It wouldn’t be a bad idea to scatter fainting couches around The Museum at FIT’s “Shoe Obsession” exhibition. Each of the 150 designs takes your breath away.

The exhibition, made possible in part by shoe lover’s paradise Saks Fifth Avenue, explores the modern woman’s fascination with extravagant shelters for the tootsies. What a great excuse to ogle the most lavish and inventive designs from Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, Pierre Hardy, Ferragamo, Prada, Gucci, Chanel and more than 40 other historic fashion names.

“We knew we would start with the big two – Blahnik and Louboutin – and we also wanted to show all the up-and-coming exciting designers, the Nicholas Kirkwoods, the Brian Atwoods, the Charlotte Olympias,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, who co-curated the show with associate curator of accessories Colleen Hill.

Christian Louboutin of the envied red sole lent his “Pigalle” pumps – the racy, red-spiked style that made waves in fall 2012 – and Manolo Blahnik lent his 2003 rhinestone-buckled silver “D’Orsay” shoes as seen on footwear fiend Carrie Bradshaw in the season six episode of “Sex and the City,” “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.”

Ms. Bradshaw no doubt is more than a little responsible for the footwear fetish examined in the exhibition, though for centuries shoes have indicated social status and sexuality. In the 16th century, the fashion-conscious French nobility – men and women – took the trend from European royalty. But it wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that American fashion designers ran with the reins. As evident in the stunning FIT show, shoes these days do so much more than protect one’s piggly wigglies. (Many a sore-soled damsel would assert the exact opposite.)

FIT’s display presents a refreshing eye-level view of the shoes (as opposed to hand-level at retailers or floor-level in closets) that is clearly meant to encourage observation and admiration, a purpose in itself, says co-curator Steele.

“Women I talked to would say, ‘Well, even if I don’t wear it much, I can look at it on the coffee table and admire it,’” she recounts, adding that footwear’s freestanding form separates it from other modes of fashion like apparel. Just look at Roger Vivier’s Eyelash Heel expressing its elegant plumes.

Steele suggests another shoe-inspired pleasure factor – building a collection – that taps into “that Imelda Marcos in so many of us.” She says women on average own about 20 pairs, double what stocked closets 20 years ago.

“So many women told me that shoe shopping is the most pleasurable form of shopping,” says Steele, who drew from several collectors for the show. “I think that also fits into why our shoe obsession has grown even more in the last 12 years.”

Really, it’s no mystery why women adore heels and why designers keep feeding the need: A glamorous shoe makes women feel downright sexy and if you build it, they will come. More than anything, “Shoe Obsession” is a study of how shoes have evolved into wearable art – the canvas, our most humble body part – and their unlimited potential for opulence, imagination and fun.

“I used to design clothes and I was frustrated by the gap in what I wanted to make and what I was making,” says Kyoto designer Masaya Kushino via translator, one of the newest names in designer footwear, who is featured in the show and its eponymous book (Yale University Press). “After I won a contest for leather in Japan (JILA Leather Goods Award 2007), I realized that shoes is how I can realize my ideas in the actual product.”

Kushino boldly removed the line between footwear and artwork, creating sculptural, though wearable (he tries all of them on), shoes that depict enchanted spins on the natural world. Designs feature veritable botanical gardens and steam-punk mechanisms. His mythical “The Wind Horse” (on display) uses lacquered Japanese cypress wood, leather, leavers lace and human hair.

Other highlights include the wing-heeled “Flutterby” by Alberto Guardiani, “Glass Slipper” by Maison Martin Margiela, the multi-mirrored “Invisible” by Andreia Chaves and “Lady Pointe” by Noritaka Tatehana for Lady Gaga, a pair of 18-inch tall toe shoes. And don’t miss Rupert Sanderson’s gladiator sandal designed for Verdi’s “Aida” at the Royal Opera in London, 2010. The platform is a pair of crouched figures holding up the sole like images from a Roman fountain.

It’s a shoe fit for the Roman empress in every woman.

“Shoe Obsession” runs through April 13. For more, visit fitnyc.edu.


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