Critic's Notebook: Christian Louboutin Opens the Florence Shows With Bike Polo

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Critic's Notebook: Christian Louboutin Opens the Florence Shows With Bike Polo

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FLORENCE, Italy — Isolationists, take note. Politicians may build walls, seal borders, freeze passports and talk trash about international cooperation, yet the realities of our global interdependence remain unchanged. Though it may no longer be the world’s largest manufacturer of pig iron or steel, the United States remains a powerhouse thought generator whose cultural exports — think rock ’n’ roll, graffiti, Pop Art, software, computer gaming, skateboarding, surfing, sportswear, the list is extensive — are avidly taken up around the world.

Consider the spectacle that opened the 92nd edition of Pitti Uomo, the twice-yearly men’s wear trade fair that is not only the world’s largest such event, but also by far its most creatively adventuresome.

In a plaza set before the 14th-century basilica of Santa Maria Novella, in the heat of a Tuscan morning, polo grounds had been set up, complete with barricades, safety nets and goal posts. The playing field was not for an equestrian tournament but for its two-wheel variant, hardcourt bike polo — a growing and super-democratic version of the sport of kings, one with roots among off-duty bicycle messengers in Seattle.

“Bike messengers did it after work,” said Julian Aristeo, a mechanic who first trained as a graphic designer and who is a member of the three-man Gnarcats, a Seattle team. Though in ordinary play, hardcourt bike polo is notably unisex, for Pitti the teams were all male. “It’s a men’s wear show, after all,” Mr. Aristeo said.

Alongside teams representing France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and Britain, the Gnarcats traveled to Italy under the aegis of the shoe designer Christian Louboutin to showcase his latest sneaker, the Aurelien. In addition to the team shirts and the cutoffs that are about the extent of a bike polo uniform, members of each team wore different-colored Aurelien sneakers, customized by the shoemaker and manufactured at one of Italy’s remaining factories dedicated to small-scale industrial production, not far from Florence.

At $995 a pair, the sneakers were not likely to be standard bike polo issue, but no matter. The point was that Mr. Louboutin, whose name is on nearly 200 boutiques around the world, chose for his first outing at the fair to sponsor a sports event played by cultural and economic outsiders in the Pacific Northwest.

Lately, style pundits like the trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort have taken to pronouncing that fashion is no longer part of the avant-garde. The reality, of course, is that it never was. By its consensus-driven nature, fashion is conformist. And yet, even the introduction of exorbitantly priced sneakers at a publicity event like that held here on Tuesday has the power to send a radical message, one that contravenes some of the recent social and political trends.

“Traditional polo is not democratic at all, but bike polo is,” said Jurgo Tloupas, who plays for the French team Raclette Party and is considered an unofficial “godfather” of the sport. “It’s very coed. It’s multinational. It tends to draw a lot of artists and designers and graphic designers, people in creative fields.”

Its spread, like that of parkour or graffiti tagging or hip-hop, has taken place outside most traditional channels of influence. “I first saw it in 2006, when some guys from a shop on the Lower East Side were playing at Broome and Chrystie Street, and I was hooked from Day 1,” Mr. Tloupas said.

In one sense, at least, the sport is far from democratic, since, while the D.I.Y. balls are made from PVC and the cheap mallets are constructed of plastic and aluminum tubing, the single-gear bikes the developing sport requires cost as much as $1,500, said William Jenneret, a player for the French team Call Me Daddy.

Still, watching the players from Ninja Five (Japan); Call Me Daddy and Raclette Party (France); Treee (Italy); the Gnarcats (the United States); the Mohawks (Germany); and Sky High (England) go screaming through the Renaissance plaza on two wheels to play a sport popularized by ragtag assemblages of couriers in asphalt lots in Seattle underscored the universality Mr. Louboutin said drew him to it.

Interactive Feature | The Open Thread Fashion Newsletter A look from across The New York Times at the forces that shape the dress codes we share, with Vanessa Friedman as your personal shopper. Sent weekly.

“I’m a very sportive person,” said the French-born designer, who counts swimming, trapeze and yoga among his regular pursuits. “What I find is that sport, whatever sport, builds community and friendship.”

At his family’s home in the 12th Arrondissement in Paris, Mr. Louboutin said, his mother emphasized openness and compassion. “She always said, ‘Do not judge if you do not want to be judged,’” he said.

“It’s a cliché, of course,” he added, though it’s one the world could use right now.

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