Gaga about shoes

The newly opened shop of United Nude is anything but another shoe store.

United Nude shoes (photo credit: Courtesy)
United Nude shoes
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week a new store joined the coterie of chic boutiques lining Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. It has succeeded in blending in and standing out at the same time. The store, which is black and dark and partly lit by a wall of light, offers a limited collection of shoes that are uniquely organized.
You cannot help but walk into this store, which offers colorful designer shoes in an environment that is as organized and clean as a pharmacy. The staff is polite and restrained, and the store oozes with cosmopolitan charm.
The flagship store of United Nude shoes in Israel is an exact replica of its other stores worldwide, from Japan to New York. It is full of cool and practical shoes. On the one hand, there are shoes that were designed especially for Lady Gaga and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire movie. On the other hand, there are comfortable heels that my mother-in-law would approve of and cute sandals that make summer bearable.
“Space design is an important part of the design and part of our branding,” says Rem Koolhaas, founder and chief designer of United Nude.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Koolhaas, says, “Our brand began as a story, and from our perspective every pair of shoes that leaves the store also tells a story. So we want every store to create a memorable theatrical shopping experience. We are living in an age of consumerism, and people talk about shopping as an emotional experience.
We want to create an experience that is as positive as possible.
“Even in an incredible store, you won’t succeed in selling bad products, and a good product will still sell in a horrible store.
But even if your product is terrific, why not make the store as amazing as possible? The store is part of the packaging. The concept is simple but powerful,” he adds.
With regard to the darkness of the store, Koolhaas says, “We’ve been criticized for it for years. The Tel Aviv store is not as dark as some of the others because it’s located on a sunny street in a sunny country.”
It would have been nice if Koolhaas’s shoe story had been like Cinderella, but United Nude is not about a servant who turns into a princess. It’s a story about a good idea, tremendous effort and significant capital investment and a 10-year plan for growth.
At the end of the last millennium, Koolhaas was an architecture student in Holland, like his famous uncle, Rem Koolhaas (they are both named after the same relative, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II).
During his studies, Koolhaas realized that architecture was not for him. “I loved studying, but I don’t believe that you must go to school in the field in which you work,” he explains. “It was a good investment, but I also tried my hand in other fields, such as film and music. It was only by chance that I made a sketch of a shoe, and I just loved it. It was an original and quality sketch. I never intended to create a brand of shoes – it just happened. I approached shoe companies and offered them my shoe. They responded by saying it was a good, quality shoe, but that it didn’t go with their line. That was my first lesson in brand building. I realized that I needed to produce my own brand,” he recounts.
Koolhaas made this decision in 2000 while he was still a student. It took another three years until he was able to turn the drawing into a shoe that would be sold in stores. After befriending the son of Italian shoe designer Sergio Rossi, Koolhaas had a meeting with Rossi himself, who referred him to a professional shoe developer and wished him good luck.
Koolhaas’s young company decided to manufacture the shoes in China. “There was no advantage to producing sandals in Italy,” Koolhaas says. “We wanted to sell the shoes at a reasonable price. We didn’t want the price to go over $200. If we had manufactured them in Italy, they would have to be sold for at least $500. We wanted to have an exclusive design, not exclusive prices, and this has been our slogan throughout the years,” he says.
Koolhaas traveled around the world showing his samples to interested retailers who loved the original design. From the start, Koolhaas wanted his brand to be an international best-seller. He raised $500,000 and carefully selected which markets to begin with and how to go about it – a challenge that he still deals with today.
“I didn’t study business management in college. I’ve learned everything I know from working in the field,” he smiles. “I’ve learned a lot along the way, such as if we don’t grow quickly enough, we might disappear.
It’s not enough to have an amazing design. You need to be able to sell it and, most importantly, distribute it. Therefore, I suggest that young designers think twice before going into business. They need to have the financial backing to follow through with their dream, and not just the fantasy of owning a design studio.”
The United Nude brand is available in 40 countries, including 12 flagship stores, one of which is in Tel Aviv. Their shoes were displayed at the FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) exhibition in New York, and they designed a pair especially for Lady Gaga (for $20,000) and another pair for the upcoming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire movie.
“They requested something fantastically unique, and when we told them it would cost $2,500, they were a bit taken aback,” Koolhaas laughs. “So in the end, they just rented the shoes from us. They paid less, but they had to return the shoes to us. Now we can show off the shoes.”
Despite its short history, the United Nude brand was an honorary member of Paris Couture Week, the world’s most prestigious fashion event, and has participated in seven haute couture shows by Iris van Herpen.
“These collaborations are a source of great pride,” says Koolhaas. “We are currently working on our eighth design for Van Herpen. It’s like working in a fantasy world.
Only two of the shoe designs we prepared for her went on to mass scale production and are sold in our stores. All the others are on display in a shoe museum.”
Drawing a parallel between architecture and shoe design, Koolhaas says, “Design is design is design. But what attracted me in shoes were the small, more limited projects where you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s similar to designing one aspect of a building. Designing a building takes time. It’s like designing an entire brand. And I knew that it would take me the same amount of time to create a brand or to design a building. The slow processes in architecture did not attract me.
But I chose shoes just by chance. Of course, over the years my knowledge in the field has increased, but at first I had no idea what to do. Shoe design is very limited because in addition to great designs, they need to be comfortable, easily produced, light and soft.
Shoes need to be highly functional, as opposed to buildings. Even the most wild and crazy shoes still need to be worn. I am an architect to the same extent that I’m a shoe designer. I am first and foremost a brand creator,” he asserts.
Koolhaas recently came to Israel for a two day visit, following his successful business relationship with the Alembika chain, which has been selling his shoes in its stores and suggested that he open a United Nude store in Israel.
The Tel Aviv United Nude store offers its classic line, successful summer models and, for the first time, a line for men. “Out of my 15-person design team, three of them are Israeli,” Koolhaas says with pride. “I showed them the location that Alembika suggested for the new store, and they got very excited,” he says.
“I believe there is an extremely strong connection between Israel and Holland.
Both countries are small, isolated and surrounded by people who don’t love them.
Historically, Holland was really isolated and surrounded by enemy nations. Israelis are excellent workers.
They love to work hard, and their design style is very similar to Dutch style. My Israeli designers accompanied me on my trip to Israel, and now we want to see how together we can make Tel Aviv even more amazing than it is. Tel Aviv seems like a pretty amazing city to me,” he notes.
In fact, he opened the store in Tel Aviv before he even visited Israel.
“I had never been to Israel before. But it’s not the first time I’ve opened a store in a country in which I’ve never set foot.”
And there aren’t many countries that Koolhaas hasn’t visited. He’s Dutch by birth and is married to a Chinese businesswoman.
They have three children between the ages of one and five. During the week they live in Guangzhou, the third-largest city in China, and go to Hong Kong for weekends.
In one recent week, Koolhaas went to France, Holland and England.
“My wife really wanted to come to Israel, but the traveling got to be a little bit too much, especially for the children. They have to be entertained all the time, especially in new places, and the purpose of my trips are for work after all, so it’s hard,” he says.
Having children completely changed Koolhaas’s outlook on work. “I no longer do what I do just for fun,” he says. “When you have children, you need to be serious. You can’t make any mistakes. You can’t afford to go out of business. I’m lucky in that my wife’s business is quite successful, so even if my business fails, I can rely on her,” he laughs. 
Translated by Hannah Hochner