THE ECLECTIC SHOEMAKER. Christian Louboutin is an internationally renowned designer whose high-end stiletto footwear incorporates shiny, red-lacquered soles that have become his signature. The Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris is currently presenting a major exhibition devoted to Christian Louboutin’s work and creativity, which is informed by a passion for travel and references from the worlds of pop culture, theatre, dance, literature and cinema.
Christian Louboutin, where are you?
I am in Portugal. For the fourth month now.
That must be strange for someone who usually travels all the time?
Since I started my company, I’ve never stayed for such a long time in one place. Usually I have never slept in the same bed for more than a week.
Did you always want to travel, even when you were a child?
From age 10 to 15 there was a travel agency on my way to school. I came home filled with the possibilities of travelling and one of my favourite games was preparing these trips. I would say, “OK, I have two months in which to do 10 countries.” I travelled by imagining things.
Have you achieved your dream?
Yes, but the funny part is that I never thought it was a dream. As a kid it was a game that became a reality for me, but I’ve never been good at projecting myself far forward. It was enough for me to play that game of travelling, a form of reality which I enjoyed. I did not realise that it was a game that I was going to play in what would become my life.
Is it true that the only objective you always had was that things should go well, with no precise plan?
It is true. Who knows what’s going to happen to you, to your life, to your story? How can you decide on a specific target? But it has to go well. That is the only clear idea. I’m dedicated to the fact that things should go well, not in terms of success, more in terms of harmony.
Are you an optimist?
I am more happy than optimistic, because sometimes I do have some pessimism. I am a happy pessimist, because I have a happy nature.
Do you feel you have something to prove?
For a lot of people the most important thing is to prove that they are not awful or stupid to their parents, sister or brother, that they are worthwhile. I never had that in my very easy and encouraging family, and in my childhood I don’t remember saying to anyone I am going to show this or that to him or her.
“The pandemic is projecting the world into its own future. In 2020 we arrived in 2025.”
Christian Louboutin, at the start of your career you worked as assistant to Roger Vivier, the greatest shoe designer of his time. How was it?
I gradually became his assistant, but when I worked for him he was 79/80 and I was totally happy to be around him and to see him function. It was so interesting to see the way of thinking of someone that I admired, and by discussion I discovered the why and where of his design and his mentality. When you go in a beautiful garden you see the quality of the perspectives, of the design and other things, but it also teaches you about the character of the person who designed the garden. By talking to Vivier, I could understand the harmony between his personality and his design, and the bridge between the two. His design was extracted from his mortality, and his fidelity to that design represented who he was.
Is it a legend that you were never anxious or worried? How is this possible?
Never is probably too big a word, but in the moment I’m living in I very rarely feel anxiety. I function. I do what I have to do and I enjoy it, and only afterwards can I remember a moment where I probably was nervous. One Sunday I was having tea with two friends and when I tried to describe my sad state of mind of the day before, one of them said, “But that’s what I have every day.” They couldn’t believe that it was completely new to me to have this type of sad feeling, and that I was so surprised by this and could not understand where it came from.
Were you often afraid?
From a very early age something told me that it’s not necessary and doesn’t make sense. When I was a kid I didn’t like mustard because mustard is strong, but I could see that every adult liked mustard, so it just meant that I was too young for it. Later I covered my steaks with mustard, and after a while I loved it and kept on loving it. Everything which looked a bit scary, I would break that possibility with a game.
Is it true that you enjoy playing games with words?
I was dyslexic as a child. It’s strange, but dyslexia is a very good thing, because it obliges you to discover another world. I would interrogate myself, write words and rearrange them in an order that didn’t make sense. I like to start off using artistic force, because once you start to analyse it, you discover something about yourself. People overvalue their own instinct. They say, “I just didn’t like that person, my instinct was right,” and it’s good to listen to what your instinct is indicating but you have to analyse it. Otherwise you become a prisoner of an instinct and this is an animal state. For instance, for a long time I never liked every person who I met called Carole. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t like or trust that person. Then I realised that in my childhood there was a Carole who bullied me, and because of that I still had a hard time with every Carole, but I had not analysed that it was all coming from that first Carole, and therefore my instinct was to be averse to anyone called Carole.
How did you deal with this time of quarantine because of corona virus?
At the beginning of March I came to Portugal by the seaside with my daughters and their mother, and stayed here. I didn’t want to be polluted by all sorts of fake news, but to take my distance from everyone, and from a personal point of view it was another rhythm. I took time. It was my first spring in one place, discovering nature. It was fantastic. You quickly realise that spring is a metaphor for a type of rebirth – you see what you want to keep and why. September is going to be difficult, because by then nine months of quarantine is going to bring an economic shock, and I haven’t yet understood what the aftermath is going to be.
In the world of luxury, fashion and business, what will change, and how?
There has been this incredibly clear and beautiful sign that the nature, which we have to preserve, is pretty close to coming back, if we are careful. The environment and the quality of where we live, and the fact that we have to protect our mother planet, is definitely something which is not going to leave my mind. There is a younger generation who already understand the importance of keeping the planet safe and healthier, and sustainability is definitely fully on my agenda.
Will your business change? Will people still spend a lot of money on expensive clothes, shoes and bags?
Yes, it is going to change, because what has happened is that the pandemic is projecting the world into its own future. In 2020 we arrived in 2025. It’s as if we crossed five, or even 10, years in three months. We have almost jumped into our future. There is a moment when you have to accept that the future you were talking about has happened. People will be much more aware about everything which has to do with the environment.
“My shoes are definitely objects of desire that people buy.”
Christian Louboutin, will you be more careful about sustainability than before?
The new generation of customers are conscious that when you buy a luxury item, you also validate the values of the company, of the name, of the brand. If you think that this company has no values and no soul, you will not validate it by buying something.
Have people kept on buying your shoes, bags, cosmetics during this very unusual time?
That’s why I said 2020 became 2025. Suddenly our Internet business exploded. We are not only an online company, but people have continued to want to purchase and have been perfectly happy to buy things online. Such habits are going to stay.
Will you close your shops?
No, but as a company you have to reevaluate what you’ve been doing and the way your business was structured, and see what functions to keep and what you can live without. It would be nice if every four years, almost like the Olympics, we had three months where everything had to stop and you had to change your rhythm. A lot of things are terrible right now during this pandemic, but another way of living may emerge.
Your show “The Exhibitionist” at the Palais de la Porte-Dorée in Paris has recently reopened after the lockdown ended, and runs until January 3rd 2021. It’s a celebration of your 30 years of work. Can you describe it?
The Palais de la Porte-Dorée is a very important place for me because I would see it literally every day on my way to college. The magnificent 1931 building is part of my childhood, and before travelling in any other country I travelled through that museum, called at the time the Museum of African and Oceanic Art. The biggest aquarium in Paris is there, with sharks and even very rare albino alligators. On the two other floors I would go and look at collections of African and Oceanic artefacts, and glimpse civilizations and cultures that I didn’t know. And then there was Tintin, the famous cartoon by Hergé that was published in Belgium, whose adventures every child was reading. Tintin was on the moon, in Peru, China, or Egypt, he never took holidays, he always had adventures in interesting places with mysterious human stories. I was a traveler from an early age because of Tintin and because of that museum, the first place where I travelled, imagining and inventing stories linked to the funny names.
In the beautiful book published by Rizzoli about the exhibition, one of the first chapters is on the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Then you talk about Janine Janet, Line Vautrin, Joseph Cornell, Gilbert & George, Mae West, Wedgwood, Andy Warhol, Yves Saint Laurent, Damien Hirst. Yours is a very eclectic story isn’t it?
When I decided to do this exhibition in the Palais de la Porte-Dorée, I thought of me as a kid discovering what I wanted in that place. People who come to the exhibition can stroll into a beautiful place and see unexpected things, even if it is dedicated to my work. The second part of the exhibition is dedicated to people and objects that have inspired me and think of when I’m designing shoes. In any type of creative work there are a lot of references, which can come from songs, from painters, from artists, and then you form them into your work. You ingest and you digest and it becomes your work. You don’t need to do it in the same way as the original artist who inspired you.
The famous American writer Danielle Steel owns thousands of pairs of your shoes, and when she goes to a shop of yours, she buys more. Are your shoes collectible objects?
My shoes are definitely objects of desire that people buy. That’s how I perceive them; they are completely linked to desire.
You became famous for stiletto heels and later you invented the lacquered red sole that is your trademark and became the fil rouge of your work?
Most of the things that I like are not necessarily connected, but they have all been connected through my work. The curator, Olivier Gabet, was very good at seeing the links between many things, how one object brings you to another object, and it was a surprise for me and my staff to see that. I was very excited to see this field getting developed before my eyes, thanks to the intelligence of the curator.
Christian Louboutin’s “The Exhibitionist” show is in Paris at the Art Deco style Palais de la Porte Dorée.
Early years room, Christian Louboutin Exhibition view © Marc Domage
Exhibition view, Christian Louboutin Exhibition © Marc Domage
Christian Louboutin inviting the wearer to sail forth wearing his shoes!
The red sole is protected as a trademark in several countries, and litigation has taken place in various disputes in which Louboutin claimed infringement of its rights.
“I never could understand the idea of shrinking all women into a single woman.”
Christian Louboutin, you had your first small shop in a beautiful covered arcade, the Galerie Vero-Dodat in Paris. They say that your first client was Princess Caroline of Monaco, and then many more celebrities came. Since you design men and women’s shoes, it is very different?
It’s very different if you speak of women and shoes than if you speak of men and shoes. The first difference is in these pictures of a woman by Helmut Newton called Nude. It’s a woman who is naked with shoes on, but it’s not called Nude with Shoes. A man naked with shoes will be called Nude with Shoes, like the beautiful self-portrait of Lucian Freud naked, holding his palette and the shoes which are detached from his body. A woman naked with shoes would not necessarily say Nude with Shoes, because the woman’s shoe changes the body language, changes the structure, changes the centre of gravity, but it doesn’t touch the nudity. A woman naked with shoes remains naked. A man naked with shoes looks funny. That completely defines for me, the relationship to shoes with women and shoes with men. Butt naked with a pair of shoes on a man looks goofy.
Why do women like shoes so much?
Because the shoe transforms their body language, gives something new, and through the presence of their shoe, a lot of women have a certain consciousness of their body. Maybe you don’t want to be conscious of your body all the time, so you choose your shoe according to do you want to feel comfortable or do you want to feel attractive. That’s going to give a different mission to your shoes. The shoe is going to bring along a small element that is going to change your posture. I know so many women who start with their shoes, not because the colour is so good on their skin or something like that, but because the shoe is the element which is going to give you a state of mind.
Do you have a specific woman in mind when you design?
No, because I was brought up with three sisters. I never felt that I had three sisters, I felt it was as if three hundred different characters were entering those three sisters. They changed all the time, according to whatever was going on. They were not lying and they were not playing, just as every human being is different according to what happens at every specific moment. I never could understand the idea of shrinking all women into a single woman.
After many years of work and success where does your passion and curiosity take you now?
My work has become so big and there have been many surprises, meeting unexpected people all over the world. That’s why it’s important to not give yourself a mission, because the sky is the limit if you don’t give yourself a target. I am still curious, because I don’t think that I’ve seen enough of the world, or heard enough conversation on interesting topics. I have the same appetite for what I don’t know, for what can nourish my smile and my mind and everything which makes you alive. Curiosity is gorgeous.
Désir is not quite the same word, but in the exhibition there is a photograph by a French photographer called Bernard Faucon of this beautiful landscape. He wrote in its beauty the words: What does the end of desire look like? The first time I saw that photograph I was very moved, because for me, it’s not so much desire, which is such a key word, but it’s more passion. I still question myself about what a life looks like without some passion.
Are you ready for a new chapter?
The summer has started and I’m not ready to go back to Paris – and not because of fear of germs or whatever. Confinement is just that. I really have appreciated time to think and have some distance. I’m not a mystical person, but I see it as a sign that you had to stop your own rhythm, you had to live according to a new pace which is not your pace but a general pace, and there is nothing you can do about it. I’ve had this time to decide that I was ready to go with, not a new direction, but some direction that I had just touched.
Are you still going to put a red sole on your shoes?
Yes, because this is a trademark. There are very few things that I don’t like to play with, but the identity of my companies, of that trademark, is definitely staying where it is. You don’t change your signature.
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