Christian Louboutin and the Art of Desire

"Shoes have to seem of sex," says Louboutin. From his Paris atelier, he makes a case for the transformative power of a five-inch heel

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Jean Baptiste Mondino

Louboutin in the Paris boutique he opened in 1991

If Christian Louboutin weren’t wearing a gray-and-neon-yellow hoodie, he might disappear into the bric-a-brac that clutters his dimly lit Paris office. There’s a faux-cheetah rug with a decorative head staring up from the floor. A dingy Snoopy doll slouching on the bookshelf behind his desk. A massive painting of nearly naked boxers standing ringside. And a 3-ft.-wide photograph of a naked woman on her back, legs akimbo, writhing in high heels. “Shoes have to seem of sex,” Louboutin says, his sonorous tones bouncing off the creaky wooden floorboards. “It makes part of the identity of my shoes.”

Those shoes are notably absent from his office, though they clutter his conversation. “A while ago, I saw this woman arriving in my store in Paris. She was very elegant, very delicate,” he says, folding his hands in his lap and sitting upright to demonstrate her prim posture. “She put on the Pigalle” — a patent-leather pump that most buyers prefer in black with a 5-in. heel. “She walked around and said, ‘It feels great. I look like a slut! I feel like a slut!’” A few hours later, another woman — short skirt, spilling cleavage — picked up the same shoe. “But she said, ‘Oh! I look so chic, so elegant!’”

In this tale of two shoppers, what happens between the ears is as important as what happens below the ankles. “Shoes,” Louboutin says, “are a mirror of what you want, what you are or what you’re missing.”

What he sees in that mirror are straps, studs, fur, glitter and, of course, superhigh heels. Since setting up his first boutique in Paris in 1991, Louboutin — the subject of a retrospective at the Design Museum in London beginning May 1 — has become one of the few household names among shoe designers, surpassing his rivals Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik in global recognition. Kicked out of school at 16, Louboutin, 49, now employs some 500 people around the world. Every year he sells more than 500,000 pairs of mules, lace-up boots and bejeweled heels, each with his signature red sole — amounting to more than $250 million in sales in 2010. His footprint is only growing: in 2012 Louboutin will open stores in 13 more cities, including Sáo Paulo and Istanbul, extending his network of 49 existing stores. Women fork over anywhere from $395 (for the Hola Nina summer sandal) to as much as $6,395 (for the 6.2-in. Daffodile platform heel, covered in Swarovski crystals).

“When a woman puts on a heel, she has a different posture, a different attitude,” he says. “She really stands up and has a consciousness of her body.” Consciousness of comfort does not factor into his design process — which is not to say that the Louboutin woman must suffer unduly for her art. “I’m really like a doctor,” he says. “I have my tricks, which makes a thing that is not looking comfortable possibly comfortable.”

“A girl wearing Louboutins is instantly more intriguing,” says burlesque star Dita von Teese, who performs only in Louboutins. “It says that she has good taste. It says that she’s not too conservative because that flash of red sole is really something sexual.” Louboutin likes to point out that the arch of a high heel mirrors a woman’s foot position when she orgasms.

His style balances ornament and architecture; the clean silhouettes temper aggressive accents like silver spikes, as on the shoe called the Kryptonite, and glittered lettering that spells out S-E-X, as on the shoe simply called Sex. The Guinness features a heel made out of a beer can. The Déjà Vu, a black patent-leather pump, is covered in dozens of googly eyes. The Pesce, an open-toe pump with a fish-head appliqué on its vamp, regurgitates the wearer’s toes. The Anemone, a pink satin heel with a burst of feathers and ribbons at the back, resembles the aftermath of a battle royal between a showgirl and a flamboyant ostrich.

Louboutin’s love of color and embellishment stems from growing up in 1970s France, which he remembers as dreary and austere, with anonymous white and gray concrete buildings popping up all over Paris. “There’s nothing I liked visually of the period I was a child,” he says. “There was no dream in it, and nothing sparkled.” His best friend wore colorful dresses from America; classmates taunted her “simply because she was clean.”

“There was this big thing of feminism in France, and it was all about wearing no makeup and looking pretty crappy,” he says. “And if you were having heels, you were evil.” He became obsessed with a sign at the Museum of African and Oceanic Art: a high heel with a large red X over it, representing a plea from management to avoid wearing shoes that might harm the flooring.

Louboutin studiously avoided school, with his mother’s help. (She wrote sick notes for him that he would dictate.) At age 12, he moved out to live with an older boyfriend. “I was having lunch with my parents, and I was sleeping there sometimes,” he recalls, as if this arrangement were perfectly ordinary. As a teen he danced at Le Palace, the iconic club where Mick Jagger, Loulou de la Falaise and Grace Jones mingled with club kids, whose clothes inspired Thierry Mugler and Yves Saint Laurent. Often young Christian would bring people home — a guy, a girl, guys and girls — in the wee hours of the morning. If his father, a cabinet maker, were away, his mother would insist they take her room.

Sometimes he and his friends would sneak into the Folies Bergére — the cabaret where Josephine Baker perfected her danse banane — and snag vacant seats during intermission. After leaving school, Louboutin interned at the Folies Bergére, gluing jewelry on costumes and fetching coffee for the performers. He spent much of his time dreaming up “super fantasy shoes” for the dancers. Some drawings of those ideas landed him a design gig with Charles Jourdan, who created shoes for Christian Dior; that in turn led to a job as an assistant and secretary to Roger Vivier, the “Fabergé of footwear,” who invented the comma heel and the stiletto.

But Louboutin’s love of cabaret never left him. Feu, his collaboration with the erotic-cabaret troupe Crazy Horse Paris, runs through May 31 and features original music by David Lynch and Swizz Beatz. “I always loved fish for the colors and birds for the plumage,” he says. “In the same way, I loved those women of the cabaret. They were birds of paradise.”

“Creative people often need time to crank it up or tease it out,” says Louboutin’s friend Bella Freud, the English fashion designer who recently created a line of fetish knitwear that incorporates four of his drawings. “With Christian, it is always at his disposal. He’s not a tortured genius.”

A grand illustration of Freud’s point can be found throughout Louboutin’s workspace, which spreads over several buildings on the rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not far from the Louvre. In Louboutin’s playful atelier, a tin man hangs from the ceiling. Shelves house a stuffed lemur, a pink motorcycle helmet and the limited-edition Cat Burglar Barbie, which Louboutin designed in 2009 on the condition he could shrink her ankles. (He deemed them too fat.) A bulletin board includes a calendar of priests, a drawing of Louboutin and Diane von Furstenberg on a mule, a photo of his friend Dina (“she’s the biggest belly dancer in the world”) and a 1950s-vintage picture of a gay Lebanese couple mimicking Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. “I love this picture,” Louboutin says, covering the torso and face of a person on a postcard. “People have said these are the legs of Katharine Hepburn. But look” — he removes his hand — “it’s Albert Einstein!”

For all his whimsy, Louboutin is vigorous about protecting his brand. His red sole is a genius marketing flourish, but it’s also an easy target for counterfeiters selling knockoff Loubis. In 2010 he launched stopfakelouboutin.com, which features a video of a bulldozer plowing through a sea of fake shoes.

He has even called the fashion police on fellow designers. In April 2011, he filed a lawsuit against Yves Saint Laurent after the house produced shoes with red soles for its cruise collection. YSL argued that a designer cannot own a color; Louboutin cited Hermes’ virtual ownership of orange and Tiffany’s trademark of its duck-egg blue. “I would not use a green-and-red ribbon because I know those are the colors of Gucci,” he says. “If you are supposedly creative, use your creativity to find a new path.”

Louboutin’s current path, alongside museum retrospectives and cabaret extravaganzas, includes the arrival of his second men’s store, in New York City, this spring. His men’s range, priced from $465 to $2,500, includes simple loafers and lace-ups as well as “trash” shoes decorated with discarded string, fabrics and notes from Louboutin’s atelier. The No Limit Men’s Flat, a $1,695 high-top sneaker, features dozens of golden spikes protruding from its vamp and crystals lining its red, brown and turquoise exterior.

Both his men’s stores (the first opened in Paris last year) offer a tattoo service that lets customers imprint their own inkings on their shoes. He got the idea after hearing his friend Gareth Thomas, the openly gay English rugby player, discuss his love of his own tattoo. “They’re pretty much a postcard of your life,” Louboutin says. “People are proud of their tattoos. It’s like a modern coat of arms.”

And in Louboutin’s eyes, his women’s shoes are a modern badge of honor. He has little patience for those who complain that skyscraping heels slow women down, whether literally or metaphorically. “Why do people always want you to run?” he asks. “The issue is the same for everyone: you run, and at the end there is a grave. If you run all your life, you end up having seen nothing.” As he walks out of the atelier for lunch at the Crazy Horse, his black studded flats make a gentle scuffle against the wooden floorboards.

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