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CCSS annual lecture

Walking-Around Money

From pearl-encrusted bridal sandals to $100,000 pumps, Vanessa Noel '84, BFA '86, designs some very fancy footwear  From pearl-encrusted bridal sandals to $100,000 pumps, Vanessa Noel '84, BFA '86, designs some very fancy footwear Diamonds on the soles of her shoes? Well, almost. Swarovski crystal-encrusted boots with four-inch heels are just one way for Vanessa […]

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From pearl-encrusted bridal sandals to $100,000 pumps, Vanessa Noel '84, BFA '86, designs some very fancy footwear
 

From pearl-encrusted bridal sandals to $100,000 pumps, Vanessa Noel '84, BFA '86, designs some very fancy footwear

Diamonds on the soles of her shoes? Well, almost. Swarovski crystal-encrusted boots with four-inch heels are just one way for Vanessa Noel '84, BFA '86, to, as the Paul Simon song goes, "lose these walking blues." Lovingly displayed in the couture shoe designer's store on New York's Upper East Side, Noel's creations bring princess—and sexpot—fantasies to life for her well-heeled customers, from socialites to movie stars.

Ruby slippers? Even better: One buyer plunked down $100,000 for one-of-a-kind black satin pumps encrusted with gold-set rubies. ("They were purchased by a man for the woman in his life," Noel says, declining to identify him.) For $550 to $2,500, brides can walk down the aisle in sandals, pumps, or mules festooned with pearls. The more sensual side of her collection includes (for a cool $24,000) black over-the-knee stretch alligator boots. The look was made famous by the consummate seductress, "Sex and the City" star Kim Cattrall, who wore them with a white mink coat in a promotional shot for the TV show's first spin-off movie. No wonder New York Magazine enthused that "Vanessa Noel wants women to let their inner vamp show all the way down to their toes."

Shoes are works of art to Noel, to be admired and salivated over as much as any sparkling piece of jewelry. And like many indulgences, they don't come cheap—though the price tags don't deter the wealthy fashionistas who have been known to scoop up three pairs of Noel's over-the-knee gators at once. "The love is in the art form that shoes take on," she explains in her six-story townhouse, which includes an incongruously low-key store where shoppers can settle into comfy couches while they try on shoes, or stop by with their dogs to schmooze in the coffee-and-treat bar in the back. "A shoe on a shelf is sometimes absolutely intoxicating."

Vanessa Noel

Noel's design studio is on the top floor of the townhouse; the view includes a glimpse of notorious Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff's former penthouse. Sketches for next fall's designs are tacked onto the walls and piled onto a drafting table ahead of a trip to the tanneries she uses in Italy. Featured prominently are metallic mesh patterns she calls "Park Avenue S & M," inspired by a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's arms-and-armor collection.

A fine arts major in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Noel (who was known as Vanessa Ginley at Cornell and uses her middle name as her professional surname) knew her future was in footwear when she began work on her senior thesis, a series of self-portraits—half of them as shoes. "I had always adored shoes, the way they make a woman feel," she says, dressed in the New York uniform of black pants, short suede boots (hers, of course), and sweater-cape. "Footwear can change your whole body image and personality. I found that fascinating. So my thesis was about my interpretation of shoes as self-portraiture, analyzing myself in that way."

Noel grew up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; her father was a surgeon, her mother a homemaker and philanthropist who supported area museums. Noel launched her business in 1987 with family funding, gaining a following among celebrity fashion plates including Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Halle Berry. For six years, Noel collaborated with luxury clothing designer Chado Ralph Rucci, her foot-wear gracing his runway models at the Paris fashion shows. Like Rucci, who uses feathers and taffeta in his designs, Noel plays with tactile, sometimes exotic materials. In addition to gemstones, Noel favors reptile skins—alligator, lizard, whip snake, and the Southeast Asian karung snake—as well as feathers and furs. Her short stretch-alligator boots enveloped in chinchilla fur are so soft, admirers may ask to pet your feet (which may be the point). In other designs, such as six-inch black platforms tattooed with tiny, caviar-like Swarovski crystals, the effect is more subtle, but just as deliberately sexy. "They're all delicious, luxurious, beautiful items to be used as adornments," Noel says of the materials she uses.

There was never any question that Noel would produce only couture—high-end luxury goods. While designers like Isaac Mizrahi create lines for affordable stores such as H&M, Noel sees such endeavors as a dilution of her identity. "I consider myself a true luxury brand—I'm not a commercial luxury label," she says. "It's like total urban or total country; there is no suburbia. Middle ground is very normal and there's no real artistry to it in my mind." While the depressed economy hasn't inspired her to lower her prices, this fall Noel will roll out shoe accessories including fur ankle-boot wraps to be swapped on and off "for fashion and recession purposes."

In 2002, Noel branched out into the lodging industry, opening the eight-room Vanessa Noel Hotel on Nantucket, where she spent her childhood summers and has a shoe store. "The island was attracting a high-end clientele that needed a luxurious, charming place to stay," she says. She eventually bought the property next door and in 2006 opened a second, "green" hotel; both trade in her customary luxury, though the eco-friendly location sports furnishings made from bamboo, cardboard, and other recycled and energy-saving materials.

But shoes are still her first love. Between the glamour that celebrities like Rihanna and Lady Gaga are bringing back to fashion and signs that the wealthy are ready to attend—and dress up for— gala benefits after a recessionary lag, Noel is feeling confident in her vision. "For the first time in a long time, glam is coming back," she says. "People want to come out of the doldrums."

— Jordan Lite

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