Thom Solo put on his first pair of heels in 1995. He was a 5-year-old boy growing up in Newton, Massachusetts. Solo cannot remember the exact brand—“it probably doesn’t even exist anymore”—but he is sure they were a pair of suede fuchsia pumps.
Suddenly a few inches taller, Solo sprinted out of his mother’s closet, running down the stairs and all around the house. “Well, it was more of a Clydesdale run,” Solo told The Daily Beast. A clunky stride, for sure, but he does not remember falling.
Solo had graduated to his mother's pumps after first obsessing over jelly sandals at age 2. “My mom knew how badly I wanted them, so I think we spent 11 hours of journeying around trying to find a pair,” he recalled. Once they managed to scoop the jellies, “I don’t think I took those shoes off until my feet exploded out of them.”
Now 29, but still boyish with a swooping quiff of brown hair, Solo has managed to turn his shoe fetish into a label filled with structurally bonkers, but undeniably fabulous heels worn by the likes of Britney Spears, Lana del Rey, and Lady Gaga.
If Solo were 20 years younger, maybe he would be one of the many kids on field trips to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, Gender Bending Fashion. Instead, three pairs of his shoes are on display, alongside relics like Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo and David Bowie’s Peacock Revolution-era suit.
One of Solo’s black leather boots is paired with a deconstructed tux for women made by the master Japanese tailor Yohji Yamamoto. But Solo’s pièce de résistance are most definitely the stacked platforms designed in 2017 for Lady Gaga’s Grammy after-party. Those hold a place of honor right by the exhibit’s exit. (Though a placard accompanying the boots erroneously lists Solo’s birth year as 1986, aging the designer by four years.)
The 10-inch boots were accurately described by WBUR’s Andrea Shea as “sleek, sexy, and kind of scary-looking.” Staring at the sculpturally insane shoes might make you want to slip into a pair of moccasins and write Gaga’s podiatrist a letter of sympathy.
However, Solo is quick to point out that his creations, often made for pop stars who have to sing, dance, and pose for cameras, come with orthopedic padding inside.
Indeed, this writer tried on a pair of Solo’s latest—crocodile embossed leather boots with five-inch heels and shafts that rose up to the tippy-tops of her thighs. After a few cursory stumbles, she found her balance in the soft insoles. Sure, they’re not New Balance. But unlike other stilettos, Solo’s are easy to get a hang of with a few minutes of focus and practice.
“Some people see a man making a really tall heel as this whole gender conversation of wanting to cripple [women],” Solo said. “But a woman, Lady Gaga, asked me produce those. And she can do more than a lot of us can do in a pair of sneakers.”
The designer also insists that he tries on each pair before sending them off to clients. “If I don’t find them comfortable, why the hell would I ask them to try and perform in this?” he asked.
“My goal is not to help these women—they don’t need help because they’re goddesses. But I want to support, embellish on the power that they have. I think of the shoes as armor. A thigh-high alligator look says, ‘Try to mess with me.’”
Raised by a single mother, Solo has always been both enamored and somewhat mystified by women. “I identify as male, but I have always had this real kindred connection with female archetypes,” he said.
While most boys in school were watching Batman, Solo binged on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy cartoons. He found inspiration in Garbage’s Shirley Manson, with her signature snarl and shocking red hair. “I loved how real she was and how she says, this is me, and if you don’t like it then you can fuck off.”
Solo described himself as “rebellious black sheep,” and would dress in the color to punctuate it. At 13, Solo’s friends started having crushes on girls. He felt nothing but a tiny tinge of jealousy. “I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t jiving the way everyone else was,” he said. One day, it clicked. He was gay.
Solo describes his mother as “hyper aware” and supportive of his sexuality, and within a few years, he was accompanying her on work trips to gay havens in the the West Village, and spent a summer working at a Marc Jacobs boutique in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
One day, a British man strolled through the boutique’s navy blue doors and asked Solo to pull some polos off of a mannequin. While he obliged, Solo knew he had seen the goateed shopper before, but could not place him. “He looked so familiar,” Solo remembered. “He’s British—maybe he’s an actor?” At checkout, the man handed Solo a black business card that read, Lee Alexander McQueen.
“My jaw hit the floor, and I wanted to gush, but I didn’t want to seem crazy,” Solo said. “I just told him I was a huge admirer of his work and that I hoped he enjoyed P-town. Then I was screaming like a schoolgirl for the rest of the day. It wasn’t a deep, intimate, one-on-one, but it was a brief moment I’ll hold on to forever.”
By the age of 17, he had his mom’s permission to go solo in New York, and began frequenting the then-extremely fashionable Beatrice Inn, packed with celebrities (“Lindsay Lohan at her prime—she was a super-sweet girl”), editors, and stylists.
Maybe more importantly, Solo cozied up to assistants, never afraid to friend them on Facebook or exchange BlackBerry pins in an attempt to build a virtual Rolodex. But while he knew could gel with the cooler-than-you kids in downtown Manhattan, but struggled to find footing as an art student back in Boston.
“I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to convey about myself through art,” Solo said. “I felt the glamour of New York, but there was also this in between. I was still figuring out who I was. It was a huge point of ambiguity.”
Once again, McQueen popped into Solo’s life, injecting some much-needed direction. While studying wearable art in an introductory sculpting class, Solo flipped open Time to see a black-and-white image of McQueen’s 11-inch, bulbous “armadillo boots.”
“It blew my mind,” Solo said. “It emoted so much. It was this functional object but also a sculpture at the same time. I thought to myself: man, this is it.”
With no background in shoemaking, Solo went home and bought as many footwear books as he could. He asked his professor, Dan Wills, for help with crafting shoes—sourcing materials, building foot forms. The process quickly became his go-to way of self expression.
“They weren’t just shoes for me, they were catalysts for conversations,” Solo said. “I loved creating a woman character who had something to say and was a kindred spirit to me, an expression of some feminine energy that maybe I have.”
By the end of college, Solo had a few collections under his belt. One thing Solo didn’t have, as graduation loomed, was a steady income. With nothing to lose, he friended B. Akerlund, the Swedish stylist known for dressing Beyoncé, Madonna, and Fergie in sexed-up styles, on Facebook.
The cold call took some chutzpah, sure, but Solo assumed the worst Akerlund could do was say no. He had already sent samples to the English singer Neon Hitch, and she had given him some minor publicity. “I don’t think I would have obtained half of the career moments in my life if I had not put feelers out there, just asking if I could do custom for them,” Solo said.
It worked. Akerlund agreed to look at Solo’s thesis, zeroing in on a pair of spiked, McQueen-esque 10-inch platforms. Months later, Solo was drinking in an outdoor bar with friends when he saw Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” music video. In the BDSM-lite extravaganza, a faceless extra crawls across the screen wearing Solo’s shoes, while Britney cracks a whip.
The placement was enough to earn Solo his own publicist, who booked him some editorials and got his work on the feet of Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, and Lana del Rey.
After liking “about 10,000 of Brandon Maxwell’s assistant’s Instagram photos,” the stylist to Lady Gaga emailed Solo asking for samples. Artpop-era Gaga wore his looks on tour, posing in a limo wearing a pair of ivory pumps with a huge floral-appliqué on the heel.
“We had really amazing moments and I am so grateful for the elevation that she’s given my career, but I have worked with other amazing, incredible women, and right now I want the conversation to be about the actual work,” he said.
Beyoncé, of course, is a “No. 1 goal,” dream client, along with the less-obvious Diane Keaton. He does not subscribe to the belief that women of a certain vintage should be cast off to a life of flats: “That woman has got more style than half of the twentysomethings I encounter in a daily basis.”
With his performance-ready creations, courting famous clientele was easy. The harder part for Solo has been bringing his designs to a mass audience. Though he has private, non-famous shoppers who buy his custom pieces, his work has yet to go fully mainstream. Think: eight-inch, hook-heeled platforms on the shelves of your local department store.
“The small arena right now is working for women in music,” Solo said. “The bigger arena is to have my vision be accessible to every woman.”
While it might be tough to convince women en masse to walk around in ass-grazing thigh-highs all day, Solo has a democratic vision for his designs.
“When I say I’m designing for a woman who wants to have a moment, it can be that she’s going to a gala,” he said. “But she could also be going to get bagels, going to Starbucks, it doesn’t matter what the context is. These are ‘fuck you’ thigh-highs, and if you want to wear them to church, wear them to church.”
Solo has eschewed the traditional shoe design rites of passage. He does not work within the confines of the traditional fashion calendar seasons, and has no plans to leave Boston, his home.
“It is a smaller hub than New York or L.A., and I’m fully aware of that, but Boston has been really conducive to my creativity and my brain works at a higher speed here,” he said. “My studio is wherever I am with my cell phone and computer.”
A year and a half ago, on a night he wanted to stay in, Solo let a friend drag him out for drinks. It was a good call—that night he met his current boyfriend. Today, the two are proud owners of a 7-month-old golden retriever named Avo, named after the toast the pair would eat at brunch while getting to know each other.
“Avo is the most perfect shade of platinum blonde,” a perhaps-biased Solo said. “So many girls come up to me asking, 'Oh my God, can I get a picture for my colorist?'”
Solo no longer has to raid his mother's closet for high heels, which is good—these days, she favors flats. But he still relies on his first supporter for advice, guidance, and a foot to put sample on.
“She’s not really a high heel person anymore, but I’ve definitely made her try mine on,” Solo said.
Gender Bending Fashion is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until August 25, 2019.