IT'S OFFICIAL, Christian Louboutin is bigger than the Pope. Well, on the internet anyway. A Google search of the French shoe designer comes in at a staggering 116 million, comfortably edging out the supreme pontiff. If the cassocks at the Vatican weren't quaking yet, they'd be dismayed to know that the Louboutin twitter feed is called @Louboutinworld. Apt when you consider that the company sells an astounding 750,000 pairs of shoes every year. Welcome to a world where shoes are the new rosary beads.
Of course, when you're the jet-setting high-priest of heels, meetings with civilian-journalists go through a scrutinised vetting process and a shifting set of Byzantine arrangements. Organising a meeting with the Pope probably would have been less hassle, but not as much fun. Fortunately, after a drawn-out game of PR ping-pong, I get an interview slot in London where Louboutin is visiting as part of his whistle-stop world tour. It's a big occasion for him, with the cobbler in the British capital to celebrate 20 years in shoes and to promote a coffee-table book (see breakout) in conjunction with the brand's anniversary.
He's looking a little bleary-eyed after a party the night before, and disappears into the next room to charge his phone before plonking himself on the sofa - tasseled loafer-clad feet up on the table. 'I'm sooooo tired, I can only sleep in the pitch black dark and I forgot my eye mask,' he says in a thick French accent.
Lucky for him we are in the comfort zone of a huge suite at London's five-star Claridges Hotel. Also with us is his handler Anne, who is typing away at the desk, dipping in and out of our conversation with strategic chuckles and when the questions get a little challenging for Louboutin.
Raised in Paris, Louboutin grew up in a family of seven: his mother, furniture-maker father and four older sisters. As a teenager, Louboutin would hang out in the city's music halls and watch the female dancers. After stints with Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, he started his company with friends (who are still joint owners) by accident, and never imagined he would achieve such recognition.
'I never thought I'd be part of fashion history, so I never thought to keep things,' says Louboutin. He says the book is a way of dealing with the past 20 years and documenting his own progress. It's a massive tome with beautifully styled glossy photos of a roster of stars, from actresses Kristin Scott Thomas and Rossy de Palma to burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, with Louboutin's shoes acting as props.
For Louboutin, women are 'birds of paradise', much like the dancers he grew up with, which explains why comfort isn't always his highest priority. Ask most women who own a pair of Louboutins and you'll hear anecdotes of wincing pain mingled with utter joy when the shoe finally fits. 'If everything was regimented by comfort, we would be in sweatpants and flip-flops and Crocs,' he sniffs.
So is beauty and comfort incompatible? 'It's about balance,' he says. 'If the balance is on the side of pleasure, go for the pain, if the balance is on the side of pleasure, don't go for it.'
Strange words, especially considering that Louboutin has previously compared the action of putting one's foot in a heel to the moment of orgasm. He says it all started when he was speaking with a female sexologist about an old idea that the shoe represented a phallic symbol.
'I told her that I didn't think it looked like a phallus. I just didn't see it,' he says genuinely surprised. 'She said, you're perfectly right, but it's interesting to see the positioning of sexuality in a high-heeled shoe. It's fetishistic and sexual in an unconscious way - when people look at a woman in a high-heeled shoe, the foot is in the position of the moment when a woman is having an orgasm.'
He levels his bare foot, like a flat: 'If you are like this, this is relaxed,' he says. He then arches his foot, as if it were in a high-heel: 'But if you are like this, that's sex'.
But it's not just sex that's behind Louboutin's success. 'Not at all,' he says, attributing his achievements to the empowering effect of his shoes and the attention he pays to the design process. He feels that women's shoes, and his shoes specifically, allow women to play with their 'inner character' - whereas men's shoes are more about 'elegance and wealth'.
Possibly sexist, but let the man explain. 'It means they're different. A woman in high heels changes her body language and posture. There's a morphing element - shoes morph into a woman's body,' he says. 'A naked woman playing with her shoes is a sexy element, you may not even think she's wearing it. But a naked man with shoes on is just a naked guy with shoes on.'
So does he feel most women purchase shoes solely as symbols of status? 'You can not speak for woman in general sweeping comments - every woman is different,' he says. 'It's really complicated for me, to put in my mind, my mouth, every woman's thought.'
He can't speak for them all, but it's safe to say that women with a passion for shoes will always buy Louboutins; a certainty in this fickle fashion world that all but secures the brand's legacy. One needs look no further than the Louboutin retrospective being held later this year at the London Design Museum for proof (see breakout).
But despite over two decades in the field, Louboutin is far from feeling jaded. 'I feel like I am 20, not 20 years in the business. I feel like an old teenager,' he says. 'You shouldn't be afraid to do your own thing and the lesson is that if you can, it's great to be free.'