Christian Louboutin and the shoe fantasy made real
When a husband confronted his wife about her exorbitant credit card bill one month, she convinced him that Christian Louboutin was her gynaecologist. With shoes starting at around £500, these shoes are not for the faint-hearted or financially cautious. Louboutin’s red soles and death-defying heel heights offer something much more ephemeral than a mere footwear option: they offer desirability, posture, confidence and exceptional design.
Christian Louboutin has compared his signature red soles with the red cloak used by matadors, intending that his shoes and the women who wear them have the same effect on the men who see them as the cloaks on the bulls. The red sole was a moment of fancy, as Louboutin studied a prototype shoe, trying to figure out why, beautiful though it was, it wouldn’t ‘pop’. An assistant in the studio was painting her nails red at the time and inspiration struck. Whisking away her nail varnish he applied a coat to the underside of the shoe and an iconic brand was born.
The move was bold, daring and made Louboutin shoes instantly identifiable. His customers from showgirls to royalty to celebrities to businesswomen are all the ambassadors he needs because there is never any ambiguity about whose shoes they are wearing.
The Christian Louboutin brand is much younger than many of the luxury brands we will be exploring in this series, as it was only founded in 1991. Its meteoric rise is in itself a cause for admiration.
Born in 1964, Christian Louboutin was by all accounts not an ideal student (he was expelled three times and eventually left school altogether at 16) and fiercely independent (at the tender age of 12 he moved out of his parents’ home to live with a friend). However, as a child, he was taken to a museum where a sign decreed that high heels were forbidden as they might damage a delicate flooring. The taboo nature of high heels in this sign has stayed with Louboutin ever since and throwing that taboo out of the window has been the starting point for every shoe he has created.
Thereafter, Christian spent much of his time sketching shoes and as a joke, he would always say he wanted to design shoes when he grew up but it was some time before he realised this could be a possibility. His teenage years were spent sneaking into theatres, watching the showgirls, eventually getting an internship at Les Folies Bergères, and constantly being sent off to the local kosher butchers by the performers for carpaccio. Eventually, curiosity got the better of him and he asked why it was that showgirls loved to eat carpaccio so much. They laughed at him and called him an idiot, saying it wasn’t to eat but to cushion their feet! (It was important that is was kosher as blood-stained shoes would have been a disaster…)
Having spent his formative years backstage Louboutin was finally given the opportunity of fulfilling a lifelong ambition of designing shoes for showgirls when he was invited to collaborate with Crazy Horse Paris. The process didn’t run totally smoothly (as soon as the girls started kicking, spikey stilettoes started flying and it was back to the drawing board) but Louboutin considers that designing for dancers is the most challenging task for a footwear designer, and he might well have been disappointed had it been plain-sailing. Suffice it to say the fit was adjusted and now each Crazy Horse dancer has 6 bespoke Louboutin shoes for performances.
Louboutin segued into professional shoe design by a rather circuitous route. In his late teens, he ran away to Egypt and India and returned several years later with a portfolio of fantastical shoes. Then began the struggle to get in with the right people. It is impossible to imagine now, but Christian Louboutin set about doing this by calling up couture houses and trying to get a job. Incredibly this strategy actually worked and he began work as an apprentice to Roger Vivier.
After a time, Louboutin went freelance, designing for some of the most prestigious couture fashion houses before leaving shoe design to focus on horticulture, his other love. Through a decade of gardening, Louboutin could not get shoes out of his head and in 1991, with a few key investors and a shopfront in an area largely populated by sleepy Antique shops, the flagship store was opened. There are now 135 boutiques around the world and a dedicated following, from celebrities and less famous customers alike, and in case you were wondering, he doesn’t do freebies-in-return-for-exposure. Everyone pays.
Design and craftsmanship are at the heart of what Christian Louboutin does. When he designs summer collections he goes somewhere sunny like Brazil, and when he designs winter collections he seeks out the appropriate climate for that season. For Louboutin, it is important to be surrounded by the right messages and aesthetics, sounds and smells. His expert pattern makers will transform his designs into prototypes from which the final new season collection pieces will be selected. Each shoe is handcrafted with the finest materials. Most are made by small artisan factories in Italy, but the bespoke atelier remains in Paris, where you can go to commission your own shoe, with a last (wooden mould) of your foot, for your very own Cinderella moment.
Prices for bespoke footwear start at £6000, from red soled baby booties to shoes where the iconic red lacquer was replaced with a layer of rubies, Christian Louboutin seems to have heard every request and has committed to making the impossible a fantastical reality.