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Shoes You Can Use (If You Can Wear Them)

Israeli designer Kobi Levi cobbles together a distinctive look

Stephanie Butnick
April 07, 2011
This model is called Olive Oyl.(Kobi Levi Design)

This model is called Olive Oyl.(Kobi Levi Design)

Kobi Levi has recently been making the blog rounds—Semitic and otherwise—thanks to his eccentric and imaginative shoes. The Israeli designer, who graduated from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in 2001, has become something of a fixture for design buffs in Israel and is making his way onto the international design scene.

His eco-friendly shoes seem to defy both convention and gravity. “When I design a shoe,” he has said, “I think about it as a sculpture to wear, an art piece you live with. You and your body affect its look and it affects yours.”

Levi may finally be blowing up: Among other things, Lady Gaga wore his shoes in her “Born This Way” music video. I talked to him over email about his shoes and his success.

Where in Israel do you live and work, and how do your surroundings impact your designs? Is there anything about your shoes that is distinctly Israeli or related to Israel?
I live and work in Tel Aviv. It is a great place, a combination of a neighborhood and a city. My designs are not “local”—I choose inspirations from iconic themes and images that are relating to people from various locations and backgrounds. I’m sure growing up here and studying here affected who I am as a person and as a designer, but my creations are not distinctively Israeli, unless I choose a specific Israeli theme/image to work with in a specific design.

How long have you been designing shoes, and what initially drew you away from traditional footwear and toward more artistic creations?
I started to design footwear in high school, and continued this passion in my college studies. I design both commercial lines as well as my artistic designs. I want to show my own point of view in footwear design and not be “restricted” to the commercial needs: specific customer, price points, etc.—that is what happens in my artistic footwear. The design itself and the statement are the main purpose and “free” from the commercial aspects in the creation process.

Your shoes are all made by hand in your studio, and some are made from what you refer to as “man-made” leather. What environmental considerations go into the creation of your shoes and what kinds of eco-standards are you, as an independent designer, able to uphold?
I always prefer natural and environmentally friendly materials. They are safer to work by hand and cause less damage, to the environment and to my own hands!

Man-made indicates it is not real leather. It can be synthetic or natural—just not real leather.

Your shoes were recently featured in Lady Gaga’s music video for the song “Born This Way,” which must have been exciting for you as a designer who likes to push the limits artistically. Was it a significant moment to have such a successful—and outspoken—artist wear your shoes?
Yes—definitely! I love Gaga’s strong style choices. Her style is one of the things that makes her so unique and successful. I was very flattered my Double Boots were included in “Born This Way,” the video is amazing, the clothe, the make-up … simply amazing.

Some have called your Blond Ambition a tribute to early-‘90s Madonna. Are there any specific individuals or characters behind your designs?
Yes—”Blond Ambition” is a tribute to Madonna’s look in her early 90’s tour of the same name. Some designs have characters as inspirations, like Madonna, or Olive Oyl. Some have animals, fashion, furniture, and much more. I like to get inspiration from unconventional places, or choose a “predictable” theme/image and design it in an unexpected way.

Which, if you had to choose just one, is your favorite shoe you’ve designed?
“all my children”…. Maybe Miao … or the sexy shoes XXX pump and Blow … or Toucan … or, ah, I cannot choose.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.