College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Fanciful footwear

Chris Francis
Artist Chris Francis has designed footwear for a number of rock stars and celebrities. (Photo courtesy of Chris Francis)

Chris Francis used to jump trains and shine shoes.

He traveled the United States extensively using this economical technique, but decided to settle down in Los Angeles as moving about by train grew more difficult.

There, Francis began to dabble in making clothes, eventually turning to one of the most critical aspects of the wardrobe: shoes. However, his path toward becoming a celebrity shoe designer, praised by the likes of Vogue magazine, was not a series of steps along a straight line. While the Kokomo, Indiana native’s core identity as an artist was always apparent, the timeline of his development as an artist and designer is much more complex.

“When I met Chris, I made two very important decisions,” said Jim Sondergrath, Francis’ high school art teacher. “One was to get him into the art department at Kokomo High School, and the other was to get out of his way and watch him soar.”

And soar he did. Today, Francis makes custom shoes for the likes of country music legend Dolly Parton, and his creations were featured in a solo exhibition at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.

Francis’ shoes will make their Purdue debut this fall, with the exhibit “To-The-Last: 21st Century Shoe Designs” set to run from Oct. 21 through Nov. 15 at the Patti & Rusty Rueff Galleries in Pao Hall. Francis will also visit campus in early November to give a workshop and talk.

Many people are solely concerned with the functional aspects of their footwear. Shoes are to hike in, to keep toes protected on the factory floor, to run in, or to allow wearers’ feet to breathe on a hot day.

For others, shoes are a matter of function and form. Dolly Parton can’t, for example, throw on a pair of Keds and call it a day, nor can a member of legendary punk rock group the Sex Pistols.

Performers such as these must be able to make a statement when they cross the stage to communicate their artistic identity. Francis’ ability to marry color and sculptural form has resulted in collaborations with many celebrities – but especially musicians.

His grandfather was a carpenter and his grandmother a seamstress. Because of that combination, perhaps shoemaking was an inevitable outcome for Francis. But back when he was a new artist, his raw talent was what stood out.

“All of his paintings always had this interesting combination of colors; it’s what set him apart from the others,” Sondergrath said. “It would all just sing with color.”

As he practiced making shoes, Francis increasingly relied on math and geometry to develop architectural forms. His shoes look like delicate sculptures that might be unable to sustain a human’s weight, but the beauty is that they are fully capable of doing so.

“It’s striking to see an object treated with such artistry that is normally perceived as functional,” said Charles Gick, professor of fine arts in the Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance.

Shoes, Gick said, are a way to demonstrate the importance of design in our everyday lives. He hopes Francis’ exhibit will bring awareness to how anyone can find art in the most unusual places, perhaps by simply looking down.

As head of the apparel design and technology concentration in the College of Health and Human Sciences, Kristofer Chang Alexander also hopes to show his students how the marriage of art and design can be as playful as a pair of Bauhaus shoes and as simple as a smokestack in a small town.

“When I tell people I grew up in a small town in South Dakota, they can’t understand how I got into fashion,” said Chang Alexander, a continuing lecturer in the College’s Division of Consumer Science. “But fashion inspires people from all over the world, even Kokomo, Indiana.”