There are shoes you look at and know in an instant to which designer they belong. While there’s nothing overt or cliché about the signature details on Pierre Hardy’s shoes, industry insiders absolutely know when they see a pair. Maybe it’s the streamlined, architectural silhouettes, or the fearless use of color. It could be his hallmark Blade heel, so-named for its knifelike sharpness. But mostly, it’s a feeling—an emotional connection to shoes that look like miniature works of art.

PIERRE HARDY Alchimia Leather & Suede Mules

It’s not something Hardy ever expected when he launched his first collection 20 years ago, after serving time-and-a-half as one of the most sought-after accessory designers for several prestigious European houses, including Balanciaga, Christian Dior, and Hermès. “When I started [my own line], I didn’t think of it as a brand—there were just 10 styles that I wanted to do, so I did it,” he recalls. “I had no business strategy, no 10-year plan. It was spontaneous and a little childish, but it was a pleasure I was doing for myself.”

PIERRE HARDY Machina Suede Ankle Boots / Sottsass Scallop-Trimmed Suede Sandals

The passion with which his first collection was received inspired him to do another. And another. As the brand grew, so did Hardy’s reputation for creating stunning footwear by pairing elements of art, architecture, and the unexpected. “My collection is like a human being—I’ve watched it grow up and evolve, but the DNA is still the same,” he says. “My first shoes were the simplest expression I could find to say here I am. From there, I’ve tried to find different ways and different tones to make it a little more complex. I’ve learned to make it more seductive and sensual.”

PIERRE HARDY Jerry Suede Sandals

Of all the design elements he’s know for, architectural heels are arguably the most famous. “For a shoe designer, you are given a very small area with which to tell your story,” he explains. “In this tiny space, the heel becomes very important. It determines the whole silhouette. If you use a stiletto or a Cuban heel, you totally change the feeling. The heel tells the story of the woman – who she is, what she wants, where she is going.”

PIERRE HARDY Machina Suede Ankle Boots

Notable among Hardy’s stable of designs are the Blade, the Calamity (chunky slanted heel), and the Gae (a sculptural, cylindrical stem). Declining to choose a favorite among his beloved children, Hardy will only say, “The Blade remains for me a very strong heel—a statement after 20 years.”

The process of design begins with a simple sketch. Eschewing modern digital aids, Hardy calls on his background as an artist to work with pencil and paper in assessing whether the vision floating in his head can work in practical terms. “Drawing lets me look at a shoe from different angles,” he says. “On paper, I can turn the shoe around, draw it from the side. It’s like a 3D version of the shoe that let’s me see if an idea will work without ever having to make a sample.”

PIERRE HARDY Marfa Leather Ankle Boots

As 20 years of success will attest to, Hardy’s ideas don’t just work—they capture the eye and imagination of shoe fans everywhere. From his early collections, which Hardy cheerfully describes as “something for a monk” with their austere designs, to his latest humor-infused styles like the cowgirl-inspired Marfa and ruffled-edge Sottsass, Hardy has consistently put concept and quality before trends, resulting in styles that feel as apt today as they did in 1999.

Hardy, though, has little time to reminisce. “The minute it’s done, I erase my previous season in my mind, and start again,” he explains. “I am always looking forward to the next one.”