Here’s a sight you don’t see every day: Christian Louboutin with a model hoisted on top of his shoulders and her multibowed sandals wrapped around his torso (see below). The designer is offering up art direction while simultaneously posing for the camera. “Now, point your feet inward,” he tells her. “Relax the toes. Lift up the arms.”
At his recent photo shoot for Footwear News in Los Angeles, the Paris-based shoe designer proved just how far he will go to get the shot. But it’s no surprise that he’s a pro — after all, Louboutin has been firmly entrenched in the fashion business for the last 25 years.
The designer, who got his start creating shoes for showgirls, has built an empire that grew by double digits last year, now including categories such as men’s and women’s shoes, handbags and beauty — but after all these years, he still views his business as a passion project.
A day after the shoot, the Frenchman appeared relatively unfazed by the major milestone he celebrates this year, as he sat outside his villa at the Chateau Marmont, along with his 2-year-old twins. “Two is really a super-nice age. They’re playful,” Louboutin said. “They’re completely different. The only thing that they have in common is that they’re always in good disposition.”
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Reflecting on his long career, Louboutin attributed much of his success to doing things his own way. (The company is still privately owned, and the designer said there are no plans to sell.)
“Things have been growing very organically and have not been pushed,” Louboutin said. “We’ve gradually opened more stores. Categories have been added little by little. I took my time to do what I actually wanted to do.”
Retailers acknowledged the label’s fiercely devoted fan base, and its ability to maintain relevance in a saturated market. “Christian possesses a very high level of curiosity, which is matched with a natural intuition,” said Peter Harris, president of Pedder Group. “He is very connected to popular culture, technology, music, art and film, which influences enormously his design story, keeping his work always within the context of ‘now.’”
Marina Larroude, fashion director for Barneys New York, added that Louboutin continues to be one of the retailer’s best-selling brands, for both men and women. “Louboutin clients keep coming back for more,” she said. “They are like a collector’s item. Customers want the pump in various colors, as well as his novelty pieces. His shoes don’t go out of style after a season. They are an investment piece.”
Indeed, it’s impressive that Louboutin has managed to stay on top for so long since his popularity surged during the early 2000s (thanks to many mentions by Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City”).
To keep the momentum going, he continues to offer his most popular styles, like the Pigalle pump, while also embracing newer, more experimental ones.
His aesthetic is also on full display in his retail stores, and this month, he is reopening a boutique in Miami’s thriving Design District. “In the middle of a luxurious concrete jungle, I’ve built a little hut,” Louboutin said. He also debuted the new Mexicaba bag in collaboration with Taller Maya, a foundation supporting the traditional craftsmanship of Mayan artists (10 percent of the proceeds will go to the organization).
Though many luxury brands’ sales have stalled, Louboutin said his customers continue to have a healthy appetite for his collection. And amid political turmoil, he said innovative design is needed more than ever before.
“When times are tough and you’re in a year where there are wars or problems, fashion gets more important,” the designer said. “The more things are morose, the more you need excitement. A shoe is protection against morosity.”
That has been Louboutin’s mantra since the beginning. Born in Paris in the 1960s, he had an upbringing that was anything but gloomy. The designer grew up in the city’s glitzy cabaret scene, where he began working in the dressing rooms at the Folies Bergère at 16 years old. (He still contributes shoes to venues like Le Crazy Horse.)
“I’ve been learning since I was a teenager,” said Louboutin, who worked for Charles Jourdan, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, and founded his label in 1992. Now, even after a steady journey to the top, Louboutin insists the company’s growth has happened largely by chance.
“For me, [designing shoes] was my way to express myself, but I didn’t think of it as a business concept,” he said. “A lot of people study how I used the red sole as a trademark, but I never thought about it. I’ve been studied almost like a mechanical character when, in reality, there is no mechanism in my story.”
Today, his background in theatrics and showmanship is still present in his designs. For fall ’17, for example, Louboutin certainly didn’t play it safe. “There are a lot of shapes and a lot of printed textures,” he said.
His latest collection includes new women’s showstoppers such as crystal-covered platforms, pumps with magenta fur accents and booties that, for a touch of humor, double as bags.
Each season, the designer’s sketching process takes about two weeks. “I wake up, have breakfast, and then I start drawing,” Louboutin said. “Then I have lunch and do more sketching. When it’s hours of drawing, you can do a lot of them.”
A few weeks later, he moves into full-on production mode, where he travels to Italy to refine the new season’s lasts and finishes. “I start to change them, look at the proportions,” Louboutin said. “And then I see what’s missing in the collection — not enough flats, too many pointy [toes].”
For fall, Louboutin was particularly struck by the idea of gender fluidity. “A lot of the men’s shoes I’ve designed, I’ve also been doing them for women,” he said. For instance, the women’s collection includes laceups and loafers that are built from his men’s lasts. As for the men’s collection, he offered daring new Cuban-heeled boots, some covered entirely in sequins.
For the past several years, men’s has been a major new focus. (It launched in 2005 and now makes up 20 percent of his business, and is increasing by double digits each year.)
He’s particularly found success in the sneaker realm. “At the very beginning, I was doing [sneakers] thinking it was a very small percentage of people who will like it,” said Louboutin. “But actually, it’s much more than expected.”
Highlights include the Rantus high-tops and the recently launched Loubikick, which is inspired by ’90s basketball styles.
Louboutin attributes the men’s growth to an increasingly demanding consumer — one who has a desire for less traditional, more daring designs.
“There is this guy I know in Paris. He’s an industrialist in his 50s, and he comes to buy shoes for his wife,” Louboutin said. “Now he also buys shoes for himself. It’s really funny because he’s always in a gray suit, yet he buys the craziest shoes. Tons of colors and spikes. He loves it.”
Louboutin isn’t just in the business of selling shoes — he also wants to sell fantasy.
Much of his cult following stems from the impressive roster of glamorous Hollywood stars who wear his shoes on the red carpet. Go to any awards show and Louboutin’s red soles are on full display (a signature so iconic that many brands are now pursuing their own signatures, like Santoni’s orange soles or Rene Caovilla’s glitter soles).
Elizabeth Stewart — a celebrity stylist to stars like Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis — said her clients are drawn to Louboutin shoes for the label’s wide assortment of evening styles.
“I love that he does classic just as well as he does unique and whimsical,” Stewart said. “I use the pumps the most, as there is a brilliant variety, but he’ll also have something no one else could have ever dreamed up.”
And it’s not just actors and singers. First lady Melania Trump, in particular, is a repeat Louboutin wearer, favoring his classic pumps and flats.
Louboutin said his celebrity success has manifested organically — he’s famously said that he doesn’t give shoes to celebrities for free — and that red-carpet dressing has only helped drive an aspirational message for the brand.
“It’s a new Cinderella syndrome,” he said. “When you’re [younger], you look at Cinderella and the glass slipper. When you’re older, you love people onstage or in movies. The red carpet has a bit of a Cinderella aspect.”
The designer’s affinity for cinema is part of the reason he expanded into beauty, too. Originally launched in 2014 with nail polish, the beauty line has since extended into categories like lipstick and perfume, as well as an eye-makeup collection, launched last month, that includes liner, mascara and a brow definer.
“I love performers and body language,” Louboutin said. “I always loved beauty because, in a way, it speaks the same language — it is the language of freedom. If you wear makeup, you’re in charge of who you want to be and how you want to present yourself to other people.”
Rania Masri, GM of Level Shoes in Dubai, said consumers are purchasing his beauty products as collector’s items, just like his shoes. “The introduction of the nail polish range was a genius extension,” she said. “Women are buying not only for the color but to own the unique bottles.”
But don’t call Louboutin a jack-of-all-trades. After 25 years, the designer’s most important lesson learned? Hiring good people to do things for him.
“From a business point of view, I’m not good at it. But I’m not trying to be good,” said Louboutin. “I knew quite early that I had to concentrate on design and not on being a good technician, because I would be a mild technician. It’s good to know what you’re good at, but it’s also good to recognize what you’re not good at.”
As for the future, there are still plenty of niches for the designer to tackle. Will we soon see Louboutin apparel, furniture, films?
“No, no, no,” he smiled. “I have enough on my plate.”
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