Tiffany has its blue; Hermès has its orange; Chanel has black and white. But Christian Louboutin… he’s got sensual, shiny, seductive red.
The red sole sartorial motif, immortalized through some of pop culture’s most iconic songs and television shows is like a STOP sign on a shoe, turning heads on streets like speeding firetrucks. The fabulous French footwear designer, now 56, grew up in Paris with loving parents who weren’t overly concerned that he was bad at school, or when he left school and got work sewing sequins and such to showgirls’ costumes backstage at the Folies Bergère cabaret hall. His memory of a museum sign depicting a high-heel shoe inside that globally recognized red ‘NO’ symbol is the stuff of fashion legend, sparking the epiphany to start designing impossible shoes for the showgirls he worked with.
Since then, Christian Louboutin has soared, and sewn his brand into fashion’s fabric. Since the early ‘90s, when he opened the doors to his very first salon, and first covered the backs of early creations with his assistant’s red nail polish, the brand has seen successful expansions into beauty and men’s shoes. Internet-breaking celebrity moments have spurred his success, and with major retrospectives, Louboutin has steadily cemented himself as an essential fixture on the fashion landscape. Ahead of his biggest exhibit yet, set to be unveiled in Paris in February 2020, Sorbet caught up with the consummate cobbler to talk Saudi, sculpture, showgirls, and shoes, shoes, shoes.
Q: Did you always know, think, or hope that your shoes would be as successful as they are today?
A: I never really thought of success. What I do is so linked to what I wanted to do as a child, and I don’t think that children are interested by success. Children are interested in playing. So I was interested in having playful shoes. And so success came, but I was never thinking about it as a real thing – I wanted to design pretty shoes for pretty girls. That was my temptation.
Q: You’re known to be a man who loves traveling. Has that always been something that excited you?
A: Funnily enough, the same museum with the sign that inspired me to make shoes inspired my traveling. It was so close to my house, and I spent a lot of time there – it’s really an important part of me as a person – the National Museum of Arts of Africa and Oceania. It was split into different worlds, so my first ‘travels’ were in that museum – I would see totems, masks, swords, like, ‘Wow, what is all that?’ Like most little French kids, I also traveled with Tintin, you know? The comic book. And then immediately after that was that museum. So before actually traveling, I’d been traveling very much in my head. The museum offered me the possibility to imagine this vast world. So from a very early age, discovering other countries and cultures really became a bit of an obsession for me.
Q: You travel a lot in the Middle East, where you also have homes. What inspires you most about that region?
A: Well, the Middle East is sort of a secret place. If you are, let’s say, European or French, you imagine a lot of land but not much on it. But that it is in fact such an important part of le berceau de la civilization [the cradle of civilization], and you have so many different cultures and so much history. I remember going to a place called Al Ula, maybe 10 years ago, which is where Mada’in Saleh is – the second biggest Nabatean city after Petra. I love Nabatean civilization. And so I always knew about Al Ula, so I always wanted to go. If you look in the Louvre, for instance, you have incredible Cycladic sculpture, which is very similar to the pre-Islamic sculpture that flourished in Al Ula, very close to the Greek pre-hedonistic sculptures. And it’s a type of sculpture that I love. So to go from these archaeological sites to very modern cities, the combination and the shock of the two of them is one of the reasons why I liked the Middle East. But also there’s something you really can’t find everywhere, and that is the very important place of hospitality – it is very important in the Middle East. The way people behave with other people, and also very much with foreigners is sweet, very kind, but quite unexpected. The art of hospitality and how you agree to be with other people is such an important thing in the Middle East.
Q: Let’s talk about heels, which have been a sign of status for centuries and still are. Why do you think that is?
A: Shoes with heels have to do with femininity and fragility, but also empowerment. So there is always a mix of being delicate and being powerful. In a very classical way, for centuries, it was the ideas that you were elevated physically, but also mentally – you’re slightly above. So it’s been a status for a long time. The Venetian platforms in the 16th century, which were the tallest, served that purpose, and also from a practical perspective, kept you high above the sidewalk sludge.
Q: There really is nothing like a new pair of shoes. Why do you think that is?
A: I think it’s as simple as this: you carry your clothes, but your shoes are carrying you. It’s a very different perception. You are carrying your clothes, but your shoes are giving you your balance, your body language, and the way you walk. Plus I think you just have to glance down and you can look at your shoes. You don’t need a mirror to know what you have on your feet.
Q: How did your collaboration with Le Crazy Horse de Paris start?
A: I was asked to creative direct a show called Feu a few years back, but this was the first time I really did a full-on show. Before I even turned 18, I wanted to work for the Folies Bergère, so I’ve been used to working with dancers. The interesting thing is that for me, who is so excited by dancers and performances, is that when you’re working for dancers, you are at the service of people who are technically excellent with their feet, but can’t think about them. It needs to look good, but it must be instinctive. Their entire energies need to be for the performance, for the show, for the way they are going to walk. The shoe is the pedestal of the performance, but it’s very important that they don’t think about it, that it becomes an extension of the body. In that sense it is very different to fashion.
Q: Which do you prefer – designing for shows or for fashion?
A: What I can say is that no one knows about the power of shoes like dancers. They are my best school. My best experience has always been with dancers because it’s such an important tool for them. It’s almost like a weapon, almost military. It needs to be there. It needs to be impeccable.
Q: You say they’re your best school. What have you learned from them?
A: So much, but I’ll give you one anecdote. When I was working with the Folies Bergère girls, I was doing everything but shoes. I was 17, helping out. And they were always asking me to buy veal carpaccio. And they were always laughing because I must have looked very confused. So at one point when I started to know some of them better, I asked why they all ate carpaccio every day. They called me a fool and said they don’t eat it. I realized that they were putting the veal as a cushion under their feet. It was a natural moisturizer and a cushion for the dancers. Of course I’m not putting any carpaccio veal in my shoes, but I’ve included cushioning inspired by the techniques of the dancers.
Q: Tell me about the red.
A: The red sole came out in ‘93. I designed it in ‘92 and I started my company in ‘91, so one or two years after I opened my first shop. When you’re a designer and you’re sketching and talking of stylists, there’s one thing which is important – to stay as close as possible to your primary drawing. A sketch, when it becomes a reality, there is often a lot of loss of your imagination because you have to adapt technically, you have to adapt a drawing, which is still very imaginative to a form of reality. I was drawing and thinking of Sixties pop culture and pop colors from the Sixties in America, Andy Warhol etc., so all my sketches were very full of color. There were no earthy colors, no sagey colors, it was really pop colors only. So when I arrived in Italy where I was doing the shoes, I looked at one – a spiky-front Mary Jane with a big flower outline and colors – and saw it looked okay on the foot. But when I was looking at the drawings, there was more pop and I couldn’t understand what was missing. I turned the shoe until I could see the heel in the back of the shoe, and the shoe almost turned black because it was this big black sole. So from a very colorful drawing, suddenly it became a dark shoe, almost completely black. I took some nail polish and just painted the sole to see if it was going to be closer to my drawing. And it did. And I thought, ‘This is it, I’m going to keep that.’
Q: Have your feelings for the color deepened as it’s become even more inextricable from you, or have your feelings towards the color changed in any way?
A: You know what? I’m a very loyal person, and when something is right or if I like something – if I love something, if I love someone – I stick to it.
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