Shoe obsession for the ages: Prince's killer collection of custom heels, now on view
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Shoe obsession for the ages: Prince's killer collection of custom heels, now on view
Boots worn by Prince when he performed "Purple Rain" at the 1985 American Music Awards. The shoes are on display at Paisley Park as part of "The Beautiful Collection: Prince's Custom Shoes." Tony Sylvers via The New York Times.

by Sally Franson

CHANHASSEN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Before we start, I want to get one thing straight: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a grown man gasp over a giant wall of high heels. Not just any heels. Stiletto heels, custom-made for a size 7 foot. Fabric-covered ankle boots, mainly, but also knee boots, over-the-knee boots and platforms, in colors bright as Oz.

Male, female, Black, white, young, old — everyone visiting “The Beautiful Collection: Prince’s Custom Shoes” at Paisley Park on a recent Saturday tour went gaga over Prince Rogers Nelson’s heels. More than 300 pairs, soles cleaned, fabrics vacuumed, shapes stuffed and lit up from behind, delivering us from gender norms and pandemic loungewear.

Hark! Here were the hand-painted cloud boots from the “Raspberry Beret” music video; the platform roller skates documented by Questlove and discovered, posthumously, in a custom-made briefcase; and ankle boots with metallic stickers proclaiming “Get Wild” on the toe and “Free Music” on the heel. (Prince wore that pair in 1995 in protest against Warner Bros., whose recording contracts he found so exploitative he temporarily changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol.)

One pair was covered in candle wax. (Prince loved candles.) Another hid scuffs with pink Magic Marker. Multiple pairs had friction burns from Prince’s legendary dancing.

“If there’s a stain or a scuff mark, that should remain on the shoe,” Mitch Maguire, curator of the exhibition, said on a humid afternoon. “That’s part of its history.”

The artist’s estate, which assumed management of Paisley Park in 2019, manages tours of the complex, which Prince built in 1987. Photos and videos are not allowed, and visits to “The Beautiful Collection,” a limited-run exhibition that opened to the public in July as part of the larger tour of Paisley Park, are kept to 15 minutes.

More than 900 additional pairs of heels discovered at Paisley remain in storage, though Maguire said they hope to exhibit them all over time. Also omitted from the tour are the consequences of wearing nothing but high heels for four decades, including a reported hip surgery and well-documented opiate use that led to Prince’s fatal overdose in 2016.

Instead, visitors are treated — and it is a treat — to nose-to-glass close-ups of exquisite bespoke designs from artisans including Willie Rivera, Franco Puccetti, Cos Kyriacou, Andre Rostomyan and Gary Kazanchyan of Andre No. 1, as well as filmed interviews with Kyriacou and Kazanchyan. Between them, the two men built more than 3,000 custom pairs of heels for Prince, including light-up Lucite platform sneakers and ankle boots with reinforced heels for arena shows.

Yet even reinforcements — in this case, a metal brace bolting the heel to the sole — wasn’t enough to let Prince’s shoemakers watch concerts in peace.

“There were moments when my heart was in my mouth,” Kyriacou said in an exhibition interview. “He was a relentless performer.”

Constructing dangerously high heels that were embellished enough for the artist’s taste, yet secure enough for his talent, required ingenuity and engineering. After all, Prince stomped in his heels — 4 inches high in the early years, 3 1/4 inches later. He spun and strutted and sashayed. He swayed and skipped and slid into the splits so fast that unreinforced heels sometimes broke clean off like a wishbone.

Over time, designers refined the reinforced heel and fiddled with its angle. Kyriacou worked with Donatella Versace to get the famed Versace fabric heels up to snuff. (The label was the only one Prince wore outside of his custom designs.)

Creating a literal head-to-toe look with custom fabrics — usually his heels were covered in the same material as his suits — is arguably Prince’s most memorable contribution to rock ’n’ roll fashion. The goal wasn’t to make the 5-foot-2 musician taller, said costumer Helen Hiatt, who headed Prince’s wardrobe department from 1985 to 1991, but to construct a look in which the shoes “wouldn’t cut your eye.”

Gwen Leeds, a stylist who worked for Prince in numerous capacities from 1983 to 1988, recalled flying to New York to buy fabric at the high-end shops on West 57th Street and taking it to T.O. Dey on 46th Street to have the shoes custom-built and covered.

“Normally you purchase fabric by the yard,” she said. “In the purple world, it was done by the pound.”

Money was no object, but time often was. Leeds’ instructions from Prince’s wardrobe department? “Have them do whatever’s necessary” to meet the deadline. This once meant outbidding reps for Luther Vandross and Queen Elizabeth to secure the fabric that became Prince’s 1985 Oscars ensemble, to which H.E.R. recently paid homage.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m representing Prince, and I have cash,’” Leeds said. “I got the fabric.”

Necessity, of course, is the mother of invention. Kazanchyan recalled purchasing, demolishing and rebuilding a pair of Fendi shoes in two weeks to match Prince’s foot pattern. Hiatt attached metal bat wings to Prince’s toe box with double-sided carpet tape to create his now-legendary Batman boots. Once she even melted Plexiglas in her oven to satisfy a last-minute request for a glitter cane.

“You just used every bit of ingenuity you could come up with,” Hiatt said.

Yet when she tried to invent a new toe point on Prince’s shoe pattern, widening the box to prevent bunions, Prince demurred.

“‘You know I hate to argue,’” she recalls him saying while staring at the floor. “‘Just go change it.’ My heart ached for his little feet.”

Bunions did not, apparently, matter in the purple world, any more than budgets. And though this purple world is not the real world, “The Beautiful Collection” reveals the benefits of an alternate reality. For here, an androgynous Black man represents peak sex appeal, straight white couples will ooh and aah at platform flip-flops, and a couture shoemaker will buy a pair of children’s shoes from Payless, rip out the light-up soles and build them into white platform sneakers so that every time a rock legend pushes down on a piano pedal, his heels light up like happy Tinkerbell.

And if there remains skepticism toward the purple world, this celebration of spectacle, turn your gaze toward Paisley’s parking lot, 19.4 miles from George Floyd Square, where a group of Black motorcyclists, engines gunning, jams out to “When Doves Cry” as total strangers dance.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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