At United Nude, a shoe don’t always look like a shoe at first glance. At times, when not worn on the feet, they look more like sculptural pieces—credit that to the footwear brand’s co-founder Rem D Koolhaas, a Dutch designer with a degree in architecture from the Delft University of Technology in Holland. (He is named after his uncle, the famous architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas.)

Koolhaas during his Manila visit. Image by September Grace Mahino.

The story behind the brand’s genesis—a broken heart—is true, Koolhaas admitted during his recent Manila visit at the United Nude flagship store inside the Newport Mall in Resorts World Manila. “My girlfriend broke up with me just before graduation, and with my heart broken, I felt the need to downscale architecture to its most intimate and vulnerable size, which is of a woman’s foot.” With zero knowledge on how to design footwear, he approached shoe-making from a highly conceptual perspective, playing around with the Möbius strip and reshaping it into a shoe.

The earliest prototype of United Nude’s Möbius shoe. Image courtesy of Rem D. Koolhaas.

This was back in 1999. Since then, the designer had teamed up with Galahad Clark, a seventh generation shoemaker who provided the financial backing so they could establish their footwear venture in 2003. The first shoe design released by United Nude is the Möbius, and it remains their most successful and popular United Nude model to date.

The Möbius. Image via United Nude.

The brand is now sold in over 50 countries, with concept stores located in Tel Aviv, Beijing, Taipei, Tokyo, Vienna, and Amsterdam. “Our shoes are exclusive not by price but by design,” Koolhaas said of their products.

In coming up with new models, he continues to approach footwear-making from a highly conceptual design perspective, exploring the myriad ways in which an architectural object can be reinterpreted into something that can be worn by the human foot and, more often than not, be used to walk in. Take for example United Nude’s Lo Res project, which they started in 2007/2008. “It’s a design principle that’s created by using a 3D scanner to scan objects, and through a software, you can see the scanned image of an object in different resolutions,” Koolhaas explained. “We would lower the resolution manually and redesign several objects as a series of designs.” An object could be as simple as a goblet or as complex as a car—like the Lamborghini Countach that United Nude based its Lo Res Lamborghini sculpture on.

 

The cool-looking sculpture can be driven, Koolhaas revealed, though it may not pass road safety standards set for most vehicles. The Lo Res Lamborghini was featured in rapper Rich the Kid’s  “New Freezer” music video.

Because of the complex trial-and-error nature of developing and crafting shoes out of highly conceptual ideas, the seasonal structure that most footwear labels adhere to hold no appeal for Koolhaas; according to him, there was no plan to turn United Nude into a fashion label, starting from when he and Galahad started it. “Fashion is too seasonal; I find it too fickle,” he explained. United Nude does follow the seasonal releases that other brands adhere to, though; in fact, Koolhaas was sporting/test-driving the Spacekicks, made with an all leather upper and with foam rubber EVA outsoles, from the Autumn/Winter 2019 collection while he was in Manila (he was also wearing a pair of pants that he had tailored based to his own alterations)

“We might get into [clothing] in the future, but what we’re still focused on is continuously improving our shoe designs.” Besides, he added, United Nude already likes collaborating with great fashion designers and creatives.

These collaborations, in fact, constitute a big part of the cool, edgy, and highly creative identity of United Nude in the shoe market.

“We tend to collaborate with brands and artistic people who already have their own audience,” Koolhaas said. And as “out there” as a number of their shoe designs have been, he stressed that their brand doesn’t pursue a concept just because it’s crazy; the same careful consideration is applied in the selection of their collaborators.

Given his background in architecture, some of the United Nude collaborations make perfect sense, such as the one with late Zaha Hadid, with whom they created the iconic and super limited edition Nova shoe. Though Koolhaas claims they’re comfortable to wear, the Nova is mostly an exhibit piece given its extraordinary form and material.

In the fashion scene, designers Iris van Herpen and Issey Miyake have been frequent collaborators, with their highly conceptual clothes calling for a similar kind of vision when it comes to shoes.

 

United Nude has also worked with Lady Gaga, in particular for her FAME perfume ad campaign, with a sleek but ultra-high platform shoe featuring little gold men climbing all over it.

Image via Pinterest

The brand has also made a foray into eyewear with a creative partnership with sunglasses designer Linda Farrow.

In its Manila store, United Nude carries select pieces from their current collections as well as their more classic designs. There are also bags, belts, and watches that feature the brand’s sleek, edgy, and architectural DNA.

As the creative director and marketing manager for the brand, Koolhaas’ work at United Nude never stops. There are plans for the label to make a foray into furniture, and there are always the collaborations that it is working on. This summer, United Nude will be releasing a high-heeled shoe for men that they have worked on with fashion model/dancer Shaun Ross. Plus, there is the ever-expanding market for their kind of footwear. “It really is a 24/7 thing; my brain never stops,” Koolhaas admitted. “I’m always thinking of what to make next.”

 

United Nude is located at the ground floor of the Newport Mall in Resorts World Manila.

Header image by Inggo Manalo.