x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The man who lifts Lady Gaga into the style stratosphere

Noritaka Tatehana shares some of the secrets abouit creating the "heelless" platform shoes that have become part of Lady Gaga's fashion persona.

Lady Gaga is not the kind of person to be upstaged. Yet a quick glance at a recent slew of music videos, performances and magazine covers confirms that she is not always the centre of attention: her shoes are.

Tall, towering, gravity-defying and surreally bereft of heels, Lady Gaga's shoes have become one of the most enduring symbols of the popstress's unconventional sartorial style.

She accessorised with a ruby red pair of towering shoes for a Rolling Stone cover; she tumbled off another heel-free pair at Heathrow Airport and slipped into a white pair for her Alejandro video.

The man behind many of theseavant garde structures is Noritaka Tatehana, the Japanese shoe designer whose creations are at once bold and modern and rooted in traditional aesthetics.

A rising star of the shoe design world, Tatehana - still only 25 and just one year out of university - makes fantastical creations that happily blur the boundaries of fashion, art and craftsmanship.

And his heels are just as likely to appear in art galleries as to adorn the feet of the famous: not only does he have a string of exhibitions already under his belt, but New York's FIT Museum snapped up his autumn/winter range last year for its permanent collection.

His latest collection of shoes, fashioned from laser-cut metallic leather, are displayed in an exhibition of his works at Trading Museum Comme des Garçons in Tokyo.

It is on a quiet Saturday afternoon at another art gallery space in Tokyo's upmarket Aoyama district that I meet with Tatehana to uncover the secrets behind his extraordinary structures.

In the minimalist gallery, Tatehana's scene-stealers again take centre stage: towering heel-less structures in blazing red leather, some with metallic spikes covering the base, others with traditional motif embossments.

At first sight, the quietly spoken Tatehana appears the antithesis of his shoes: more understated artist than attention-screaming pop star, he is wearing comfortably cool cords, a cardigan and glasses, his long hair tied back.

A sneaked peek at his feet confirms a similarly stylish but low-key choice of footwear: no platforms for him, but a pair of vintage Ferragamo woven slip-ons in brown leather.

He quietly reveals how an idyllic childhood in the coastal town of Kamakura, just outside Tokyo, first set him on the shoemaking path.

"My mother was creative. I grew up watching her make dolls, so the concept of making things was always very natural for me," he explains.

"I was 15 when I made my first pair of shoes. They were brown boots, laced at the back, with leather folding over, inspired by the kimono.

"I had no background knowledge of shoe making. The first thing I did was buy some leather and then used clay to shape the boots.

"I did everything by hand, without machinery. I didn't have a clue what I was doing, to be honest."

With a laugh, he adds: "The end result was not very comfortable or functional, but in terms of design, they were very unique - and yes, I wore them a lot. Since then, I haven't stopped making shoes."

It was not until he attended the prestigious Tokyo University of Fine Arts that Tatehana fully honed the craftsmanship skills that were to form the traditional foundation of his startlingly modern shoe creations.

Here, he mastered a string of traditional Japanese arts relating to textiles, dying and clog making - including the centuries-old stencil and paste forms of kimono fabric dying known as yuzen and katazome.

And what did he do with these skills? He swiftly applied them to create the most fantastical pair of shoes he could envisage: his graduation project in April of last year consisted of bright pink heel-less creations artfully fashioned from delicately shimmering Indonesian stingray skin.

Those were the shoes that first caught the attention of Lady Gaga. Tatehana confesses to e-mailing a raft of celebrity stylists around the world about his pink shoes - and was surprised to receive a response from Lady Gaga's stylist Nicola Formichetti.

"It was just before she was due to arrive in Japan on her Monster Ball tour and Nicola asked me to make a pair of shoes for her to perform on a Japanese TV programme while she was here.

"She ended up wearing 32cm high ruby red platforms. I've never met her but we have a one-by-one arrangement in relation to shoes and I've made about 10 pairs for her so far."

Tatehana is the first to admit that his shoes are not for everyone - while few could fail to admire their beauty at first hand, there are not so many people brave enough to actually wear them. Indeed, not since that most fearless of shoe wearers, Victoria Beckham, shocked the fashion world in a pair of startling Antonio Berardi boots in 2008 have heelless shoes hit the headlines.

He says: "I think these are shoes that make people feel like celebrities, they can make people feel a bit special, like a star. They make a statement.

"Some of my clients are celebrities and I think they feel that the shoes can help them feel like a star. They are all strong people with their own opinions and views and tastes."

It is only upon closer inspection that the sheer intricacy of the careful craftsmanship - combined with impressive engineering feats - comes into focus: and it also becomes clear why the shoes, which cost around Y200,000 (Dh9,000) and up, are also finding their way into art galleries around the world.

Tatehana, who takes at least a week to hand-craft each pair from scratch, working alone in his atelier in nearby Omotesando, explains: "Half of the process is choosing the right material and then creating the colour with hand dying techniques before I do the embossment.

"It's all done by hand, you can't do this sort of thing in a factory. That's key to my shoes."

The next step is perhaps the most challenging: building his signature heels to appear as though they are hovering gravity-free - while ensuring comfort and stability for wearers.

"I use leather not plastic to make the wedge of the shoe," he says. "This makes it more natural, the curves and the lines are more beautiful and the leather absorbs more shock while walking than plastic."

He adds: "The most challenging part is weight distribution and making them balance. It has taken a long time and many different experiments to achieve the point where the shoes are perfectly balanced.

"But the beauty of the shoe is also important as well as comfort. Combining these factors in one shoe is very challenging."

And the ultimate satisfaction for Tatehana? Not necessarily seeing a celebrity strutting on stage in his towering shoes, but watching how people react when they slip into his creations for the first time.

"I like the look of surprise on people's faces when they put these shoes on and they light up, thinking wow, I can actually wear these shoes," he says.

"I don't mind if people just want to display them, but I'd prefer for them to actually wear them as shoes. I consider them to be an artwork, as a creative communication tool. And most of all, I hope that people feel happy when they wear them."