It’s not every day you get the opportunity to ask Christian Louboutin whether his perfume bottle was designed to resemble lady bits…
The French shoe & handbag designer best known for his iconic red-soled heels needs no introduction. I had the pleasure of meeting Messr Louboutin during a fireside chat chaired by the effortlessly cool Jing Zhang at The Upper House.
Louboutin chatted, in his lyrical French accent, about the complexity of women, the empowering nature of heels, growing up with three sisters and being perpetually at odds with the pervasive conservatism & misogyny of 1970s Paris.
What was your first inspiration for designing shoes?
I have been designing shoes since I was around 12 but I didn’t think at the time that it was actually a job. I was just a bit obsessed and I was always sketching shoes.
I was born in Paris and there was a museum next door to my parent’s house. It was a beautiful museum with mosaics and beautiful herringbone parque flooring. Inside, there was a drawing with a high heeled shoe from the 50s and, as a kid, I remember looking at the drawing and thinking “…why would anyone draw such a stupid shoe with a very pointy high heel”. There was a cross over the drawing because these heels were forbidden. It was then that I started to sketch shoes nervously. Many people realised that I liked drawing and so I started to gather a lot of information about shoes.
“My true passion was showgirls, cabaret and musicals”
I was expelled from school at 16 years old – nothing too serious – and I was working in a Paris cabaret club at 17.
I wanted to do something for the show girls and as I was sketching shoes all the time, so I just put the two together and started designing shoes for them. That was my first job. I had drawings for every single dancer.
After a year [at the cabaret club] I was a bit fed up and I decided I had to do something else if I wanted to design shoes. I looked in the Yellow Pages (it was before mobile phones) thinking I would have to work for a fashion house. I just cold called them. First, I called Balmain – they never answered. Then I called Christian Dior and said,
Dior phoned Louboutin back, he showed them his sketches and immediately he was offered a job at the famous Charles Jourdan factory. This is where Louboutin received his classical training and learned the architecture of the shoe. After years of making shoes for other people, he almost threw it all in for landscaping. But, in 1991 by a lucky accident, he was offered a small studio at the back of an art gallery in Paris and the Christian Louboutin brand was born.
…hello my name is Christian Louboutin I would like to speak with Christian Dior’s Director of Couture.
The story of the iconic red sole
I drew a collection in 1992 and part of the collection was inspired by pop art and Andy Warhol, so it had really bright colours. Once I did the drawings I went to the factory in Italy and I gave them specific details: “let’s do these shoes in bright colours, the colour has to be in the lining, in the heel etc…” I was very specific re colours. When the first prototype arrived it was fitting well but the colours were not the colours I had in the drawing and something looked different. I couldn’t figure out why. I looked at the shoe and at the drawing and then at one point I looked at the shoe from the back and underneath and saw that there was a big part which was black and I thought “…that’s a lot of black for a shoe with all these colours”. It didn’t look like my drawing. So, Sara the girl trying on the shoes had finished her job and was painting her nails. I grabbed the nail polish and asked if I could try something. She said, “…but I only have two nails done!” – we had a bit of a fight, I won the nail polish and I painted the nail polish on to the heel to cover the black. Suddenly, it popped exactly like in my drawing.
I asked Louboutin if his new fragrance bottle was supposed to look like a lady (down there).
Ha! I have heard of that. It’s actually a pastry twisted like a croissant or torsade. It was designed by the architect Thomas Heatherwick. I like a lot of his designs so I asked him to design the bottle.
Fragrance and scent is the total thrust of intimacy. I was very intrigued and interested to work on something which involves the total and full intimacy of women. So that is where I concentrated when I started my fragrance: pure intimacy – something you don’t play with.
You are known for drawing quite freely when you initially conceive of an idea rather than focusing on the technical aspects – what is your design process?
I think that it’s good to know what you are good at what you are weak at. I realized quickly that you don’t necessarily need to be a good technician to be a designer. If at the beginning you start squeezing yourself thinking “if I put this here it’s not going to fit properly” then you end up ruining the creativity. I have to be completely free at the moment of sketching instead of thinking technically.
What is the most important thing about being a designer?
To be true to yourself, to be very close to your ideas. When what you have in your head becomes in reality as close as possible to the final creation.
Who is the Louboutin woman?
There is not such a thing as The Louboutin Woman. I think that every woman is very different from the morning to the evening you are going to be very different, you are going to feel different if you are at work, if it is raining, if there is a typhoon arriving, if your boyfriend cheated on you, if you cheated on your boyfriend, if your mother is sick, if your father is happy, everything is going to make you a different person and so it is difficulty for me to imagine…the Louboutin woman. If there is something they all have in common it is that they are all very happy to be women and they would probably not change to become a man.
The Louboutin Woman is someone who is happy. I sometimes joke about the fact that I’m doing a job which is a great job because it’s my passion, but no one comes into the Louboutin store because they actually need a shoe. For instance, a woman arrived in store and saw a high heeled sandal with a little puffy pink flower in the front and in the back and she looked at me and said “Oh my God, this is such a useless pair of shoes. I absolutely need them.” I understand this. You don’t need the shoes out of necessity, you need them out of pleasure. My job is really to concentrate on that – I love the idea of doing things which are totally unnecessary.
Why do you think high heels are so sexy on women?
High heels are sexy because they change the body language, the posture. By putting someone in heels you reshape them: there is an element of fragility, but also empowerment. You stand better. When women wear heels it affects the way they feel.
For example, I hear about women who have twisted their ankles when wearing shoes and, funnily enough, it’s always when they are in flat shoes. I love flat shoes but high heels make women very conscious of their bodies. This is why women don’t trip in heels, because they are more conscious. It gives you a body consciousness that you may not want all the time, every day.
Femininity does not equal stupidity
In the 70s in France a girl who was well groomed was a stupid girl, she had to be superficial. I never accepted that. I always thought that you could be completely feminine and it did not have anything to do with being a kept woman. But during the 70s it was a preconceived idea and I always had to fight it.
I was, in a way, very much a feminist at my school. There was a girl call Arien at my school, she was very pretty and she had a bit of makeup on and people would make jokes about her because she had a little make-up on. I would say, “so what, she likes to have her eyes black, what is your problem?” They would say, “she’s stupid, she’s superficial….” but I disagreed.
‘Glamour is empowering’ Christian Louboutin
Glamour is empowering, exactly. The example I use is musicians: they were always respected. For example, Tina Turner: she had make up, she had high heels. I would ask is she stupid? Is she a kept woman? Doesn’t she have power and a career by herself? And everyone would say that she was an exception. Women in music have the same impact with or without makeup – it is because of female musicians that women can look glamorous without being seen as nasty or a dominatrix.
The first person who made this clear was Blondie. And after her, Madonna. Both showed that you can wear make up and still be smart and have a career and do it your way. Musicians have helped the imagery of the woman being in charge of herself, and beauty also does that.
Do you have muses?
I don’t have muses because to reduce women to one or two women is very difficult. I was always complaining to my mother that I don’t have three sisters I have 300 witches in the house. Everyone is not one person but many people.
What’s your approach to life and design?
I feel that it’s better to be carried by your life rather than trying to drive your life. It’s not very easy to drive your own life and also it’s very boring because life will bring you things that you won’t expect. Deciding what to do and sticking to it this will narrow your vision. But, if you let yourself go you end up having a much more rich experience.
If you are ballsy you will succeed.
Internet and social media offer a lot of possibilities that I didn’t have in the 70s – if you want to get noticed you have a platform where you can express yourself and be seen easily by a lot of people immediately. You probably won’t be able to call the director of Dior these days but you can easily do something by yourself. So, things are changing but they are always changing. What is the same is that if you are enthusiastic, if you believe in yourself, and if you are ballsy things are possible. Things are always possible if you believe in yourself.
Do you feel taller and more confident at work in heels? Do you wear them all the time or avoid them at all costs considering them akin to a torture device? Let us know in the comments below.
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Cover photo credit: @coveteur for their new book & @christianlouboutinworld