Rem D. Koolhaas was moved to start designing shoes after an observation made by his then-girlfriend.
“She thought architecture was too cold and too large,” said Koolhaas, nephew of the illustrious architect after whom he was named. “So I thought I would downsize architecture to a more intimate and vulnerable science and come up with shoes. The girl is gone, but I decided to make the shoe anyway.”
That was in 1999 while Koolhaas was in architecture school in Holland. His shoe experiment left him with a bunch of cardboard models but no clue about how to actually produce them. He ended up meeting with Galahad Clark, seventh-generation scion of the U.K.-based Clarks shoes empire, and in 2003, the duo launched a shoe brand called United Nude.
“We wanted to convey the idea of working together in a transparent way,” Koolhaas said of the name.
The brand’s first West Coast pop-up is open at Westfield Century City through Friday, although the label has been part of the SoCal scene since the architect-turned-shoe-designer moved to Los Angeles in 2016.
Koolhaas’ vision is firmly rooted in a European avant-garde sensibility: a stacked heel is made of what looks like marble; a polycarbonate outsole resembles a hollowed out parallelogram; an upper is made from a translucent, geometric-print, breathable fabric; and a spongy platform heel graces a sneaker-sandal hybrid.
When the first collection bowed in 2003, the shoes were considered so genre-busting that they were immediately picked up by retailers such as Fred Segal and American Rag in Los Angeles and Jeffrey New York. Koolhaas has one freestanding store in Amsterdam and 15 scattered throughout Asia.
“Over the years, we strengthened our name and reputation as experts in adventurous, architectural footwear,” Koolhaas said. “We’ve done some interesting collaborations.”
These have included footwear for Issey Miyake’s runway shows as well as a 12-inch stiletto heeled boot for Lady Gaga to wear at her perfume launch in 2013. The late architect Zaha Hadid worked with Koolhaas on the limited-edition Nova, on display at the Century City pop-up; made of chromed vinyl rubber, it resembles a drunk Slinky toy being pulled in two different directions.
When it first debuted in 2013, the Nova sold for $2,000 a pair. Today, the remaining pairs at United Nude’s website are more than double that, priced at a cool $5,000.
“It’s expensive for a pair of shoes, but not for a limited-edition pair of Zaha Hadid sculptures, which is really what they are,” Koolhaas said. (Yes, they are actually wearable.)
Although other high-profile projects loom — a design that will figure prominently in an upcoming superhero movie (he can’t say which one) and collaborations for the concert stage with superstars — Koolhaas said the majority of pieces are designed for everyday wear; a patent black loafer, for example, has a patterned black and white rubber heel. Most pieces in the United Nude offering are priced between $200 and $300.
“We are reinventing the concept of how shoes should be made,” he said, “but offering them in a practical way.”