A chat with Christian Louboutin, the designer who brings dreams and fantasy to life
The king of heels talks femininity, career trajectory and the transformative power of happy accidents
Parisian shoe designer Christian Louboutin has some advice for all of us: slow down.
“I always design flat shoes and I love them, but high heels make a woman so much more conscious of her body,” he says.
In a fast-paced world with people always rushing, Louboutin says he likes things that make people slow down.
“If you walk down the street slowly, maybe someone will pick you up,” he says with a laugh and a twinkle in his eye. “That doesn’t happen if you are running around.”
The designer’s cheeky, relaxed attitude shines through. He often delights Hong Kong fans with chatty shoe signings and parties. Notably unpretentious, while most of the fashion elite are being chauffeured around in shiny black cars for fashion week, Louboutin can be seen zipping between Paris shows on his little moped.
At 54, he has turned his passion for sexy footwear into a global empire, encompassing not only men’s and women’s shoes, but bags, accessories and beauty, nail varnish and, most recently, perfume.
His concept of women’s beauty comes from rebelling against the naturalism so popular in 1970s France when he was growing up. And with those early stiletto heels that were just coming into vogue in the early ’90s, was able to tap into a new sense of fragility and power in feminine glamour. It’s with the same attitude that he’s created his beauty and perfume range.
“One of the most beautiful women for me is Nefertiti,” he says.
He is clad in deep red, the signature hue of his famous soles, and wearing two-colour lace-up brogues from his men’s line, which has found popularity in Asia.
“If you look at busts of Nefertiti, she is gorgeous, she has this skin that’s not white, nor black. The eyes are huge, the eyebrows are well drawn. She’s so striking. It’s not a natural look. But I like that kind of beauty – that timelessness of this dramatic beauty over thousands of years.”
As a child growing up in the ’70s in France, when actresses and actors “were all grumpy”, that trend of being “super natural, with no make-up, flat shoes, dirty clothes and being quite grungy; when everything was associated with femininity was badly considered”, didn’t sit well with Louboutin.
“I never understood why femininity was associated with stupidity in France then. I never accepted that. It didn’t mean anything to me, this preconceived idea.”
It was female performers and musicians that really started to change the mould, he recalls: “First Blondie, then the likes of Tina Turner and Madonna, who showed that glamour could be empowering for women.
“From what I remember, I’ve been designing shoes from the age of 12 or 13. It didn’t really occur to me as a job at the time, I was just always obsessed and sketching shoes, the reason is very simple,” he says.
The shoe obsession started after he visited a museum next to his parent’s Parisian apartment, with beautiful parquet flooring. On the wall there was a poster of a high-heeled shoe from the ’50s and it was crossed out in red, meaning that high heels were forbidden to protect the floor.
“I was thinking what a stupid and strange high thin heel,” he adds, “this was in the ’70s, so we didn’t really have shoes like that. All this went into my head and I started to sketch nervously.”
His first passion was always showgirls and cabaret, and after being expelled from several schools (“typical teenager stuff, nothing too serious”) Louboutin ended up working in a cabaret at the age of 17.
“I wanted to do something for showgirls and as I was sketching shoes all the time, I put the two together and this was my first job. I would come and have a different drawing for every single dancer … it was a very good way starting to understand shoes because of the movement.
“I always did everything by accident. I call it a happy accident. It’s difficult to decide for yourself what your life is going to be. If you are obsessed with what your life should be, I think it will be tough,” he says.
It was a humble start, with little pay, and the young designer soon sought out more formal training. He cold-called the house of Christian Dior and audaciously asked to speak to “the general director”. In a story that is now part of fashion history, Dior’s director of haute couture picked up the phone and agreed to a meeting to view this unknown young man’s designs. She was impressed and arranged a training job for him at the Charles Jourdan factory outside Paris.
In early 1992, Louboutin had started his own label in a shop next to a great gallery. Business was swift and easy, since passing foot traffic from the gallery included “fine arts and antique dealers and customers”.
That business flourished and turned into a global empire over more than two decades. His designs have been much coveted and referenced in films and songs; and today, he remains one of the most copied show designers in China. Cue multiple collaborations, celebrity fans, soaring sales and a bag range. Louboutin has made the most of his bold and sometimes outrageous aesthetic. Fetish, princess, tropical, tribal, studded all over, there are few references he hasn’t mined for both men and women. Now, with stores all over the world, Louboutin doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
For all his commercial success, the organic path of Louboutin’s career is quite astounding. And almost impossible had he started off in today’s world of fashion.
Even the iconic red lacquered sole (a brand signature for which he fought against the Yves Saint Laurent house in US courts) came as another (almost) happy accident.
“In 1992 a part of my collection was inspired by pop art, Andy Warhol and all that. It was bright colours for the lining, the heel ... I wanted a shock of colours.
“When the first prototype came, it looked good but not quite right. I was looking at the shoe, and I looked underneath at the sole and thought, that’s a lot of black on a shoe full of colour. My assistant Sara was painting her nails in the room at the time, and I grabbed the nail polish and I said I want to try something [and] began painting the sole. It looked perfect – like the essence of my sketch.”
It was a simple move to colour the soles so brightly, but in footwear at the time, a revolutionary one. Today, the flash of a red sole on a pair of heels as a woman walks away is part of the fashion vocabulary.
That starting sketch, he explains, is so exciting: “It’s the key concept, a point of view.”
He’s known for free-form drawings that play more to the imagination than the technical qualities of the shoe – for that he has meticulous technicians. Louboutin prefers to focus his creative energy on the fantasy.
If he sounds more dreamy and spontaneous than most designers, that’s not just French romanticism. He really is. Career decisions have been made largely though passion and intuition than scrupulous market research and business strategy.
His men’s shoe range launched after he designed a line for the singer Mika to perform in. His 2016 Rio Olympics outfits for the Cuban team (co-designed with his friend, athlete Henri Tai) came from visits to Cuba.
“Maybe it’s out of being very lazy,” Louboutin says, “but I think it’s much better to be carried by your life instead of trying to drive your life in a certain direction all the time. That’s very boring. If you let yourself go, you end up with a richer experience in the things you can’t predict.”