Christian Louboutin: The shoe-man is a showman
As one of the world's top shoe designers, Christian Louboutin is about to have his craft showcased in a special exhibition at London's Design Museum. Laura Collins examines the work of the Frenchman for whom flamboyant footwear is both an art and a science.
One of Christian Louboutin's favourite memories is of a chance occurrence during a recent visit to London. He was walking behind three women when a gust of wind lifted the hems of their black abayas and revealed, with each step they took, the teasing flick of a red sole.
It is 20 years since the French designer set up his eponymous label - 17 since he thought to put that slick of lacquered red on his creations' soles and, with that delicious sumptuary code, made each pair unmistakably his.
Back then Louboutin, 49, was working on a prototype inspired by Andy Warhol's Flowers. It had a pink stacked heel, an oversized cloth flower and a black sole. And it just wasn't working. Then he noticed an assistant painting her nails red. He grabbed the polish and covered the sole with it. Suddenly the shoe "popped".
Today he employs 420 staff. Loubi's Angels, as they are known, work in his factory outside Milan, in his stores across the world (he has 35 in 16 countries, including the UAE) and out of his brand headquarters on Paris's rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a stone's throw from the location of his first boutique.
He sells more than 600,000 pairs of shoes a year with prices ranging from US$395 (Dh1,451) to $6,000 (Dh22,039) for a "super-platform" pump encrusted with crystals.
Starting on May 1, his work will be celebrated by London's Design Museum, which will stage the designer's first UK retrospective. It isn't the first time the museum has played host to fashion. The milliner Philip Treacy, the fashion photographer Tim Walker and the designers Matthew Williamson and Hussein Chalayan have all been similarly honoured, while the museum's 2003 Manolo Blahnik exhibition was a big hit. But according to the museum's head of curatorial, Donna Loveday, the challenge with the Louboutin exhibition will be to do justice to the theatricality of the Frenchman's work. That, she says, and the scale of the object. "How do you display shoes, divorced from the wearer, in a static exhibition environment?" she ponders.
After all, Louboutin is a showman who treats each shoe as a miniature stage. Over the years that stage has become more and more extreme - his shoe lasts are shorter from toe to heel, higher in the arch and tighter across the width than those of most designers.
"I hate the idea of comfort," he has said. "It's like when people say: 'Well, we're not really in love, but we're in a comfortable relationship'. You're abandoning a lot of ideas when you are too into comfort." Shoes, he says, are like books or workouts: "If they don't demand anything of you you're not going to get a lot out of them."
Louboutin has always been fascinated by the taboo. As a schoolboy visiting a museum he was struck by a sign picturing a black spike-heeled shoe with a red diagonal slash through it banning high heels from the area. He began sketching shoes that day. Expelled from school at 16, he worked at the Folies Bergère as a sort of Boy Friday. The showgirls would send him for veal carpaccio, which they put in their shoes to mould them to their feet. In 2006, when he designed his first hit, the Very Prive - a sinuous high heel with an open toe and an extreme, hidden platform - he was thinking of that veal.
He has designed homages to surrealism and studded his soles with rubies. He is always, says Hamish Bowles, European editor-at-large for Vogue, "teetering on the edge of something outrageous".
"The core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men," Louboutin once admitted. But his success is to have melded the needs of one with the desires of the other.