‘High heels make you look like an easy conquest in the animal kingdom,” Leanie van der Vyver told a receptive audience at the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town last week. Van der Vyver was talking as part of the graduate students’ PechaKucha session, in which top students from around the world present their design work.
Van der Vyver was born in Bethal, raised in Paarl, and completed her design degree at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam last year.
Her graduation project, Scary Beautiful, a concept piece exploring how high high heels can go, hit the internet and went viral with 2.8-million views on Vimeo. It even popped up on American talk-show TV, and she got a call from Lady Gaga’s wardrobe assistant.
“They all wanted to know who this sadistic, chauvinist designer was,” Van der Vyver said. “None of them read further than the images to see I was critiquing the very beauty system they were accusing me of fuelling.
“Shoes have become an accessory to posture,” she said, showing her earlier work — the Limp Shoe, which gives wearers a gangster swagger. “There’s extreme power in accessories.” What Van der Vyver did not tell the audience is that she had been a fashion model for six years before deciding to study design.
What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
I wanted to be an artist-veterinarian. I wanted to paint and sculpt sick animals back to health.
What was the first thing you designed?
My first design was a ninth-grade assignment to make handskoene, and “hand shoes” was what I made. With the help of a leather artisan friend, Fred Liebenberg, I crafted a pair of sandals complete with soles that fit my hands perfectly.
Do you think of yourself as a fashion designer?
I am a critical designer. I am very influenced by my personal frustrations with modern society. My designs are a reaction to things that bother me.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
Maybe. My work teeters on the edge of art and design. I like the grey area.
What is your design philosophy?
I have two at the moment. The questions I ask myself when designing are, one, why should people care? And, two, does it make sense?
Who are some of your favourite designers?
Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, John Kormeling and Hussein Chalayan.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading two books. One, for looking at pictures, is called Shelter, edited by Lloyd Kahn. The other is for theory and is called The Unfashionable Human Body by Bernard Rudofsky. I don’t really like reading fiction; theory books are a kind of sensible fiction.
What’s on your playlist at the moment?
I have a terrible confession to make: I don’t really enjoy listening to music, I love silence. But if I have to get down, I like to listen to Tyler the Creator and R Kelly. I am going through a weird R&B phase because I was a metal- head teenager and totally missed out on that side of things. At home we like to listen to music like the Eagles and the Doors. My dad is a serious jazz musician so he won’t really approve of this answer.
Are you getting involved in the World Design Capital 2014?
I don’t know. I’m not planning anything especially for the event just yet. The city of Cape Town needs to stop demolishing heritage buildings. Soon Cape Town is going to look like a Los Angeles strip mall or, even worse, a Las Vegas strip mall.
What is your favourite building in your city?
The foyer of the Nico Malan Theatre at the Artscape is the nicest place, with the most beautiful chandeliers. I don’t think Cape Town has any nice buildings left; they all get modern upgrades or demolished. The most beautiful, enormous rose window in Orange Street was smashed to build another generic trying-to-be-something-it’s-not hotel, the African Pride. This makes no sense to me. It might be the inspiration/frustration for a new project about authenticity and what that means to our young nation.