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Barbie shoes on the Loewe and Balenciaga runway
Bulbous little heels on the SS23 runwaysCourtesy of Loewe and Balenciaga

Why have designers robbed Barbie and blown up her heels?

Life in plastic would be *really* fantastic

When thinking about fashion – plastic, shallow, culture-defining – it’s often helpful to return to the academia that surrounds Barbie. Not scientist Barbie, but Dawn Heinecken, an American writer who claimed Barbie ossified the standards of a slender yet busty beauty; a fashion doll that simultaneously produced a message of passive femininity and empowerment. “Barbie the idealised American beauty is also always Barbie the oppressor. Despite our awareness of this, Barbie floats above the fray. She continues to flourish – floating about the globe, spreading the dream of a fabulous Malibu lifestyle where waists are small, breasts are high, and everyone’s having a good time,” Heinecken said

That thinking could just as feasibly be read as an allegory of the fashion industry – because people use both Barbie and fashion as a way to express their alliegance to, or deviation from, social standards. I mean, is that not the very purpose of getting dressed each morning? The unlikely relationship between fashion and Barbie came to the surface last season, when designers like Jonathan Anderson and Demna offered-up bulbous shoes with a little stump heel – not too dissimilar from the accessories beloved of Barbie, Polly Pocket, or Minnie Mouse. Whether any of those designers were conjuring the spirit of Ruth Handler – the inventor of Barbie – well, who knows! Times are hard and times are boring, so returning to a child-like state provides ample opportunity for play and comfort.

The same kind of fake shoe appeared on Fendi’s SS23 catwalk, too, where Kim Jones debuted plastic booties and platform slides in synthetic, Mattel-indebted pastels. Ballet plimsolls at Simone Rocha, Miu Miu, Vivienne Westwood, and Cormio, meanwhile, brought to mind the kind of footwear that children might wear while playing with their dolls. And then there was Versace and Valentino and their vertiginous, hot-pink stilettos that the same children would probably associate with real-life Barbies. Think Tyra Banks in Life-Size more than Margot Robbie in Barbie... a film she was allegedly mortified to get dressed for. Some slightly weirder iterations of the marionette mule came from Chopova Lowena, Beatte Karlsson and Paula Canovas del Vas – they were just as cartoonish, but took on a slightly more sinister accent, festooned in tinsel, or with webbed metatarsals. 

Of course, freakish shoes have been a thing for a while: Balenciaga’s Triple S birthed a slew of monstrous and “ugly” descendants, culminating in hundreds of Vibram and Crocs collaborations. But while Demna may have been the one who really propelled them into the domain of desire, the rise of the Barbie shoe should really be pinned on Spanish designer Abraham Ortunõ. A meme merchant schooled at the Institut Français de la Mode, his work with Jacquemus, Jonathan Anderson, and Coperni has seen shoppers wedge their hooves into heels made from mismatched blocks of wood, splattered eggs, and the knotted ends of a balloon. Viral designs that simultaneously repel and draw in fashionphiles – like these puffed-up Daisy Duck trotters. “My moodboard is always a mix of family pictures, pictures of my friends, and some old Barbies I owned as a kid,” he told us. Just as children project their own image onto Barbie (chopping off her hair, upgrading one model for another, seeing themselves in her or outside of her) adults approach fashion in the same manner... unfixed and floating, gliding through consumer culture in a pair of rubber, rounded heels. 

PS here is a video I just found of Jonathan Anderson and Demna in Paris x

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