Lady Gaga-Championed Designer Kermit Tesoro Has Even More Wild Ideas
Tesoro’s latest capsule collection is 80% finished.
Berlin-based Filipino artist Kermit Tesoro has designed for Lady Gaga and seen his avant garde shoes-as-art shown in galleries and acquired by international museums. He has described his work as “installation art meets body art,” and his beastly and botanical footwear designs are singularly provocative.
He likely could have continued outfitting women in utterly wild and seemingly brutal heels resembling cephalopods on the move, yawning saber tooth tiger fossils or even foreskins for the rest of his career. Instead, he’s returning to his roots.
In 2022, the designer returned to the Philippines, where his career had first taken off, to rebuild his relationships with the artisans who were familiar with his design aesthetic and intentions. While much of his earlier work is crafted of resin and synthetic fabrics, he found himself drawn to traditional, organic materials that are ecologically sustainable and treasured in Filipino heritage: pure piña pineapple cloth, piña-jusi (an interwoven fabric of pineapple and banana fibers), abaca textiles made from banana, rattan and bamboo, mahogany wood and capiz shells.
He is at home in Germany where he lives with his husband—who is not an artist, he assures me—when we connect to discuss his work.
“I’ve lived in Berlin since 2018, and it’s a big change from the tropics,” he says with a laugh. “I did an exhibition in Germany in 2017 and stayed with friends in Berlin. At that point, I felt that there was a sense of belongingness with the people here, a community. As a gay man, it felt like it was a queer city, and it feels very welcoming.”
His apartment is a veritable jungle of plants. For Tesoro, an avid horticulturist, caring for cacti and succulents is much more than a domestic hobby. When not working on his latest collection, he is employed by Potsdam Botanical Garden in a job that both funds his creative endeavors and provides an opportunity to work in another one of his (many) areas of expertise.
View this post on Instagram
Kermit Tesoro is more than a shoemaker
His last exhibition was in 2018, before the world became so restrictive, he says. His shoes were featured at Holland’s Cube Design Museum as part of their exhibition Heaven or Hell? Extraordinary Shoe Design.
“Exhibitions are always shoe-related, and I’m still working on shoes,” he admits. “But, right now I’m working on a fashion capsule collection: shoes, accessories and clothes. Primarily, I’m working with materials that are close to my heart.”
That capsule collection merges techniques and ideas and revives silhouettes Tesoro worked several years ago. It will eventually be exhibited in Berlin, but it will be produced in the Philippines.
Throughout our conversation, Tesoro reiterates that he is in close contact with the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), which oversees the respectful use of traditional fabrics and heritage materials. The thoughtfulness with which he is approaching his designs has helped inform those designs.
“I sourced materials from different provinces, which is when I realized that I was going to make this collection,” he tells me. “I collected pineapple fabric and recycled capiz shells, which are used for window panes and chandeliers… It’s old-fashioned, and few consumers are buying it, but I decided to pay homage by using recycled chandeliers.”
In addition to using traditional and recycled materials, Tesoro is now crafting shoes using mahogany wood, because “the mahogany tree is a bio-invasive tree in the Philippines, so I wanted to contribute by lessening its habitat.”
There’s no obvious connection between his designs to date and his latest endeavor, but everything he is crafting now is the evolution of his journey as a designer.
“This look is about borrowing from those [past] collections and reinterpreting silhouettes from traditional costumes in the Philippines,” he says. “It’s a bit morbid because we have a tribe in our northern province of headhunters and I was enamored of it, because it felt like we had this brutal history but it was romanticized by the tribes within the community. Those stories were the elements of my designs, borrowing imagery, patterns and themes of tribalism.”
This all suggests a visual violence that is not evident in his evolving collection, which feels almost gentle.
“It’s all muted because the fabrics range from ivory to off-white to pearl,” he tells me. “The whole collection has a monochromatic palette, apart from the wood for the shoes. There’s an earthy feeling to the colors. I’m not revolutionary, but I’m sad that traditions like weaving fabrics are outdated and younger generations are leaving the provinces for the cities.”
To understand Tesoro’s 180-degree pivot toward sustainable, earthy designs and away from dressing celebrities, we need to rewind to the hype and excitement generated by Tesoro’s singular shoes.
Back in 2011, Lady Gaga teamed up with members-only store Gilt Groupe to stage an exclusive sale of curated fashion pieces chosen with the help of her long-time stylist Nicola Formichetti. One of the designers whose exceptional pieces were championed by Gaga and Formichetti was Tesoro.
His best-recognized design is The Polypodis (2015), the aforementioned sky high heel that resembles an octopus in motion, its tentacles wreathing underfoot and wrapping around the foot and ankle of the wearer. The design was inspired by his fascination with cephalopods, which he’d observed on display at the Munch Museum in Norway, and the sundew, a carnivorous plant. The shoes are both ridiculous and fantastic, with the playfulness of a costume as interpreted by the eye of a sculptor.
The equally lauded Foreskin shoes of 2010 also imprinted upon the minds of pop culture aficionados. They are one of the more provocative of Tesoro’s designs, though considering makeup guru Isamaya Ffrench‘s new penis-shaped lipstick cases, perhaps foreskin-inspired shoes are not as eye-popping as they originally were.
From Philippines Fashion Week to Lady Gaga
Tesoro’s own fashion journey deserves a bigger slice of the spotlight, which shined down on the designer all too briefly following Gaga’s media bump. His body of work, after all, encompasses more than his creations for the pop singer. His striking conceptual shoe designs have been featured in catwalk shows, museum exhibitions and on red carpets across Europe, Asia and the US, and his fashions are informed by years of study, first at the University of the Philippines’ College of Fine Arts, then at the Fashion Institute of the Philippines, before exploring jewelry and fashion design further at London’s renowned Central Saint Martins.
“My first buyer was an art collector buying pieces from Philippines Fashion Week,” he recalls. “Years after all the magazine coverage, editors were borrowing my shoes and people were noticing my shoes. I got attention from TV hosts and celebrities from the Philippines for shoots because it’s hard to actually walk in these shoes.”
He tells me that his shoemakers at that time started asking if he wanted to make his designs orthopedically correct. “But I said ‘They’re not something you’d use for going to the grocery store.’ The primordial designs I made were really heavy and really for exhibition purposes only. It was only when I started working with real shoemakers that I had to compromise my visions to follow orthopedic rules.”
Ironically, compromising his vision to follow the rules resulted in Tesoro crafting shoes for Fashion Week—and that’s what led to Gaga and global acclaim.
“I started getting calls and emails from people I never thought I’d be working with, like Lady Gaga,” he says. “I got calls from stylists, and I was thankful that my craziness got some love and attention.”
In 2011, Gaga wore Tesoro’s designs created in collaboration with fellow artist, Leeroy New, in her Marry The Night video, including a piece from his 2010 Holiday collection: rubber-ribbed armor, “like something from Coppola’s Dracula.” It was a dream come true, he says.
Kermit Tesoro’s inspirations are eclectic
Along with references to Dracula, Tesoro says he is a fan of H.R. Giger, Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley.
“I embrace the morbidity of this world and I also celebrate the beauty of art. I borrow elements from nature, all these strange things around us,” he says. Including cephalopods.
He created the Polypodis during the height of a bout of depression as a means of reconnecting with his own creative impulses, dulled as he was by commercial pressures and a sense of mass-produced mundanity in the fashion industry. Tesoro is naturally drawn to darkness: in music, visual art, in psychological concepts and in his curiosity about underground communities and subcultures. His cephalopod-inspired shoes certainly do bring to mind the futuristic, alien imagery of late Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who was obsessed with a biomechanical fusion between machines and human bodies.
“When I was making the Polypodis there were just Dr.Seuss-style, dreamy sketches, nothing serious,” he remembers. “Those designs were stemming from grief. My mum passed away in 2014 and there were sketches I made before her passing, which I came back to. My mum was a practicing Catholic, very conservative, but she worked on these crazy ideas with me.”
His designs for shoes and clothes are like bodies with their own spirits, crafted from whichever materials will fulfill his vision: resin, human bones, recycled ocean plastics or glass. And, occasionally, human bones from public cemeteries in the Philippines, where the families and friends of those who can’t afford a proper burial pay monthly “rent” for burial space. If that rent goes unpaid, those bodies are exhumed and placed somewhere else at random. According to Tesoro, it’s a common practice in the Philippines.
“I went to a public cemetery to see if this was true and, unsurprisingly, I saw skeletons all piled up,” he says. “I felt sorry for the people and the relatives. I collected a number of skulls and made use of them as a mold for new pieces and I use those rescued, scattered bones as an integral part of my work. To me, that is immortalizing and paying tribute to fallen bodies that were not treated well because of socioeconomic inequality.”
Right now, Tesoro’s capsule collection is 80% finished. The shoes are halfway to completion; he is still looking for a manufacturer to install the straps and insoles.
“I hope to have it finished by the end of the year,” he says, so he can realize his plans for exhibiting the full collection in Berlin and perhaps, he hopes, in the Philippines.