By Hannah Yakobi
Photography provided courtesy of Kobi Levi
First, there was a cardboard shoe. Then, over the years, others appeared and they all had peculiar shapes: cats, bananas, coffee cups and even Madonna’s iconic cone bra. Striking, colourful and fun, they could excite any woman. They certainly excited Lady Gaga, who asked for a Double Boot design for her Born this Way music video.
Behind these artistic fashion works is a humble man – Kobi Levi. Design and shoes have been his passion since childhood, which he spent in Tel Aviv, Israel. Levi created his first shoes in high school. In 2001, he graduated from Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design in Jerusalem. After graduation, Levi worked as a freelance footwear designer and his business picked up quite quickly – many people wanted to own a pair from his ever-growing collection. He also made various pieces for his limited edition line, with only 20 pairs per design.
FAJO has been following Levi’s work for over a year and, in this issue, we interview the creative designer from his studio in Tel Aviv.
HANNAH YAKOBI: I was looking at your shoes and they are all very different. Do you remember the first pair you ever made?
KOBI LEVI: Of course. The first crazy pair that I made – real shoes not just a cardboard-made model – was in college, in my second year of studies. I remember them clearly: they were shaped like a red market basket. It was a crazy piece – 300 squares, stitched together like a net. At first, it was a nightmare to see how complicated it was going to be to make them, but after they were completed, they looked exactly like the sketch.
The exciting feeling of making them was addictive, and that’s why I’m continuing to do this. To see the idea come to life and to have people see what is on your mind – that is the best part.
In high school, you made shoes out of cardboard. How limiting was that in terms of what you were able to do?
It was limiting in what I could achieve; but when it is not a real shoe, you don’t care about how it’s going to hold the foot, how it’s going to fit. So you are freer to create whatever you want. At the same time, I don’t want the real shoe to be less creative or crazy just because it’s real.
When did your love for shoes begin? Was it before you started designing them, or was it something that just happened overnight?
I always looked at shoes differently, not just as a product or something I buy and use. I bought crazy shoes all the time – not for me, but just because I wanted to see their shape. I also sketched shoes all the time. In high school, I did a project on Marilyn Monroe: I took different creations about her from artists and made my interpretation of shoes according to different aspects of her reflection in art. That was the first time I actually made shoes. Earlier that year, there was a cultural class, where we were given a small assignment to make something out of metal wire. It was just a single piece of wire, and I created a high-heeled shoe. You could put it on the foot, close it and open it, but it was just one line. Even though you could see the foot, the effect was great.
When you make shoes, do you think of them as pieces of art?
It’s definitely a piece of art; it’s not just a product. All attention starts at the shoe. Usually, it’s an accessory that goes with something else to create the total look, but basically the shoes come first. But it depends on the purpose, of course.
How comfortable are your shoes? If I had a pair, I’d almost be afraid to wear them and would be scared to ruin them. How do you balance being really artistic and very aesthetically-pleasing versus making something comfortable?
Technically, they are like other shoes. If you’re a person who is used to walking in high heels, it’s exactly the same experience. But if you expect comfort like sneakers, you won’t get that.
The higher the curve, the more challenging it is to wear them. I first go for the look, which determines what the curve is going to be, as well as the type of the shoe I’m going to make: slip-ons, sneakers or boots. It all comes from the inspiration.
I use different materials to make them, as long as they bring out the idea better. And, of course, the shoes have to function – I cannot make a completely glass-made shoe and expect it to be durable.
How many shoes do you own yourself? Do you ever make shoes for yourself?
No, the stereotype isn’t true! [laughs] I think I never actually sat down and made myself a pair. I made some men’s shoes in the past though.
You’ve made so many different pairs. Some of them are very trendy pieces, others are cool. How do you get these ideas?
Some of the things are very spontaneous. Something just pops up into my mind, I think about it and sketch it to see what it is going to be. Usually, when I start to work on a new design, I don’t make the visual research immediately. First, I remember something iconic, so I start with this and then – to get the perfect look – I do the research and look at images. Then, the sketching process begins.
Sometimes, it’s just an idea – just a spark, so to speak. For example, I made the Blow and XXX Pump, because high-heeled shoes are always a very sexy accessory, so I wanted to show that aspect of high-heeled shoes in an even more extreme way. A lot of people say high-heeled shoes are degrading because they do not make women feel comfortable. But I think they are fun and sexy, and they make people look great.
Some of Levi’s creations
Photography by Ilit Azulay and Shay Ben-Ephraim
All of your pieces are done by hand. How do they come together?
At first, it was only me in my living room, but now I have a studio. We are a small team, and we make everything here. The factory and the industry are only for bigger quantities. And this is art: it’s like a painting, no painter would go and try to make the drawing someplace else.
It’s a lot of work, but it looks great. So after all the complaining, and working from 6 o’clock in the morning until midnight, it is all worth it.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
The moment a piece is done and it’s the way it’s supposed to be! You know, if I have to restart from scratch in order to make it perfect – I will do it and I will not compromise. [laughs]
How do you feel about exhibiting your work at museums?
There are already some pieces that are exhibited: the banana pair is in a shoe museum in Belgium, and we have an exhibit coming up in New York’s Museum of Sex. There will also be some other exhibits in Europe. Some are group exhibitions and some are individual shows.
So much of your work has gone global and international. Do you travel yourself sometimes?
The shoes travel more than me! [laughs] That’s what they are actually meant for. I would love to follow them!
What are you future plans?
I am going to keep creating these types of shoes. People like them. But we are also working on another line that is going to be a little more commercial. These are the most immediate steps. And, of course, there will be more crazy shoes!