Christian Louboutin stands with one well styled foot perched on a metallic gold stool. Suddenly, he straightens his leg and lifts himself up until he is standing on top of the furniture, and then, perched on his left leg, he reaches behind himself to grab his right foot with his right hand. In a calm, sweeping motion, Louboutin slowly lifts his raised foot until his toes are almost in line with his shoulders, simultaneously straightening his left arm out beside him; those versed in yoga would recognize this as something akin to dancer’s pose, an athletic feat of flexibility and balance. “Someone once told me you have to keep balancing, because when you’re aging you start losing it,” Louboutin says in his French accent. “And that is very bad.”
Louboutin is full of surprises, and not just when it comes to his physical abilities. His eponymous and iconic shoe label has built a reputation on the element of surprise, delighting women season after season with pumps that are higher, brighter, bolder, and covered with everything from fringe, to lace, to mesh, to zippers, to crystals, to glitter. He is perhaps the most famous shoe designer alive today, having built an enviable career catalyzed by that immediately recognizable red sole. The seductive pop of colour is Louboutin’s calling card, his idolized signature (and, undeniably, a brilliant marketing tool); it emphasizes the very womanliness of a woman, revealing itself as she turns and walks away.
“I would not necessarily use the word ‘sexiness,’” Louboutin says, draped over a couch inside a Nordstrom Pacific Centre private shopping room, a long fluffy pillow placed on his lap. “It’s more flirtatious for me, and it’s more feminine. Out of that comes sexiness for some people. It really depends on people, and the same shoe is going to bring something completely different to a different person.” Louboutin is at Nordstrom to give a public appearance for his fawning fans to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his company; but given his domination in the field, it is hard to believe that the name Louboutin was not famous before 1992, when the Parisian opened his first boutique in his home city, taking what can only be described as a step of faith.
“I started my company because I wanted to design beautiful shoes for women. I did not start my company thinking, ‘Ok, what could I do to be in the fashion industry?’”
Louboutin’s infatuation with footwear can first be traced back to a childhood visit to the Museum of African and Oceanic Art, where a sign illustrating a woman’s shoe crossed with a bold red line—intended to warn people that heels could scuff the museum’s floors—piqued his interest, and offered some very vivid foreshadowing. Growing up he became entranced by the nightlife scene in Paris, frequenting the nightclub The Palace, and eventually landing an apprenticeship at the Folies Bergère cabaret, where he began drawing shoes for the sensual showgirls. Louboutin went on to work with fashion houses in France and Italy, including French shoe designer Charles Jourdan, and in the mid-1980s, began a career in landscape architecture. But the alluring world of women’s shoes remained his fate, and when a storefront vacancy opened up in the Galerie Véro-Dodat in Paris in 1991, he partnered up with two of his oldest friends, Bruno Chamberlain and Henri Seydoux, and answered his true calling.
“I started my company because I wanted to design beautiful shoes for women. I did not start my company thinking, ‘Ok, what could I do to be in the fashion industry?’” says Louboutin, who is a fan of designing pieces that show cleavage—of the toes, that is. “I’ve never been interested in the fashion industry necessarily. I mean, I have some friends from the fashion industry, I work in the fashion industry, but my goal had never been, from an early moment, to be in the fashion industry. My goal was always to design nice shoes.” Women’s footwear remains at the centre of his universe, but he has also expanded into men’s shoes, and into leather goods (with pops of red, of course), and into beauty, with fragrances, lip colours, and nail polish. The polish was the first offering from Christian Louboutin Beauté, a nod to the inspiration for his red soles: in 1992, when a prototype for his Pensées design came back from Milan, Louboutin felt something was missing. He saw his assistant painting her nails red at an adjacent desk, and, perhaps in a subconscious link to that museum illustration spotted in his childhood, proceeded to use the polish on the sole of the shoe. And then it came alive. However, it wasn’t really until 2006’s Very Privé design that Louboutin catapulted to a status above fellow luxury shoe designers Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik. The pump’s hidden platform, sneakily giving a woman elevation while retaining the elegance of a high heel, took shoe design in a new direction.
This is what it means to be the visionary and the boss, to have complete control. Louboutin can paint a pair of shoes with nail polish; he can stand on a gold stool with one foot and proceed to make the jaws of every person in the room drop. “It’s all sort of on my shoulders, and it’s great like that, actually,” he says of owning his company. “Freedom is a very important item to my work, and actually I think that’s also a thing that women feel: that there is a freedom in general of design, in a way. And for that to remain free, you have to remain also true to yourself.” Louboutin is irrepressibly himself in every way, his playful personality revealing itself as he pokes his head out from behind some dressing room curtains—but his voice is strongest in his designs, and they show the many layers of his character.
“It’s about enjoying your life, so the sky is the limit. I never thought of myself as someone who would have a certain amount of shops or anything like that,” he says, his right elbow propped up on the back of the sofa, his head resting in his hand. “You meet people, you end up doing a project with a person, and that is a sort of happy accident. But something is going to happen with them thanks to what you’ve been doing or the people you’ve been meeting. If you put it as a goal, you sort of shrink the vision of your possibility.” By focusing on the shoes themselves, Louboutin has been able to create a career out of giving women confidence. Because that is really what a good pair of shoes—six-inch or not, bedecked in Swarovski crystals or not—should do: make the wearer feel good. But he actually goes beyond that, adding a sense of whimsical stimulation that perhaps only he can. It’s the Louboutin touch—a coy wink, a blown kiss. Wherever he goes, it’s with his best foot forward.
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