United for Shoes

Telling anyone remotely familiar with 21st Century design that Rem Koolhaas is creating cutting-edge, geometric shoes for women and you’ll get a quick double-take. No, not that Rem Koolhaas, but his nephew (you can tell by his middle initial, “D”). And while Uncle Koolhaas is famous for opening OMA, one of the most visionary architecture firms in the world, Rem D. isn’t far off, in theory, from his uncle’s profession.

In 2003, Rem D. Koolhaas (and his partner Galahad Clark, of the Clark’s shoes family tree) launched the Amsterdam and Shanghai-based United Nude to fulfill a sort of Cinderella fantasy: “I was going around town with a shoe in my bag. I was trying to find the right princess to fit my design.” His first creation, the one in the bag, is likely his most well-known: the Mobiüs shoe, which garnered him a nomination for the Rotterdam Design Award in 2003, is named after the eponymous interminable strip familiar to art and design students. “I didn’t have a foot fetish!” Koolhaas exclaims, as if accused. “I carried around this prototype of the Mobiüs and would go up to women and ask, ‘Are you a 38?'” (Koolhaas later mentions his wife, whom he admits actually wears a size 38).

Koolhaas is an architect by trade, which is precisely what makes United Nude’s shoes so interesting. “Out of all the design fields, architecture is the most interesting because it combines arts with engineering. Fashion is a bit like dressing something up, while architecture is about building something, and making sure it lasts,” he says, which is also a good way to think about shoes. His industrial-looking Eamz model, inspired by Brothers Eames, includes negative space and support like a chair leg; the Frame resembles more of a Calatrava than a Christian Louboutin, with web-like, angular supports. “One of the unique things about a shoe, that fashion and jewelry miss, is that is lifts something up. It has construction. That’s what makes footwear and architecture similar: they are both balancing something.”

Koolhaas is in New York to bring the high-design footwear stateside. With a soft opening today, the brand is bringing its first flagship store to the US, located in Nolita, on Bond Street (across from Oak). Koolhaas presents a “dark store” concept, meaning that the interior is dimly lit while the only light-source comes from the spotlit shoes. “It’s heavy impact,” Koolhaas says. In front of the store is a “Lo-Res” sculpture of a car, inspired by the jagged and geometric Lo-Res shoe, which is made by de-pixellating the average pump.

With such a methodical approach to design, creating an entire lifestyle line—Koolhaas’s intention—should be effortless. He’s made a men’s version of the Mobiüs, which he admits is uncomfortable, and has just launched a unisex felt hat made with his typical dynamism. “I came from a long line of engineers. My title is ‘architectural engineer,’ but in Holland, it’s just engineer.” So then, Koolhaas became an engineer for the most structural of clothing items. “I didn’t invent architecture. But I invented, for myself at least, how to make architectural shoes.”