Nailing Louboutin: Q&A With the Sole Man

It’s a quiet summer afternoon in Manhattan’s charming West Village neighborhood, and the camera is rolling inside Christian Louboutin’s women’s boutique on Horatio Street.

The designer, dressed in a denim shirt, black pants and Yacht Spikes loafers from his men’s collection, sits on a tufted ottoman in the center of the store. He reads lines off cue cards for a video greeting that will be distributed to employees at Sephora, one of the key retailers launching his nail polish collection. After almost a dozen takes, the Frenchman and a small team of loyal employees on-set are finally satisfied with his delivery.

“I cannot imagine anything worse than being an actor,” Louboutin proclaimed.

Nevertheless, it’s clear the designer relishes the spotlight. He’s taking center stage this summer with the highly anticipated debut of Christian Louboutin Beauté, a project he’s been working on for two years.

“Beauty is a different way of thinking, but I was ready for that,” Louboutin said of the move into the category, unprecedented for an independent footwear designer. “It was a long process and a challenge, but an exciting one.”

The new piece of business is adding to the designer’s already substantial workload. While he’s based in Paris, Louboutin’s travel schedule is more frenetic than ever.

In May, for instance, he made two trips to New York, where the new venture is based. In between, the designer hit Mexico City for an appearance at the Financial Times’ Business of Luxury Summit and squeezed in a short rest in Los Angeles, where he was photographed for Footwear News.

After that stateside visit, Louboutin returned to the City of Light before venturing to Italy, Austria, the U.K. and Portugal — where he’s putting the finishing touches on a house — among other locales.

Then it was back to the Big Apple in late July for the official launch of the “Rouge” nail polish at the designer’s own boutiques and at Saks Fifth Avenue’s New York flagship. The department store is making a major splash with five windows dedicated to “Loubiville,” the city imagined by the architecture-obsessed designer; the displays are also front and center in Louboutin’s shop-in-shop on the 10022-Shoe floor.

“Christian has taken his rightful position on the prestigious list of fashion designers who have their own beauty lines,” said Saks President Marigay McKee, who has extensive experience in the sector. “Launching into this category only accentuates his hyper-luxury position in the fashion realm. Consumers will easily adapt to thinking about the brand multidimensionally.” Overall, Louboutin’s growth potential at Saks is “limitless,” McKee added.

The rest of Saks’ doors, as well as Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and select Sephora stores, unveiled the $50 red nail polish last week. Thirty additional shades in three color families — Pop, Nude and Noir — will roll out across the U.S. on Aug. 31.

The product is launching globally on a gradual basis as well.

In Hong Kong, demand has already been higher than expected, according to Peter Harris. He is the president of Pedder Group, which operates the shoe departments at Lane Crawford and partners with Louboutin on namesake boutiques in the region.

“Four hundred people attended the [Lane Crawford] launch, with sales in the first three days exceeding our plan set for the first three weeks,” Harris said. “We’ve also seen a remarkable response online, with a lot of comments on social media networks, which is fueling interest in China, where the product is not yet available.”

For Louboutin, getting the beauty business off the ground has been an intense process, but that hasn’t stopped the designer from forging ahead on expansion initiatives across the company.

Overall, sales continue to grow in the high double digits, and the company now produces about a million shoes per year, according to Alexis Mourot, Louboutin’s group COO and GM.

The executive said that men’s, which accounts for 20 percent of overall sales three years after launching as a standalone business, remains a hot opportunity.

“It’s been growing quickly, but we didn’t open a lot of distribution in the U.S. on purpose, and we plan to keep it quite limited [to maintain the exclusive feel],” he said.

On the retail front, Louboutin, who counts 92 locations between freestanding stores and concessions, will bow 17 stores over the next 12 months. On the agenda: U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Houston and Chicago, and global destinations like Shanghai, Beijing and Hakata-ku in Fukuoka, Japan.

The firm also planted roots in San Francisco earlier this year and plans to reopen its Madison Avenue store in a larger space. Next year, Louboutin will make a powerful statement with a new store in Miami’s trendy Design District.

While the designer is eager to talk about store plans, he is reluctant to discuss his next steps for the beauty business. But he is clearly bullish on the category.

“Don’t worry, it’s just the beginning,” he said.

Here, the designer sounds off on global challenges and the fashion athletic craze.

As an avid traveler, what is your view of the unrest plaguing many parts of the world?
CL:
We are in a bit of turmoil right now. If you live in Europe, you [have to be] affected by what is going on in the Middle East. It’s sad but it’s not new. It’s always been there. When I was a kid, [the sentiment] was that there was no hope for parts of Africa. Now, you are starting to see a lot of places in Africa emerge. It’s interesting to see how people in different parts of the world perceive certain countries. In Europe, for example, some people are afraid to go to Egypt and some aren’t. It’s really divided. Here in America, the perception is different. Everybody is scared of Egypt.

Which international stores are you most excited about?
CL:
Bandra in Mumbai. I’m excited because it’s Bollywood, and I love Bollywood. It’s a huge industry. The actors and actresses are not only doing movies, but they perform all the time on TV. They are more like Broadway people than Hollywood actors; it’s very much about the dancing. I was on a set last time I was there, and it was so good. We are probably going to do something for a Bollywood production, one where shoes are an important part of the film.

Has the beauty push encouraged you to expand into other segments?
CL:
I’d rather do things well than [split] myself into too many categories. I work a lot and I love it, but I still need to have time for me, for my friends and family. I feel sad when people drown themselves in their work. It sucks a lot of energy out of you. To get some of it back, you have to nourish yourself. It’s important to keep some time for pleasure.

How is the beauty arena different from the footwear business?
CL:
Beauty is a bit of a book. Some of the chapters are already written. I didn’t want to create this type of frenzy with the nail polish [and then fall behind]. For the first time, I’ve been thinking about a plan more than six months ahead of time, which is not in my nature. But with beauty, it is important to do that. You have to think about the components, the skin-care [elements], the medical testing. You have to plan ahead.

Why did you decide to merchandise the product on the shoe floors?
CL:
I like putting objects together, and it makes sense that the categories are linked. When I produce photographs for a lookbook, for example, I always consider the nail color when I’m shooting sandals or peep-toes. It’s about the whole image. It’s good to be able to see how colors look with a certain shoe. I don’t think it’s about being matchy-matchy, but choosing something that’s complementary.

How did you come up with the idea for the Loubiville city-like beauty displays?
CL:
When I started thinking about how I wanted to [portray beauty], I knew I wanted to work with [Brazilian architect] Oscar Niemeyer. I’ve loved him since I was a kid, and I consider him the biggest architect of our time. I met him and asked him to do the project. He was sweet and very interested, but then he died at age 104. I stuck with my idea of creating a town. I wanted to build beauty from scratch like he had built Brazil from scratch.

Are you surprised how quickly the men’s business has grown?
CL:
No. Men want to be showmen just like women want to be showgirls. If you look back [over the past few decades], men used to dress up with complicated vests and bow ties. Now a lot of people don’t even wear bow ties. There was a shift, and the foot became the place where men have freedom to show their differences.

In the women’s business, we’ve seen crossover between the athletic and fashion worlds. What is your take?
CL:
I can see that women like to have their two sides, the feminine side and the sporty side. It goes from one extreme to another. Look at Serena Williams. On one side, she’s very sporty. But she also likes to be feminine. The strongest characters in sport want to show their opposite sides.

What do you make of all the sneakers that have popped up on major runways?
CL:
In fashion, people are obsessed with doing something new and trying to be trendy. I like sneakers, but when they’re shown with dresses, I find them really ugly. They make you walk a certain way, and it doesn’t look good when you’re wearing a tight dress. I guess I’m very traditional in that way. It’s just not interesting to me.

You’ve been at the top of the industry for many years now. Do you think you could ever be too hot?
CL:
Never. But I don’t think about that, whether I’m more trendy or less trendy [than before]. I don’t question myself. I’m excited about my work, and that keeps me going. It’s important that people like what I’m doing, but I don’t necessarily want to evaluate my work through other people’s eyes.

Do you ever worry your success is going to end?
CL:
That’s like thinking about death. I hope it doesn’t happen, and I don’t want to surround myself with negative ideas. I just stay true to myself.

Would you ever consider selling the company?
CL:
Do I want to do it now? Absolutely not. But life can bring unexpected changes. Anything could happen. I could decide I wanted to do something else. If I did sell, it would mean I would leave [because] I would no longer be working in total freedom. I always find it a little bit pathetic when people sell and then they stay on for five years and get [upset] when things change. What’s the point in selling, then?

 

Christian on …

Crafting shoes for the next leg of Cher’s tour:
“I’m a big fan. I’ve always loved her, and she has a beautiful voice. It’s funny, she’s one of the first people I remember being obsessed with shoes. When I was 13 or 14, I watched her on a TV show in Paris. They were asking her about her stay in the city, and she talked about how her [expensive] boots had been ripped by a taxi driver.”

His turn in Bollywood:
“When I was a teenager, a friend and I managed to get into a big studio in south Madras [in India]. The director needed someone to play a European character. There was a honeymoon scene, and the characters ended up going to Paris. I still remember my line: ‘Do you want an ice cream?’ I would love to find [the film].”

Emerging designers he’s watching: “Stella Jean is a new designer who’s doing nice things with prints. I love Duncan Quinn’s work. Nicolas [Ghesquière] has been doing great things so far at Louis Vuitton. I’ve always loved Alaïa — he’s a genius. [In terms of shoes], Pierre Hardy is doing a wonderful job.”

Wearing other footwear brands: “The collection is so big that I barely wear anything else, maybe Nike and Adidas sometimes. And Dries Van Noten — every time I see a pair of shoes I like, I don’t even look at the brand, and it ends up being Dries.”

The rebirth of the single sole: “Trends go back and forth. The single sole has always been there. But there are a lot of moments when the platform is still strong — between the comfort and the height, it’s still big.”

The movie character he would most like to outfit: “James Bond. I’ve loved him since I was a kid.”

Collaborating with Louis Vuitton on bags and luggage: “It was fun. It’s always interesting to collaborate with people who have different mentalities and ways of doing things [than I do]. Also, [Louis Vuitton] was so close to my office that it made it feel easy. If I had to cross Paris every time I had a meeting, it would be different.”

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