Friday, July 15, 2011

mohop shoes: infinitely imaginative architecture

by frédérik sisa

Mohop shoes are not run of the mill footwear. Presented as “infinitely interchangeable eco-friendly sandals,” these hand-made beauties feature sustainably sourced wooden soles with loops through which ribbons can be woven to create any number of patterns. (Click here for a few examples of how to tie. ) And the sandals are not beholden to a single set of ribbons. With a dizzying selection of ribbons to choose from, included a collection made from recycled sarees, there is no limit to the designs a Mohop sandal wearer can achieve.

The concept and execution are certainly brilliant, but what intrigues me most is how much Mohop reflects the very best of design as both a creative and a practical discipline. Most shoes, however well crafted or artistically presented, are just shoes. Mohop shoes, like United Nude and their signature Mobius shoe, benefit from the educated blend of theoretical conceptualization and imaginative application that comes from architecture. It’s the difference between a building designed by your local professional architect and a Thom Mayne, Zaha Hadid, or Daniel Liebeskind.

We all know the familiar dictum that form follows function. Annie and her team at Mohop demonstrate that great design isn’t a question of simplistic axioms, but putting artistry at the harmonious intersection of form and function. Of course, what it boils down to is this: Mohop sandals are beautiful and, by all accounts, eminently wearable and comfortable. You don’t have to wax philosophical like I’m prone to when I see something that is so exciting and satisfying on more than an aesthetic level. Just look at the pictures and see (then try?) for yourself.

I first came across Mohop shoes through an excellent and well-worth reading interview with Annie Mohaupt over at Lindsey Cochran’s blog, Every Clog Has Its Day. Since I had questions of my own to ask, I got in touch with Annie to discuss her vision and design approach. Grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea and settle down – the interview offers an in-depth, but definitely not exhausting, exploration into the inner workings of a singularly unique footwear designer.
How has your vision for Mohop shoes evolved since you first started?

My vision for Mohop shoes actually hasn’t evolved much since I started. I feel like the main concepts behind my designs - architecturally-inspired shapes created with eco-friendly and animal-friendly materials - are really an essential part of what comes to me naturally. No matter what I design, whether its buildings, products, or fashion, there is a similar theme of proportion and material that comes through. So from the start, I wanted to create functional yet innovative footwear, and I hope to continue to do so long into the future. I would definitely love to grow my little company and expand our offerings, but because we put so much time into the handwork in our shoes (even our new Ready to Wear collection) it’s been tough to find the time to really push for faster growth or even come up with radically different collections each season. But because my original design is so unique and adaptable to the ever-changing zeitgeist, we happily experience increased sales season after season (yay!).

With both a ready-to-wear line and a completely handmade bespoke collection, Mohop has come a long way since you started the company in 2005. What are some of the highlights of these past 6 years - the memorable moments, good and bad, that stand out?

These past 6 years have been a total blur! I’ve spent much of that time in the studio, just churning out shoes as fast as possible. I’d often work until 3 or 4 am, collapse on the sofa in our studio, and get up at 6 am to repeat the previous day of making shoes as fast as possible. I was always working, even bringing projects home for my family to help with when I visited on holidays. That was pretty much my life from 2005-2010. Knowing what a toll that grueling schedule was taking on my health and relationships, I was also searching for a manufacturing partner, which has been an incredibly difficult task – much more so than actually making shoes! I’ve literally searched the world for help making my shoes, but as a small business with a unique product, it is nearly impossible to find a manufacturer willing to take a chance on changing their production techniques to recreate my own processes, which are quite atypical. So that’s been the tough part. But many great things have happened as well! I’ve received publicity literally worldwide and have sold shoes on every continent except Antarctica. I’ve finally gotten approval for my patent (although my number hasn’t been issued yet); acclaimed designer Behnaz Sarafpour showed her Spring/Summer 2011 collection with my shoes at New York Fashion Week; and we have many more exciting opportunities on the horizon. Every day brings a new adventure!

We often find architecture as an influence on other disciplines. For example, it's easy to refer to a certain high class of shoe design, like Mohop or United Nude, as "architectural." How does your architectural background influence your approach to design?

My background in architecture is a fundamental part of my whole aesthetic and way of thinking. I feel like there is an “architectural” and “non-architectural” approach to footwear design. The “non-architectural” approach starts with questions such as “what is the purpose of this shoe?” and “who is the customer?” After figuring in trend research, the designer essentially embellishes a basic style (i.e., a casual sneaker, formal pump, or winter boot) to create something “new” for the upcoming season. I feel like a lot of footwear design falls into this category - it’s just basically changing around the details on long-established silhouettes. Not that there’s anything wrong with classic designs, they’re classic for a reason!

But what interests me much more, and I’m sure this is the case for other designers with more of an “architectural” point of view, is thinking about what the essence of a shoe is. I wonder about how vastly I can change the shape of the sole yet still allow the shoe to be walkable. I research new fabrication technologies and think about how they can apply to footwear. I love learning about new materials used in building and product design and incorporating them into my prototypes. This all sounds so grand - but really I don’t have much time to explore all this, so the world is safe from most of my pretensions for the moment.

On the flip side, has designing shoes offered you any insight into the architectural practice? What could architecture learn from other design disciplines?

Designing shoes has made me slightly – only slightly – less reluctant to embellish for the sake of decoration only. My husband is an architect, and I do still occasionally collaborate with the firm he works at, so I’m definitely still in touch with the practice. At this point, because I don’t have any formal education in footwear design or construction, I design shoes pretty much completely from the perspective of an architect. However, my associate Joanna Voos has a great education in footwear and is currently the footwear instructor at the School of the Art Institute here in Chicago, in addition to her duties at Mohop. I’m always interested in her point of view because it really does come from a different place than my own design perspective. She surprises me when she comes up with clever embellishments that aren’t functional but end up adding a lot to the shoe design – architects are often practically allergic to embellishment. So I’m slowing learning that not all details are required to be functional or strictly adhere to some theoretical concept behind the shoe design.
You seem to have a great team of people working with you. Can you discuss their roles and how you all work together to develop Mohop shoes ?

Yes, we have a really great team – having people that I respect and enjoy collaborating with is of utmost importance! My husband is the backbone of Mohop. He’s stood beside me all these years, even when we’d barely see each other for days or weeks on end while I’m locked in the studio. His support of our company, and me, while we’ve invested every bit of our resources into growing the business has been invaluable. He’s redesigned and programmed our website; does all of our bookkeeping; helped physically build our studio; manages our exports and wholesale relations; provides never-ending input and opinions on my designs, photography and marketing materials; and is always there for me when I need a shoulder to cry on or a hand to high-five. He is truly a partner is every sense. Joanna has been with us since 2007. Along with another former employee, she is the only person besides me who can handmake a perfect pair of Mohop shoes from start to finish (aside from the 3D modeling and computer programming process I do for carving the base shoe – but we’re trying to work on that in our mythical “spare time”). Learning to handmake a pair of my shoes takes literally years of training along with natural skill with a variety of tools. We have a couple interns-who-are-wayyyyyy-more-than-interns, Kaitlyn Clevenstine and Natalie Kaleel, who are both in school for fashion design and have been helping this summer on packaging, photography, modeling, styling and a wide variety of other tasks. They work hard but remind Jo and I to laugh a lot as we unbury ourselves from piles of orders.

Your partnership with the non-profit Indian enterprise Jhoole offers a great opportunity to help a cause that includes recycling sarees as ties and supporting fair trade practices. How did your partnership with Jhoole come about, and what role (present and future) does sustainability and social responsibility play in Mohop?

From the start, I’ve wanted to do some sort of collaboration with a non-profit or social enterprise. Even though I try hard to minimize the environmental impact of my footwear production, part of me feels guilty for adding more stuff to a world already filled with stuff - so I’ve searched for ways that my business could possibly make the world a slightly better place. Due to the high skill level and technology/electricity-requiring tools that are necessary to produce my shoes, I had to give up on the idea of seeking the manufacture of my wood soles in developing countries without an existing footwear-production infrastructure. However, because my shoes are composed of two separate components, the upper ties CAN be produced by women in underprivileged parts of the world, even utilizing traditional skills. They money they earn can be used to support their family and send their children to school, ending the cycle of poverty.

It took several years for me to find the exact right partner for such a collaboration, but I found it in Hannah Warren, the founder of Jhoole, a non-profit fashion enterprise designed to create exactly those opportunities for women and families in India. Hannah is from a city very near the small town I grew up, and we have so much in common that it was nearly impossible not to partner up after we met and discussed our mutual goals.

I consider Mohop to be an “ethical” company, and to me that means that the utmost care must be taken to minimize our impact on the earth, animals, and humans. In a profit-driven world, it’s not the easiest road to take, and certainly not the fastest path to growth - but it helps me sleep at night. I don’t have the ability to not care about innocent animals killed for their skin, or workers who live in virtual slavery, or poisoned children who live downstream from a tannery, or vital eco-systems being destroyed by deforestation*. If I could turn those worries off, life would be a lot easier, and an added bonus would be that I wouldn’t sound like such a self-righteous jerk… But here we are.

[* Tropical deforestation is primarily due to the clearing of land to raise cattle - and the resulting environmental impact is huge, contributing more carbon dioxide to the air than the entire transportation industry worldwide! However, products made from lumber increase the value of wood as a cash crop, encouraging farmers to grow trees rather than cut them down, as well as maintaining the natural forest habitat for endangered animals and potentially life-saving plants.]

In our eMail correspondence, we touched on your plans for men's shoes. While it's undoubtedly too early for specifics, could you give us a sneak peek into your thoughts and ambitions for your men’s Mohop designs?

Men’s shoes have been on the drawing board for years now! We can’t wait to make a men’s line. We also would love to make non-interchangeable sandals, close-toed shoes and boots as well as other accessories for men, women and children. We are working so hard to find the time – it seems a launch is always 6 months away! So keep an eye out!
Many, many thanks to Annie for taking the time to answer my questions and for use of the images. For more about Mohop Shoes, including their collections and where to buy, visit


Jenny H said...

What a great post! I'm always interested to hear about the humble beginnings and stories behind a company! What a great product as well!! Very innovative.

Frederik Sisa said...

Thanks, Jenny. Yeah, it's great to get the story behind innovative artisans and designers, especially when they're starting from scratch and are on their own, as opposed to being part of a huge industrial fashion machine.

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