When it comes to shoes, does the product prevail, or the emotion that brought it into existence? The exhibition Footprint: The Tracks of Shoes in Fashion, which opens today at Antwerp’s Fashion Museum (MoMu), gathers about 600 pairs of shoes from the 20th and 21st century, in order to map their imprint via the personalities that shaped them.

This angle took shape thanks to the collection of shoes that Belgian retail pioneers Geert Bruloot and his partner Eddy Michiels have amassed since opening their footwear boutique Coccodrillo in Antwerp in 1983 – an era when emotion ran high during fashion shows.

Complemented by loans from other museums, Footprint avoids a product-focused approach, thanks to its theme-based set up and attention to individual designers. 'Nowadays, everything has become a product,' Bruloot explains. 'There’s an it-bag, there’s an it-shoe, but the human aspect has got lost. We wanted to discover the person behind the shoe.' Under the artistic eye of Dodi Espinosa, a coherent concept and scenography was developed, complete with film shorts and imagery that provide an immersive backdrop.

In any other context it would be surprising to find shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood, Patrick Cox and Roger Vivier sharing an exhibition space with a work by Ai Weiwei, but Footprint pulls that off. The varied collection and the connections that are made between art, popular culture and history are testament to Bruloot’s love of showing others the things that fill him with enthusiasm, a trait that first led him to open his boutiques. (He and Michiels also founded Louis in 1986, where they were the first to sell the debut collections of Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and other Antwerp designers.)

As he walks Wallpaper* through the exhibition, Bruloot raves about Tokio Kumagai, the late Japanese designer whose shoes with embroidered eye details can be found in the ‘Surrealism’ and ‘Pop’ sections. On the continent, Bruloot hugely respects the Italians for their matchless technique in creating the best lasts. 'But,' he continues, 'the Belgians have always been intellectual, the Italians glamourous, the French elegant. There’s a variety of reasons why designer makes an impact. Ann Demeulemeester’s footwear was strong and interesting from the very start. It’s a gift. Some have it and some don’t.'

Benoît Méléard, an experimental French shoe designer that many look to for inspiration is honoured with a separate focus, as is Pierre Hardy with his strong graphic designs and Thierry Mugler, whose architectural shoes made waves in the 1980s. Innovative constructions are highlighted in a Balenciaga Lego heel, but also in Dirk Bikkemberg’s famous thick-soled boots with holed heels, through which laces are drawn. Simone Rocha and Tabitha Simmons represent modern glamour and elegance.

Jan Jansen, a Dutch designer who in the Sixties worked anonymously for Christian Dior and Charles Jourdan will be a surprise discovery for many, as will the atypical designs of Azzedine Alaïa and Manolo Blahnik – not their usual stiletto heels but chunky wedges and cowhide ankle boots.

Footprint shows shoe design on and off the beaten tracks. 'I’m sure some people will be quick to ask, "but can you walk in these?"' smiles Bruloot, pointing to the fetish pumps and stiletto ballerina’s Manolo Blahnik created for David Lynch. 'But that’s not the point. This is not an exhibition about the comfortable shoe. It’s about creativity and it’s about an experience.'