case all with cats on them? Je pense que "non.")— and instead focusing on the context and creation process, according to Lee, “allows the shoes to remain timeless without attachment to current trends or fashion stories [and exist as] ultimately modern and original.”

Bucking trends and fads, Lee chooses to focus on research of materials, innovative techniques, and the quality of the feel and finish of the shoes. It’s the kind of approach one wishes existed more often with modern designers, without having to sacrifice style at the same time. Even though Lee is not new in the industry and has a plethora of valuable experience under her belt, one gets the sense that she is just stepping into the scene now and is on the verge of taking off. But the creation of her designs is only the opening chapter for Lee, for as she proclaims herself, “once a shoe has found its owner the real stories begin.”