The story of Rem D. Koolhaas’ broken heart will go down shoemaking history as one of the most productive love stories of its kind, for giving birth to the company behind some of today’s most challenging footwear designs. What is less quoted but equally as special a beginning, was the unique rejection he received from Miuccia Prada and Sergio Rossi, who he both approached with the idea that they could use his design. "They said to me, 'This is a completely new signature and if you want to make it, you have to start a new brand'," United Nude’s creative director recalls. Fast-forward to several years later, and besides having produced some of the most visible designs during the Paris fashion season – the head-turning Iris van Herpen's – United Nude has become the brand to realise shoes with architectural ambitions. Splitting his base between Europe, Hong Kong and China today, Koolhaas was on a rare, brief visit to London when Dazed Digital caught up with him.
What I dislike about fashion is that it has to reinvent itself every six months, if not more often. I like having new versions of a good design
Dazed Digital: What brings you to London, Rem?
Rem D. Koolhaas: I can’t talk about the collaboration I’m working on here, which will be launched in September. But this trip was also to open our third store today in Westfield for the Olympics.
DD: It’s always a wonder that one can actually walk in your designs. What’s the secret?
Rem D. Koolhaas: I didn’t know what the rules of shoemaking were, so I unknowingly broke them. By breaking rules in general you come to something you normally wouldn’t get – a speeding ticket, or a shoe that nobody had come up with before. Architects are trained to play with gravity and constructions, so we basically used that behaviour and implemented it on shoemaking.
DD: Many architects shun the label 'fashion' though; how do you feel about the term?
Rem D. Koolhaas: United Nude is more of a lifestyle than fashion brand. What I dislike about fashion is that it has to reinvent itself every six months, if not more often. I like having new versions of a good design - the fact that the new iPhone works the same as the previous is attractive because you don’t have to relearn it. But we do collaborate more and more with fashion designers, which I enjoy.
DD: Such as your most famous and longest collaboration with Iris van Herpen? What’s the creative relationship like?
Rem D. Koolhaas: Yes, we’re working on the 6th shoe with her now. I asked to meet her as I love her designs – they are very ornamental but because it was all in one colour, I find it abstract and conceptual. I’m more of a minimalist, whereas she’s a maximalist. She sends us sketches to see if it’s possible to make. Often they’re quite simple sketches but we then bring it to proportion. We develop it from there with her and make it a real product.
DD: What’s your philosophy on good footwear?
Rem D. Koolhaas: One of the most important things in good design - across all mediums whether in graphics or buildings – is proportions. My strength is having a good eye for it. Where cheap shoes go wrong is in the proportions and comfort. At United Nude, it should also be a good value for money.
DD: What are you currently fascinated by?
Rem D. Koolhaas: When designers like Charles and Ray Eames made furniture, it was all about how to make furniture, not just how it looks like. United Nude used to be more about shapes and concepts, but right now I just want to make the best possible product that serves its function – and to be inspired by the materials and tools we use is at the heart of this.
DD: Would you say you have foot or shoe fetish?
Rem D. Koolhaas: For some reason all my ex-girlfriends have a size 38, including my wife – who has the most beautiful feet, so I enjoy it a lot more now. But I don’t want to always reach out and touch feet… I don’t have a shoe fetish either.
DD: So where does the motivation to keep creating come from now that you’ve long moved on from the heartbreak?
Rem D. Koolhaas: It's like a sport - you want to keep scoring.
DD: Is this the reason behind United Nude’s venture into furniture – and also recently, a concept car?
Rem D. Koolhaas: We didn’t make the chair because we wanted to make one. We used a chair during a Lo-Res project (where we regenerate objects through 3D resolutions) and through that, we designed one that was actually good enough to make. Same thing if we did a hat or wallet. The beauty of working for myself is that things we make are closer to the heart. I feel I can make anything if the time is right and if the resources are there.
DD: Would you consider the brand a hyper-modern expression of ‘total’ design, similar to the Bauhaus ethos?
Rem D. Koolhaas: It's still early to say. We aspire to do a lot more and if that becomes more meaningful and more strongly recognised as a certain style or leader, then great.
DD: What's next?
Rem D. Koolhaas: I would love to do some clothing. I would have problems with the cycle of fashion, but it’s one of my dreams to do a catwalk show.