On the Town with Shinan: Every inch mattered at the Bata Shoe Museum

By Shinan Govani

Upstairs lay Lenny Kravitz’s four-inch heels. Downstairs, a party bringing together both society swells and first-rate foot fetishists.

It was a gala held this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Toronto’s prized Bata Shoe Museum – one also coinciding with the museum’s latest exhibition, Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels. Hence, Mr. Kravitz – and a glass case celebrating one rocker who’s never not been in touch with his feminine side. Other parts of the exhibition, I noted, pay nods to everyone from former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to all-American cowboys, connecting the dots in what’s a rather thought-provoking exploration of topped-up dudes from the early 1600s to today.

As curator Elizabeth Semmelhack notes, upending ideas of masculinity that we carry today, “When heels were introduced in the 17th century (in Europe), men were the first to adopt them. And they continued wearing heels as expressions of power and prestige for over 13 years.” The exhibition, as it happens, boasts a perfectly cheeky tagline: ‘Never have a few inches mattered so much.’

At the swirling soiree, which took over several floors, what I found out, soon enough, was this: Never have a few centimetres mattered so much. Not when a flying flute of champagne is involved! I happened to be standing beside one of the country’s spiffiest and most famous architects, Raymond Moriyama – who debuted the Bata Shoe Museum those two decades back – when his elbow hit a glass and it shattered straight to the floor. Raymond, quite repentant, made all the right noises as a server rushed in immediately to wipe the floor. I was A-Ok, I confirmed to him. Not a shard of glass, or bubbly, had landed on me. Some champagne did, though, drip over the Paul Smith shoes I was working that night…but given the kind of building we were in, I felt that that was nothing short of auspicious.

“It passed the test,” Raymond joked, happy with the status of the flooring in the museum he’d designed. Being the chap behind so many famous buildings – including the Ontario Science Centre and the Canadian embassy in Tokyo – I took the splashy opportunity to ask the architect if the Bata was, indeed, constructed to be a riff on a shoe box. Smiling, Raymond replied, rather cryptically, “People see what they want to see.”

Duly noted! Perhaps a better question is for the 88-year-old grande dame whose labour of love is the museum, and who remains one of Canada’s most enduring dowagers: the great Sonja Bata. Having built what is the world’s biggest museum devoted to footwear – in part, homage to the Bata fortune built by her last husband – she took a few moments, mid-party, to formally welcome the throng. Joined by multiple generations of her clan at the top of the stairs, she was most lovingly introduced by her granddaughter, Alexandra, now married into the famous Weston clam. Speaking of the incredible partnership between Sonja and her late husband, Alexandra said that Sonja’s “love of shoes came with the incredible relationship she had with my grandfather.”

Alexandra – with husband Galen Weston Jr. looking on – also fondly recalled the moment 20 years when she was “stuffed into an oversized shoe walking up and down Bloor Street to get people to come to the opening.” This, she added, “is a lot more glamorous.”

And, to this end, the dancing and the carousing continued late into the night in the maybe, maybe-not shoebox-shaped museum.

Meanwhile:

Expect some more sparks of fashion in the city next week when British-fashion ‘It Girl’ Mary Katrantzou zips into Toronto on Tuesday to showcase her collection, fresh from the runway. The designer – who just nabbed the prestigious BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund – is this year’s special guest at a luncheon being put on jointly by Haute Health and the Hudson’s Bay Company Foundation. The annual event aides nursing programs at the University Health Network (UHN).

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