He’s spent years watching women buy his famous red-soled shoes. No one needs another pair of black stilettos, the designer says — it’s about desire
As soon as I have promised that I won't Me Too him, Christian Louboutin is pushing me up the circular stairs in his Parisian apartment by the derriere. "You see? It's a fantastic thing," exclaims the 54-year-old shoe designer who, incidentally, has a long-term boyfriend. "You get elevated immediately. You don't feel any pressure. You just go very, very quickly." Well, yes.
And: yes, I know. Rewind. We have been talking about how Louboutin's love of shoes began. Turns out it started when he was six and would push his 18-year-old sister up the stairs to their sixth-floor apartment. "She had these cork wedges, and I loved looking at her going up in them as I was pushing her on the ass."
I imagine it's clear that Louboutin is not your typical shoe designer. Yet if you know his shoes — and the queues often to be found outside his boutiques are the testament to how many people do — you will already have apprehended this.
Here is a man who has porcupined with spikes everything from 100mm heels to trainers. A man who has fought and — finally, last month — won the battle to copyright his red soles, of all the unlikely trademarks. (What started as an act of creative whimsy — some red nail polish added at the last minute to the sole of a pink and purple shoe, "so that it looked more like the original drawing" — has proved to have game-changer commercial clout. "You feel part of a club.") And here is a man who has attracted not only fame but notoriety for his so-called hidden platforms, a raised footbed combined with a spindly stiletto that to some women — and men — are ecstasy, but anathema to others.
What is his riposte to those who say that these shoes are too sexy, if not porn-star? "I agree," he exclaims, as is to be expected of a man who is flogging pumps by the name of Fetish Peep. "Some of my shoes could absolutely be seen as a porn thing, or a bed thing, but there are lots of other shoes in my collection. And it also depends on your perception. I was in one of my shops a while ago and this woman arrived who was very classical, and she tried on this high pump, and she said, 'Oh my God, I look super sexy!' Then later the same day another woman comes in who is very opulent, sexy with a lot of breast." He gestures spectacular bosoms. "And she tried on the same ones, and said, 'Oh, I look so chic!'"
Louboutin is in the business of making shoe fantasies come true, of enabling every woman to have her Cinderella moment, even if Prince Charming is nowhere to be seen. Yet, like all the best fantasy factories, he knows his audience. He is something of a shop-stalker, always watching, watching, watching how his customers interact with his shoes. That's also how he noticed that "when a woman looks in the mirror, she doesn't look at the shoe. She looks at herself. Her posture." (Men look at the shoes, apparently, not at themselves.)
His job, he readily proffers, is to sell us things we don't need. "Who needs another pair of black shoes? Probably everyone has one. It's about desire, not functionality." More of his boutique-based anthropology. "This woman arrived and said she wanted coloured shoes as she had so many black ones. An hour later she left with two black. I said, 'But you said you didn't want black?' She said, 'Yes, but they are just so beautiful I can't resist. I'm privileged, I know that. I don't need things. I want them. My need is coming from my desire.'" That, sums up Louboutin, "really is the core of my work.
"You have different types of designers," he continues. "You have designers who are true to their vision without including anyone else in it. And there are others who take into consideration that they are working for others. I don't think one is more creative than the other. It's a different way to be. I have always taken into consideration that it's for women. That's important. For me."
It turns out that even his "bed shoe" has a practical origin. At the age of 17 he worked at the Folies Bergère — "sewing sequins, gluing things, making coffee, delivering the love letters to the dancers" — and it was there that he started to examine "silhouette", "posture" and the shoes that could finesse both.
"Those dancers are like birds of paradise, in a way. They told me they didn't really want to look like they were wearing shoes at all. Their feet needed to look like the tips of their legs." Hence the hidden platform, which is, he explains, a means of delivering "maximum visual height with minimum arch height". And hence two other Louboutin signatures: low toe cleavage and nude leather. "With a showgirl, you calculate the length of her legs from her maillot to the front of her shoes, or, if they are nude, all the way." Louboutin's influence in this regard stretches from a Saturday-night high street near you to Kensington Palace.
Yet the designer's other footwear obsession couldn't be more different. Flats. Yes, shoes with absolutely no heel whatsoever also get his pulse racing. It's the shoes in the middle he can't be doing with. "Mid-heels . . ." he begins, then pauses, pulling a face as if I have just presented him with one of those pavement turds in which, alas, the French capital still specialises, and which — I speak from experience — can play havoc with one's "Loubs". "I have a hard time breaking the functionality when I am designing a mid-heel," he continues. "High heels have a really strong aesthetic. Flat shoes also. Think of Brigitte Bardot in the Sixties. She was always in ballerinas and she looked fabulous. It's the attitude of the person."
Anyway, the point is that Louboutin does great flats. These, after all, were the first shoes with which he was up close and personal. Before the cork wedges of his sisters — there were three of them — came the flats worn by his mother. "My mother was always in flat shoes and pants. Though I don't really remember her shoes exactly. There are very few pictures of my mother because of the velocity of her."
Velocity? Does he mean she was always moving? "Yes. I remember her shoes by the speed. I can totally imagine what shoes someone is wearing by the way they move. Still now, if I hear someone coming, it's a bit of a game for me. I hear the sound and I think, 'OK, she is definitely on high,' or 'She's on flat.' Then I can say if it is a boot, or a slide, what kind of sole it has."
There speaks an obsessive, albeit one who also says he would have been just as happy as a landscape gardener — instead he is in a relationship with one — a choreographer or a scriptwriter. Above all, he would have loved to have been "a performer. When I see a great performer I feel happy but also very sad, and I realise it is because it is something I am missing. Not to be a singer, because I sing like a . . ." cue fabulously French pronunciation, "CASS-E-ROLE. And I would have been the worst actor. I was in three movies and I was bad, bad, bad. But I can tap dance." (There is footage on YouTube to prove it.) "And I did trapeze." (He has one rigged up in a studio elsewhere in Paris. "I wanted one here, but I was missing a metre," he says. "You need 6.5.")
What Louboutin has never had any interest in is designing clothes. I ask him if it is true that he was once offered the chance to head a big — nameless — ready-to-wear brand. The caca de chien is evidently back in the room. Grimace. "Yes. It was terrible. I was infuriated. I really insulted the guy. I was like, 'What?! What?! What and why?!' I felt so bad afterwards. But I have no passion for . . ." another genius mouth-rolling Gallicism "CLOTHES-IS. I would be bored in five minutes." Why? "You are carried by your shoes," he says, "whereas you simply carry your clothes."
Shoes change people, in other words, be they showgirls or Christmas party-goers, two genres that on occasion — and largely thanks to Louboutin — are apt to be confused. "There's something that always makes me laugh. Occasionally a girlfriend will tell me, 'I fell over in the street. I twisted my ankle.' And I say, 'What sort of shoes?' And it's always flat. Because when you wear flat shoes you forget about your shoes, the way you are going to walk. In shoes with a heel you are conscious, which means you are probably not going to trip."
The years that Louboutin has been in business have coincided perfectly with the rise of what can only be described as a widespread shoe fetish. Footwear has become not an add-on but a profit-fuelling phenomenon, even at fashion houses where the main attraction supposedly lies elsewhere. Why this — er — step change? "Because fashion has become so basic, so standardised, that it's the details that make the difference," Louboutin says. "No one has a problem with a T-shirt from Zara, jeans from wherever. In the end it's going to be about what you look like physically, and the finishing parts. You know, the jewellery, but first the shoes."
No wonder then that Louboutin has had immense success, with the global property portfolio and the famous friends to prove it. Yet it has never been about anything other than the shoes, he insists. "I was not into building a company. I just wanted to do pretty shoes for girls. I am still the same actually." The brand he founded in 1991 has become rather different. Last year UK turnover alone was £52.7 million.
Has it not all been something of a head-spin for the boy who grew up "fully working class", the son of a cabinet maker and that flats-wearing housewife? "Things have moved organically. So I have been able to digest what has happened to me. And also, you know what? If you are brought up with a lot of love, it is not problematic. My parents were very working class, but they never missed anything. They were never jealous or trying to be something they were not. I was never brought up, like, 'We never have any money. We would do better if we have money.'"
He also enjoyed what he has come to recognise as a remarkable latitude. There was that Folies Bergère gig while he was still a teenager. But five years before that his "very loving" mother allowed him to move in with a school friend. "She really trusted her kids. I could do anything. It ended up that I was always quite careful. I could stop. I took drugs and stopped it in a second because I was a bit tired."
If he has long recognised his debt to his "solaire" mother, it was only after his "solitaire" father's death that he became aware of his due. "I always thought you were influenced by the sun in a way, not by the moon. I credited my personality, my influences, to my mother, but I took a lot from my father. The attention to detail. My mother was a mess. A big laugh. A big smile. My father could be, not dark, but shy. Very precise and into his own world. Looking at objects. I have that." And shoe-lovers everywhere are grateful for it.