“When someone purchases a pair of shoes, it is often the case that the person misses a bit of herself, or doesn’t see something in her own character – so she wants to add or amplify that thing. I’ll give you an example – Pigalle 120 [pointed toe, curved lines, toe cleavage, 120mm stiletto heel]. One day, I was in my store in Paris. A woman arrived, and she was classically elegant, American, very, very skinny – much too skinny, actually – wearing a straight skirt, a big belt, et cetera, all in brown. She tried on the Pigalle, looked at herself and said, ‘Oh, great! I look like a tart, so sexy.’ I thought, you look like anything but a tart, but OK, fine.”
“The same day, another woman arrived: she was opulent and very sexy, overly sexy. She took the same pair of shoes, tried them on and said, ‘Oh, God! I look so chic.’ But I’m looking at her and thinking: sexy, not chic. So you see, through that same pair of shoes, someone definitely sexy was looking for something else; and someone totally, totally elegant in a very obvious, classical way, was looking for something else. But it’s the same shoe.”
Christian Louboutin often speaks in long parables, which I doubt bothers anyone, given his charm and the reverence he commands as a shoe designer. (The last time I was in his Mount Street shop in London, I overheard exhortations of Jesus more than a few times – delighted ones, it must be said.) And he is clearly well poised to comment on the psychology of shoes and ownership thereof, as demonstrated by Imelda Marcos, Carrie Bradshaw and the author Danielle Steel, who, in 2010, reportedly had over 6,000 pairs of Louboutins alone. An extreme case, but times 6,000 is a lot of amplifying for a person, no?
Born and raised in Paris, Louboutin remembers first drawing shoes during the late 1970s, around the age of 12. Reportedly expelled from three different schools, he left home (with his parents’ blessing) in his early teens, and what followed is the stuff of legend: the stint as an assistant at the Folies Bergère, becoming a fixture on the Paris club scene at Le Palace, attending the Académie d’Art Roederer to study drawing and decorative arts, running away to Egypt and India, the return to Paris in 1981 with a portfolio of drawings of heels, employment with Charles Jourdan and Roger Vivier, and freelance design for Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. He left it all for landscape gardening during the late 1980s, but decided to finally launch his eponymous label in 1991. He sold 200 pairs of shoes during his first year of business. Today, the company produces around a million pairs a year.
“Shoes have a more psychological effect than clothes. The shoe touches a very small surface area of your body, yet gives an entire attitude; they diffuse something from the bottom of your body all the way up,” he says, unfalteringly. “Basically, women carry their clothes, and the shoes carry the woman. So it’s a very different attitude, and shoes carry a big part of your personality.”
I have to concur. Shoes feel like a physical extension of the body, rather than a cover-up and are, thus, a better vehicle for self-expression. As someone quite settled in her garment set-up (mainly jeans, sweatshirt or t-shirt, an occasional loose dress), shoes set the tone for me (eg: retro trainers, chunky lace-ups, glittery heels, Barbie-pink boots), though I feel I’m amplifying what is already there, rather than what’s not there as per the gospel of Louboutin. Then again, I don’t own a pair of Louboutin shoes (yet), so perhaps I am missing out. Shoes are also manifestly sculptural objects – see The Coveteur and any other wardrobe exposé feature – worshipped on a level only rivalled by handbags, and collected (or hoarded, depending on your perspective) with utmost fervour. For my part, I stopped counting a few years ago, when I reached 100 pairs.
Christian Louboutin shoes, synonymous with luxury and celebrity, are instantly recognisable from their shiny red soles. Who needs advertising, when the paparazzi or photographers’ pit are documenting every flash of red? Louboutin loves adornment (sequins, spikes, feathers, wings) yet creates exceptionally simple shoes with beautiful curves, revealing just the right amount of toe cleavage (Pigalle and Very Privé, an open-toe shoe with a hidden platform and thin heel, continue to be bestsellers). Jennifer Lopez immortalised the brand in song in 2009 with the single Louboutins.
With their whimsical names, such as Tudor Trott, Pyramipump and Marlenarock (all from the current collection), Louboutin shoes are curiously ubiquitous and accessible, as luxury shoes go, yet have not lost any of their allure over the years. The brand is consistently among the most recognisable in the world, and currently eleventh in Brandwatch’s Luxury Fashion Social Index, as topped by Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton. Louboutin has also successfully branched out into handbags (2003), men’s shoes (2011), and beauty (2012) by harnessing one of the defining elements of the brand: glamour.
It’s a concept I’m not entirely comfortable with, personally, given my aforementioned penchant for sweatshirts, and creature comforts such as fried foods and a bobble-head Fox Mulder. According to Louboutin, though, glamour is a state of mind. “A bit of a childish state of mind,” he says, “but in a nice way.” There may be hope for me yet.
We’re in the Reading Room of Claridge’s. He gestures around him, at the art deco interior and Dale Chihuly glass sculpture, and glances sideways at the black and white portraits on the walls. “You have people who have a natural glamour, but also people who fantasise about and work on their glamour. For me, it’s not being perfectly dressed that makes someone glamorous. But, at the same time, everybody is different, and I respect each person’s way. For Dita Von Teese, to be glamorous is the way she presents herself. But someone like Diane von Fürstenberg – Diane often looks vaguely scruffy, but she has a very glamorous life. There’s a big difference between people who are glamorous, physically glamorous, and people who live a glamorous life. They are not necessarily the same people.”
Louboutin himself does lead a fairly glamorous life. He arrived in London the day before our meeting, from India, and will proceed straight to the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Tomorrow, it’s on to Paris. He splits his time between houses in Paris, Lisbon and Luxor, a houseboat on the Nile, and a 13th-century castle in the Vendée he shares with his business partner, Bruno Chamberlain. “I have this disease that if I feel good somewhere I sort of buy a house,” he told The New Yorker in 2011. He prefers to design summer collections in hot climates, and autumn ones somewhere cooler. He also travels constantly for business, with more than 129 boutiques and concessions around the world, and the factory outside Milan. When pressed, Louboutin admits “If there’s something I find very glamorous, it’s people who are constantly on the move and travelling, going to interesting places. That is the type of glamour that I would favour, instead of looking glamorous all the time.”
While I’m trying to home in on what glamour means to his brand, he offers several opinions on what glamour definitely isn’t. He’s wary of any glamorous credentials attached to social media celebrity: “Everything that is overshared, thrown in your face, that’s not glamour.” Glamour is not a matter of age. You aren’t born with glamour – “but you can die with glamour!” People who constantly talk about clothes are not glamorous: “People who are well dressed or quite dapper, et cetera, is one thing. But when you hear them speaking of clothes all the time… They are – how do you say? – a downer. I don’t know any other word. It really puts me in a downer.”
He’s adamant that glamour is not tied to sex: “It can be combined, it can be a good marriage, but glamour has nothing to do with sex. You can be completely frigid and be glamorous. But sex is a powerful attitude. Dita, for instance, is very glamorous and very sexy. So would you say first she is sexy or she is glamorous? She is more glamorous than sexy. The reason why? Glamour doesn’t hide – it’s more of a whole attitude that combines a lot of things.”
We’re getting warmer. Chatting to Louboutin, I get the sense that his overriding idea of glamour is actually a bit of a throwback, but a welcome one: travel, elegance, a way of life have all been mentioned several times. “The glamour applied to my shoes is very much related to pace,” he finally says. “If you wear heels, if you wear shoes that are ornamented, the one thing they’re going to do is slow your pace. What’s not glamorous are people who are speedy, going everywhere very, very quickly, running around. This is the opposite of glamour. A glamorous voice, it’s never going to be tututututu [mimics fast-paced voice], nasal. It’s going to be someone who probably doesn’t speak loudly, or who has a deep voice. I think that there’s a form of quietness in glamour. So I don’t associate glamour with speed or nervousness; I associate it with femininity, a slow pace – almost like slow motion.”
What does he think about the overwhelming popularity of trainers in recent years? I detect a small sigh. “They’re definitely not glamorous but, again, you know why? Because they speed the pace. It’s not only the design, but the way it speeds the pace mentally. I really think glamour speaks of an attitude or a way of life that is slow. Being able to look at things. Being able to take your time. Being able to walk, not run, through life.”
Vertiginous heels are certainly the other hallmark of a Louboutin shoe, even though he has designed flats and, recently, though I feel rather begrudgingly, trainers, too. Stilettos may come in and out of fashion according to the catwalks or street style, but never really fall out of favour. Glamour will never die, goes the line from a cabaret show Louboutin fondly remembers, which is why the shoe designer has been happy to eschew comfort for impracticality for more than 25 years.
Herein lies the real allure of a Christian Louboutin shoe (or handbag or lipstick): the celebration of human potential. Rather than think anything manmade is empty or false, Louboutin is absolutely delighted by what can be literally constructed through sheer will or attitude and skill: “When I look at nature, I am often more interested in seeing a form of landscaping than a form of nature that makes you think, ‘OK, that has been created by God.’ So what? I prefer to see a form of nature that makes a reference to human beings.”
Which brings us back to glamour. “There is nothing natural about glamour, which is a nice thing. It is unnatural and useless,” Louboutin concludes, smiling. “Again, it’s far from practicality or real need, but I think things that are useless give you pleasure. It’s the difference between having a blanket and a beautiful tapestry. You need a blanket because you are going to be cold. So do you prefer a blanket or a tapestry? I prefer the tapestry. But it is up to other people if they prefer the blanket.”
For all the optimism (he once said his company motto was “Why not?”) and choosing of tapestries over blankets, Louboutin is, in fact, quite self-aware. “When you go to my store, in general, you already have a pair of high-heeled pumps. I would say the percentage of people who really need something in my store is zero,” he says matter-of-factly. “And thank God! Thank God for those people – it’s not for need, it’s for the designs that they’re going there.”
Before he goes, Louboutin leaves me with a final story. “I remember this woman, again in my Paris store, and the Pluminette, a pink shoe with bird feathers. She looked at it and screamed, ‘Oh, my gaaaaaaawd. This shoe is so beautiful. It’s so useless. It’s so useless, I absolutely need it.’ And I perfectly understand that. She was screaming with happiness about needing something that was completely useless. I like this parallel – I feel it’s very, very nice to need something that you absolutely don’t need to survive. You will definitely survive without a pair of powder-pink sandals with two feathers, definitely. But you will live better if you have them.” Amen.
Photography Reto Schmid (Artistry London), Styling Victoria Sekrier (Lalaland), Model La Bourette, Production Michaël Lacomblez (Louis2), Carla Santana (Artistry London), Post production Valter Törsleff, Photography assistant Andreas Lumineau, Styling assistants Kyanisha Morgan, Emil Kosuge.