Shoes for High-Level Espionage

Part shoe designer, part inventor, Benjamin John Hall produces highly conceptual footwear — in London, by hand — that challenges traditional notions of cobbling. Following shoes that self-destruct, his latest avant-garde venture is Laboratory 12, a seven-piece collection of experimental shoes, each highlighting a covert tactic used by the KGB and other secret police.

With the help of collaborators from the fields of wearable computing, material science, and 3-D printing, the shoes are fully operational and fully wearable. Functions include detecting radiation, recording sound, releasing a gas, and remote detonation — a synergy of artisanal shoemaking and advanced technologies.

Laboratory 12 takes its name from the secret poison laboratory of the KGB and was inspired by the high-profile assassination of Alexander Livinenko, a Russian whistleblower, who in 2006 was poisoned with the radioactive material Polonium. By investigating how far a government is prepared to go to protect its most powerful, the work draws attention to the precariousness of contemporary world politics.

Through July 16, Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion, 20 John Prince’s Street, London

The main design feature of this classic Chateaubriand leather men’s shoe is its scorpions tails, while the heel cup can be manipulated to fit personal data. Bespredel, a Ukrainian word that means ‘without limit,’ describes a situation when someone in power acts with complete impunity. Litvinenko’s alleged killer, Andrey Lugovoy, was made a member of parliament on his return to Russia, a status that grants parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Lastochky, Russian for ‘swallows,’ is a term commonly used to describe attractive young women used to seduce KGB targets. Often these women have lengthy affairs with men in positions of political influence, which enable them to obtain bargaining materials with which to blackmail their victims. These goatskin shoes disguise a DNA swab, concealed in the back tab of the heel, allowing the wearer to obtain, store, and preserve samples of semen, saliva, or hair for future extortion.

This Japanese geta, with a separate leather sock and matching make-up case, conceals technology allowing the wearer to detect radiation in their immediate environment. Controlled by a monitoring system within the platform of the shoe, the strap vibrates to alert the wearer of any radiation pulse it detects. The amount of radiation is continually updated on a wireless LED display embedded in the make-up case, allowing the wearer to discreetly check contamination levels and act accordingly.

This knee-high boot has a recordable listening device embedded in its 3D-printed heel. It was inspired by a network of Russian sleeper agents, nicknamed The Illegals Program, caught in 2010. One of its members, Anna Chapman, gained notoriety for her lavish lifestyle and good looks. A mobile phone can dial into the boots from anywhere in the world to capture clear sound within a four-meter radius.

Concealed as a design detail and woven into the back of the wedge on this T-strap women’s ankle boot is a gunpowder-fuse trim. The fuse can be activated from up to 20 meters away and is detonated wirelessly by opening, pretending to drink, and crushing the accompanying soft drink can. Kompromat is Russian for ‘compromising material’ about a politician or other public figure. These materials are generally used to create negative publicity or to blackmail. The shoes are not intended to hurt anyone wearing them or standing in the vicinity. Instead they are designed to place the wearer in a compromising situation in which the potential of being arrested and questioned is increased.

This platform sandal houses a mechanism that can be activated by sending a text message to a predetermined phone number. The letter ‘x’ sets off an atomizer emanating a negative smell. Zersetzung is German for ‘corrosion,’ and refers to a psychological technique employed by the Stasi, the East German secret police, who would infiltrate a victim’s day-to-day life, orchestrating repeated disappointments, and socially alienating them by disrupting their relationships with others. These shoes’ function, therefore, is intended to disconcert the wearer, who, unaware of the origin of smell, over time would become more self-conscious and less confident.

A zip around the ankle of this mid-calf boot, when opened, allows the wearer to extend it to the top of the thigh. Each layer uncovers a segment of printed silk, which outlines an inventory of crimes. Krysha is Russian criminal slang for ‘roof’ or ‘protection,’ referring to a practice common in post-Soviet Russia, in particular by newly moneyed oligarchs, of paying individuals with political and mafia connections significant sums of money in return for protection. By uncovering each one of the five pre-authorized levels on the boot, the wearer can activate emergency Krysha.

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