It’s early afternoon in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, and Hollywood dealmakers are holding court, hosting power lunches disguised as informal get-togethers.
The always-stylish Christian Louboutin arrives in a light-pink suit, white polo and gold-adorned Louboutin high-top sneakers. After a stressful morning, he’s 30 minutes late — and for good reason.
The animated designer quickly explains that he was nearly run down by an over-eager driver just moments earlier.
“I took my clothes to the cleaners [yesterday] and then they couldn’t find them. So I was without clothes and I had to get some. I went out, and a car was parked at a traffic light and then just started [moving], so I had to jump back to the curb. Thank God I was so close.”
Louboutin dramatically emphasizes the possibility of danger and near death with a wry, understated smirk. He clearly knows how to hook an audience.
It’s that power that has served the designer so well of late.
Even in the depths of a recession, Louboutin’s star has continued to rise, thanks to his must-have styles, which left retailers and consumers clamoring for more. But even from the top of the luxury world, the designer isn’t one to shout about his accomplishments.
While nearby actors and producers hatch secret plans — wanting to be seen, but certainly not heard — Louboutin, too, speaks softly, forcing his listeners to lean forward, nearer to his world, to hear.
That’s part of Louboutin’s appeal. You must come to him. He does not come to you. And perhaps that’s also what fuels his unique eye toward fashion and design.
“I don’t look at the work of [other] people,” he said. “I like to look at a lot of things, but I wouldn’t say that I look at fashion designers so much. I don’t look at trends. I don’t even know the trends.”
But that may be because he’s often the one setting them. And given the spotlight that the “Sex and the City 2” movie puts on his shoes in the opening scene, Louboutin’s profile is likely to get even bigger, if that’s possible. “I haven’t even begun to think of that yet,” he said of the film’s impact. “It should be interesting.”
In an FN exclusive, the designer candidly discussed his creative process and inspirations. Clearly he has no shortage of design ideas for future high-heel creations. “My favorite shoe is the one I have in my head — and it’s unfinished,” he said. “In general, that one is always my favorite. It’s the one that does not yet exist, but it will.”
FN: Are you surprised that you’ve been able to have double-digit growth in this economy?
CL: Yes, of course I’m surprised. Since I started the company, it has slowly but surely always grown. The reality is that I now have a COO [and GM, Alexis Mourot,] who is really organizing everything, and he’s finishing his second year and entering his third year now. Alexis really started to structure the thing, and there definitely is a difference. It’s having a distribution center, [managing leather] production and a lot of inside [back-office] things that obviously make a difference. Also, at the end of the day, it’s because the shoes are selling.
FN: Given all your success, do you feel a lot of pressure to stay on top?
CL: When I’m in the factory, that’s when I feel the pressure, when I see all those people working in my company. It’s very important to keep people who have families and children all working. Apart from that, not really. I concentrate on my work and this is really what counts.
FN: Do you put expectations on yourself to make sure you design next season’s must-have shoe?
CL: I never try to design a hit. Sometimes it happens, but I never set out to do it.
FN: How early in the process can you spot a shoe you know will sell?
CL: When I start a collection and I see the first prototypes, I’m always thinking, “What a bore.” Funnily enough, the collection needs to come alive and evolve. I need to give birth not only to the drawing but also to the first prototype. [Then I] change them and sophisticate them and sometimes erase them. I definitely need the raw material to exist to go to the next step and to another level. But I’m never 100 percent satisfied. I end up always doubting myself. Even when I’m sketching, I barely stop. All day I’m sketching. I may stop to have a coffee or lunch, but I have a very easy flow. I’m very lucky with that.
FN: How do you know when a collection is complete?
CL: It’s always a work in progress. There is always part of a collection that is not ready, but it’s not really important because it goes back into the next collection. At some point, you have to edit the collection and say, “This is the collection.” But if there is something that is not ready, I keep it for next time. It’s not a problem. If next time it doesn’t seem to make sense to have it, then it’s erased. I have enough drawings and I have enough designs that I’m not really scared of erasing or being late with some design. It’s easier for me [because] I’m not focusing on trends or what other people are doing. I’m not looking at other people’s work. So I’m not feeling in competition with anyone and feeling like I have to do this extra thing.
FN: What is it about the red sole that has made it so identifiable and iconic?
CL: In every woman there is also the little girl or the child. When I say everyone is a child, I mean they like to recognize something, and it’s like a game. I see men loving to recognize the shoes, too. Also, it’s very pretty. It’s a flirtation.
FN: How did you come up with that particular shade of red?
CL: It’s a classical lacquered red, almost like a Chinese red. No. 1, it’s good luck. Also, if you think red, this is the red that comes to your mind. This red is the red in a way, a true red. I wanted the idea of red.
FN: Where do you get your design inspiration?
CL: Everywhere. If you look at things right here, there are enough details here to do a full collection. These chairs, if you transformed the wood into a leather, could definitely become a beautiful embossed sandal. One of the things that has been inspiring me, apart from women and dancing, is furniture. I always look at detailing in furniture.
FN: Do places inspire your designs?
CL: Yes, but I’m trying to not be too [literal]. When I go to India, I don’t want to design something that is going to look like an Indian collection. It’s better to mix. It’s always interesting to see when different cultures are mixing. If I go to Egypt, I’m not going to do a belly-dancing collection, but maybe the quality of the sequins may come out in a different collection. I like to keep the filter of imagination. It’s the fragrance of one thing through the filter of something else.
FN: What advice do you have for new designers who are just starting out?
CL: To be at the service of their imaginations. If you’re a designer, use your imagination. The [technical side] can come from someone else. When I’m sketching, I can look at a drawing and analyze it and say, “If you have this stripe, it’s going to arrive here on the toe and it’s going to hurt, so you’re going to have to remove it.” [But if I do], you completely transform [the art into] a technical thing. You shouldn’t shrink your imagination. You should be completely free and then find solutions, but don’t start to shrink yourself by only doing things that are possible.
FN: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in the course of your career?
CL: Something that made me very, very happy and very proud is that when [the late] Yves Saint Laurent was preparing his final show, he looked at a shoe [I designed] and he said, “I love that shoe and I want this for the finale of my final show.” So in the last show, all the girls had this shoe on. Having been the biggest designer, and because he’s this French, iconic person from fashion, I was very proud of that. In the history of fashion, there has never been another name next to Yves Saint Laurent on the brand. As he came to love the shoe, in his last season, they asked me to do a brand called Christian Louboutin for Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture 1962-2002. And it’s the only time Yves Saint Laurent has been associated with another name. I’m very proud of that. It was a fascinating moment.
FN: Who is the one person you’d like to see wearing your shoes?
CL: The Queen of England. I would love that. Funnily enough, there was an article in an English magazine and she was stepping out of a carriage and it looked as if she was wearing red soles. I knew the shoes weren’t mine. It was a reflection of a red carpet where she was going to step. Since that day, I’ve said I wish she had at least one pair. But I don’t think she’s going to put on a major double platform.
FN: Would you ever consider designing a diffusion line?
CL: My problem is that I never think the quality is good enough. Even in my shoes, I always see the defects. If you do a cheaper line, [things happen] to the detailing and quality. There is a certain [quality] loss, which is obvious. For me, it’s painful. For that reason, I wouldn’t take any pleasure in [a diffusion line].
FN: Do people recognize you and stop you in the street?
CL: It depends where [I am]. It happens more frequently now. For instance, I was in Saudi Arabia because we opened a store there, and a lot of people would come to me and know who I was. In New York, very often people come to me. In Paris, some people come to me, but it’s never so much. In England, people stop me in the street often.
FN: Do you like the attention?
CL: When it’s the way it is now, it’s very nice. They come to you and give you a compliment and that’s about it. The thing about being a designer is that people like your work, it’s not about you physically. So it’s not like being an actor or a model, where people want to touch you physically. They come to me for the design. If it were physical, it would drive me crazy. I see with some friends who are really objects themselves. To me, it would be the scariest thing in the world.
FN: Would you ever consider selling the company or taking on an investor?
CL: No. I’ve been asked that many times. I was talking to a friend of mine who is a big businessman, and he said unless you need the cash for something, you should never sell stock or sell the company. You should only do that if you really need the money for a specific reason. Otherwise, what’s the point? I may want to sell the company one day — you never now what happens in your life — but as a conscious decision, no.