Shoe designer Kobi Levi was working in his design studio in 2011 when he got an email that he was sure couldn’t be real.
It was from a studio executive working on Lady Gaga’s newest video of her pop anthem “Born This Way.” The studio wanted to order several pairs of Levi’s custom-made boots for the singer to wear, a request that Levi — once he determined that the email was not a practical joke — was happy to oblige.
But there was one problem: Levi had no idea how much to charge. That’s because, despite spending the past 14 years furiously designing fantastical footwear in a side room of his snug apartment, he had never sold a single pair.
A lot has changed since then.
Levi, 40, has now sold plenty of pairs of his outlandish high heels. And though he won’t disclose sales figures and still teaches design classes to augment his income, he says it’s enough to make a living.
His creations are less shoes than they are wearable works of warped and dreamy art: divinely twisted flamingos, their crossed stiletto legs masquerading as sleek spiked heels; a curved porcelain coffee pitcher, its arched handle welcoming the foot and a splash of free-flowing coffee anchoring it to the ground; a convoluted sex doll, complete with a plastic air stopper and a seductive “mouth” at the toe, its heel mimicking the seductive yet sterile shape of plastic inflated legs.
In person, Levi belies his penchant for fabulously freakish design; he looks younger than his years and dresses simply in jeans and a plain V-neck T-shirt. His footwear of choice is a generic male walking shoe.
Over coffee at Tel Aviv’s legendary gay bar Shpagat, Levi is tired but bubbly — he has just welcomed a baby girl with a good friend, a single woman who also wanted a child. They plan to co-parent her.
Levi is modest about his success, admitting, “I never imagined that somebody would want to buy these shoes. I never thought about the things you’re supposed to think about, like what the customer needs or how you give them what they’re looking for. … I just do it for myself.”
Nevertheless, a quiet buzz has been building, with coverage in such publications as Marie Claire and Glamour. CNN called his creations “shoe creatures” and “wearable sculptures.”
Levi — who still works solo out of that same room in his apartment — makes every pair by hand. His studio is obsessively clean and organized: Bolts of fabric ranging from chartreuse vinyl to purple leather fill the far wall, sorted in order of the rainbow. Foot molds in descending size are stacked on shelves across the room, and an archaic leather press and an old-school sewing machine wait on the other side.
He has learned to price his creations: shoes on his website cost between $800 and $3,000. Because each pair constitutes several weeks’ of painstaking handiwork, he believes the cost is fair.
Levi has dreamed up shoes that are birds, shoes that are fruit and shoes that are the head of Madonna herself, wrapped around the foot with a facial microphone and a platinum blonde wig. No design is too fantastic, he says, but there is one unifying element: style.
“It’s not supposed to be comfortable,” he said. “It’s supposed to be beautiful. You don’t wear them to jog. You wear them to look great.”