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Beyond the Red Soles

By Patrick Chew

"I don't sketch in the studio. I always isolate myself." - Christian Louboutin on his approach to designing and sketching.
 
Fan Tong Xue
"I don't sketch in the studio. I always isolate myself." - Christian Louboutin on his approach to designing and sketching.

Mention Christian Louboutin and everyone’s minds immediately go to his trademark red soles. It’s a subtle, yet striking detail that elevates any look or outfit. It gives its wearer a quiet confidence that she is being noticed, whilst evoking a sense of longing and admiration to any beholder.

Someone once told me that star power is defined by an entire room instantly recognising the moment you arrive — the very same room that would sense the minute you left it. By that, it is perhaps safe to say that Christian Louboutin’s red soles are the quintessence of star power.

Louboutin had the idea for red soles in 1993 when he saw one of his staff members painting her nails. He took that bottle and painted the sole of a prototype shoe on his desk. And just like that, Louboutin had taken an oft-overlooked part of a shoe and turned it into something that has made his designs instantly recognisable.

Tung PhamLevita suede leather pumps in caramel 55mm, $1,390.
Levita suede leather pumps in caramel 55mm, $1,390.
Tung PhamTre Fiak boots in patent leather with 55mm cube heels in black and white, $1,660.
Tre Fiak boots in patent leather with 55mm cube heels in black and white, $1,660.

That’s why Louboutin never needed to advertise. Everybody wanted to wear Christian Louboutin. Jennifer Lopez laid on a bed on stage and spoke of “the ones with the high heels and the red bottoms”. Cardi B slipped on a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes and rapped “These expensive. These is red bottoms. These is bloody shoes” in “Bodak Yellow”. Oprah Winfrey-signatured Christian Louboutins sold for over USD16,000 on eBay. Melania Trump donned a pair of So Kate pumps at her husband’s rally. The list is simply endless. Each of his designs issues their own press releases with each celebrity who wears them — many of whom he still maintains close relationships with today.

In an era when careers are measured in months rather than decades, it has to be said that Louboutin has consistently delivered for almost 30 years. He began as his company’s only employee and has since built it to become one of the most desired shoes brands in the world.

But I needed to hear it from the man himself. Sitting opposite him in his hotel suite in Beijing, I proceeded to ask, “What does it say about a woman when she’s walking down the street in a pair of your shoes?”

“That she’s able to get from point A to B.” Louboutin delivered his explanation with such sweet-tempered lack of pretension that it was easy to overlook the fact that he is one of, what many consider, the most influential shoes designers of some of the most sought-after shoes today.

But Louboutin broke into rapturous laughter immediately after. Even the mild-mannered, humble designer struggles to downplay the unspoken allure and quality of his red-soled shoes. Shoes, or at least Christian Louboutin ones, have so much more to offer than just to walk.

Tung PhamLeft: Salon de Mars sandals with 55mm cube heels in gold, $1,390. Right: Kypipouch cross-body bag in metallic red, $1,950; The Joke Donna boots in 85mm in silver & black, $1,850.
Left: Salon de Mars sandals with 55mm cube heels in gold, $1,390. Right: Kypipouch cross-body bag in metallic red, $1,950; The Joke Donna boots in 85mm in silver & black, $1,850.
Tung PhamLeft: Xilobot patent ankle boots with pyramid heels in black & gold, $1,660. Right: Marie Jane bucket bag in lurex & strass, $2,500.
Left: Xilobot patent ankle boots with pyramid heels in black & gold, $1,660. Right: Marie Jane bucket bag in lurex & strass, $2,500.

Growing up in Paris, Louboutin’s passion for shoes developed when he and his friends would sneak into theatres after intermissions.

“Ding! Ding! Ding! We noticed that people didn’t ask to see tickets after the breaks. They’d only ask to see tickets at the beginning,” he says. “I have seen the second acts of just about every single show there is.”

While his friends stared at the showgirls, Louboutin gawked at their shoes and feet. “People see showgirls, I see exotic birds,” he says. “They parade, they have feathers. They are moving, and they are shaking.” Louboutin swayed and mimed as he held out jazz hands.

Dance, and its ensuing themes of movement and flow formed the crux of Louboutin’s sensibility as a designer. “You want to design stilettos to be comfortable like Havaianas or Nikes? That’s not going to happen,” he says.

Instead, Louboutin views movement as a form of self-consciousness. “I have friends who tell me, ‘Oh my god, I twisted my ankle.’ And I always ask what shoes they were wearing,” he says. “They’re always wearing sneakers or flats.”

To Louboutin, flats have no form and, therefore, causes you to forget about your feet. But heels, heels are different — they oblige you to have a certain control over your body. “It is about being conscious,” he reiterates. “It holds you in a way that you don’t forget your body.”

It is clear that the red soles — striking as they may be — aren’t enough to explain Christian Louboutin’s enduring power. To Louboutin, his shoes marry extreme ends of what he views femininity to be: one part elegant, another; sexy.

Tung PhamMonmoc loafers in black & bianco, $1,750.
Monmoc loafers in black & bianco, $1,750.
Tung PhamMagician strass patent leather loafers in black, $2,190.
Magician strass patent leather loafers in black, $2,190.

He brings up an instance when two women — “an American and an Italian, if I remember correctly” — entered his store and tried one the same pair of shoes. “One needed an extra zest of sexiness and she saw that in the shoes,” he explains. “The other needed something to elevate her in a way — maybe it was a little bit of elegance, a little bit of chicness, and that’s what she saw in the same shoes.”

It all about panache when it comes to Louboutin. “You want a little bit of pepper? Or you want a little bit of milk?” he says. “Whatever it is, you know. It’s your recipe.”

Every shoes starts with a sketch. Louboutin brings his sketching tools wherever he goes. “An image pops up and if I don’t transcribe it immediately, it sort of disappears,” he says.

Louboutin speaks of the beach when designing summer collections, and of mountains when designing fall lines. “I don’t sketch in the studio. I always isolate myself.”

His Fall/Winter collection was born in “a big, cold castle” in the Southwest of France, with ’80s music playing in the background. “I cannot listen to music and abstract myself from the mood and my sketches,” he says.

That ’80s mood resulted in a collection of bold colours and silhouettes. “I ended up doing things that were quite cubic. I imagined the movement of crystal balls, stripes of metal, reflections of light,” Louboutin says.

The resulting collection is evocative of Louboutin’s memories of Parisian nights in the ’80s with a bold, vibrant colour palette and metallics as seen in the Cube heel and hand-embellished bijou Vasa heel. That fluidity in Louboutin’s design and creative process goes a long way in explaining how the brand got to where it is today. “It’s about developing organically,” he says.

“A woman is never proud to have kept the same shoes for 10 years,” he says. “A man, however, is often proud saying, ‘I’ve had these shoes for 20 years.” It was this difference in attitudes that made Louboutin initially apprehensive about designing for men.

Tung PhamEton oxford shoes in black & silver, $1,500.
Eton oxford shoes in black & silver, $1,500.

But a meeting with a European pop star, Mika, made him see otherwise. “He was going on a six-month tour,” Louboutin recalls. “And he wanted me to design shoes for his performance.”

According to the musician, Christian Louboutin shoes brought a certain excitement and joy to women — things he wanted for his tour. “I ended up doing an entire collection,” Louboutin says.

It was a moment that changed Christian Louboutin as a brand forever. Since then, Louboutin’s men’s collections have grown exponentially, and have captured the hearts of a segment of the male audience that Louboutin himself never thought existed. “It’s a different attitude that a lot of men have now,” he says. “The fashion consciousness of men has completely changed.”

Ultimately, Louboutin lives in and for moments likes this. “I do things. I don’t experience things,” he says. “If you’ve experienced, you’ve decided on something that’s been dedicated to its own death already. When you do things, you just do and go along and figure it out along the way. I will never project myself too far forward.”

That final statement of our interview left me slightly bewildered and confused. For all of Louboutin’s romantic stories about Paris in the ’80s and sketching in the mountains, it was still rather difficult to put a finger on the inner workings of him as a designer.

Later that night, however, I met Louboutin at the Christian Louboutin party. He’d been dancing for almost 30 minutes with guests and VIPs of the brand. He had a jacket and fedora on. He came up to me and said, “I’m feeling very warm.”

“Why don’t you take off the jacket,” I responded. “Too late,” he said. “I’m just going to go with it.” Perhaps that’s it then. Louboutin simply does.