“With love, solidarity, responsibility and goodwill, I am sure we can go through this together,” Christian Louboutin said in a special Instagram video message on April 12.
In his brand’s first post after a three-week hiatus, the Frenchman told his 13.4 million followers it was a moment to “focus and refocus” on themselves, their families and the frontline workers who are risking their lives during the coronavirus battle.
At home, the prolific designer is spending much of his time sketching in solitude — a ritual that hasn’t changed. But while he’s used to going off the grid to focus on his collections, the culture connoisseur derives much of his inspiration from travel and the far-flung locales around the world that fuel his passions.
“I hope that this situation comes to an end as quickly as possible so we can be reunited together to celebrate our playful, diverse, great and unique community,” a hopeful Louboutin said in the video.
Weeks earlier, the legend — who celebrates three decades in business in 2021 — was reveling in a thrilling milestone as he inaugurated “Christian Louboutin: L’Exhibition(niste)” at the Palais de la Porte Dorée. As coronavirus storm clouds gathered and Paris Fashion Week cautiously went ahead, an eclectic group of fans — including close friend Diane von Furstenberg, songstress Janelle Monáe, celebrity stylist Law Roach and actress Charlotte Rampling — gathered to toast the designer at one of the last fashion parties before the pandemic changed everything.
“You never know what’s going to happen in your life,” a prescient Louboutin told FN in an exclusive interview a week after the fete, before Paris went into lockdown. The designer was referring to his own mantra — to appreciate the possibility every new day brings. It’s a sentiment that resonates with many people right now. “Every day I work is a pleasure for me. I don’t want to think about being happy in 10 years because I’ve reached a certain goal. What if I don’t reach that goal? Does it mean everything I did means nothing? To master plan everything is putting yourself in a corner,” Louboutin said.
Soon, the museum was dark, and the exhibition was on hold. Revised plans call for it to reopen in July and run through January 2021, though it’s difficult to predict when Parisians will feel comfortable resuming normal activities, like museum visits, and tourists will return to the city.
One thing is for sure, though — this is a show that’s definitely worth seeing. For the past few weeks, Louboutin has been giving his Instagram fans a peek into one of 11 unique sections of the exhibit, “In the Workshop.”
Riveting short films take viewers inside the shoemaker’s process and illustrate the hundreds of steps he takes to craft a shoe. The entire exhibit is intensely personal, starting with the museum itself, which sparked a young Louboutin’s affinity for decorative objects. During a visit when he was about 10 years old, the self-described “dreamy” child gravitated to a sign in the museum that featured a drawing of a women’s pump. (It would eventually become the inspiration for his storied Pigalle style.) The sketch had a big red X through it, and the message was clear: No heels were allowed on the mosaic and parquet floors.
A year later, Louboutin started drawing shoes — and he’s never stopped, save for a short time when he tried out landscape design. “The exhibition brings to life the rich history behind Christian’s vision of becoming a shoe designer,” said Pete Nordstrom, president and chief brand officer of Nordstrom, which sponsored the project.
From the start, Louboutin has artfully used footwear design as a vehicle to explore his many obsessions — travel, pop culture, theater, dance, art, literature and cinema. “French writer [Eric Reinhardt] wrote the introduction to the exhibition book, and said I could have created this world from something else. It happened to crystallize with shoes at the very beginning, but it could have been a different body of work with the same passions.”
While Louboutin relishes the chance to reflect on the past, he’s not one to sit still. The designer’s unbridled enthusiasm for his craft will be crucial as fashion and retail undergo seismic changes — as will his tight connections with his fans. “Thank you for your creations. You inspire the world so much,” Gigi Hadid wrote in the exhibition’s guest book after she visited in March. Here, the singular force reflects on lessons from his childhood, the biggest misconception people have about him and why he’s never been competitive.
How did this project push you outside your comfort zone?
“The brand is the brand, and it’s probably the first time that the name is fully associated to me physically. People didn’t think I was dead, thank god, but I always put my work up front and never myself, because it’s not about me. But [with the exhibit], it’s a larger scope. I put myself into the thing — it’s not only dedicated to my work, but to those I’m working with, the artists, the artisans. It’s dedicated to my father and my family. People have a feeling they’re traveling inside my head. I knew doing it in the museum, a childhood place, was going to connect it to me. I had to assume it was going to become emotional. I was prepared for that, but it’s not something I’m used to.”
I was immediately drawn to your personal photos, like the one of you in middle school, when you were about 13 years old. What do you remember most about that time?
“I was very dreamy. Teachers didn’t have any impact. When they told me I was bad at school and that my parents were going to be pissed off, it didn’t affect me at all. I knew I didn’t belong in that school moment. A lot of friends say I still have those same baby eyes and that same smile, almost like I’m playing a kid. I’m not playing any role. I’m just the way I am.”
What major themes from the early years of the brand are still present in your work today?
“What is interesting to me is I can see my first decade, my second decade. For me, it is about shapes. In the early years, what I did was considered a super high heel. They look like mid heels now. My work is quite detached from seasons. I was never a fashion person. I didn’t want to work in the industry. The curator [Olivier Gabet] pointed out that my primary obsessions were there [at the start]. From the beginning until now, I stayed pretty true to myself and what I liked, and will keep liking. There’s never a schism where I switched to something else completely. A lot of people who know my work, especially the millennial generation, didn’t realize the things I did early on. I wanted to mix everything [in the exhibit], but the curator said, ‘If you put shoes you did at the beginning at the end, they will look odd. If you put them first, people will realize there’s been a maturity to your work, and how much it has influenced a lot of people.’ You see sneakers from 20 years ago, sock boots. I did shoe pants in 1995.”
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
“That I’m only into high heels. From the beginning, I’ve done everything, including flat shoes. I’ve always loved them. If you’re French and you were born in the ’60s and ’70s, your icon is Brigitte Bardot. She’s been out of the social scene for a long time but she represents sexual revolution, freedom — a beautiful woman dancing and being naked. And you think of her barefoot or in ballerinas. For me, flat shoes can be as sexy and as liberating as high heels. It depends on the person. They have to make it their own.”
You cleverly explore the idea of perception throughout the exhibit. Does it matter to you how people view your work?
“There is no judgement with me. For instance, I’m not a fetishist, but I can understand there’s part of my work that comes from fetishist imagery. Your work suggests ideas. When I see spikes, I see decorative objects. Some people see bondage. They have the feeling it speaks of the creator, but it speaks of them. People ingest it and digest it their way. A shoe can be considered as super sexy by one person — and very elegant and delicate by another.”
Luxury sneakers and heels for men are two trends you saw very early. How do you decide when to try something new?
“My company is mine. It’s been homemade for a long time. I don’t have anyone telling me you have to do this or that. I don’t have a studio with 10 designers. When I started men’s, I started sneakers. The men’s shop is next to the women’s shop in Paris, and when I started talking to the managers, they said small sizes were gone in the sneakers and the loafers. Every girl here said, ‘What about me, I want the same shoe.’ We just saw this huge moment where shoes have no gender. We definitely have men wearing heels, so we have to go all the way with sizing. [Gender fluidity] isn’t a trend. It’s a deep psychological evolution.”
You’ve always cited Roger Vivier as one of your biggest design influences. What did he teach you?
“When I was 16, someone gave me a book about him. He became my mentor at that time without me knowing him, and I started to think as a designer. Then I met him and we worked together. It was when he had a retrospective here. I never designed for him. I was his cook sometimes, his assistant, I would go with him to restaurants. I took care of everything, and I loved it. He was a 1950s type of character. He would never leave a woman to open a door. He had this true Parisian classical elegance. I started to learn the elegance was in the details, not only in what you do, but how you behave. He was the one to tell me, ‘Christian Dior said a shoe needs to be able to appear and disappear. If you look closely, it has to be beautiful, but it should be able to fade into the silhouette of the woman.’ [Vivier] also taught me the importance of a good last. If the last isn’t correct at the beginning, it’s almost like having a weird face. You can put makeup on it, but you will never have a beautiful, symmetrical face.”
In the imaginary museum at the end of the exhibit, you feature shoes by both Vivier and Pierre Hardy. What about Pierre inspires you?
“He is a great, great designer. I’m very sensitive to drawings. When I look at Pierre’s work, I can see the drawing. It’s not styled. In fashion, at one point, you had designers and you had couturiers. [Now you have] stylists. Pierre Hardy is not a stylist. He’s a true designer and true to his drawings. We do a lot of things differently, but I recognize a lot of my obsessions in his work. If I had to show some shoes that were really powerful, the first person who came to my mind was Pierre Hardy.”
What do you still want to do as a designer?
“There’s a lot to be done. In the exhibition, you see this crystal block that’s unfinished. So many people are driven by Cinderella because it speaks to your own imagination and what’s in your head. That’s what drives me.”
You’ve been a commercial success for so long. Do you feel pressure to keep that going?
“No, because that’s not my motivation. I’m fortunate that I built myself in a positive way. I owe that to my family because they never gave me any pressure. The pressure was to enjoy every day. I know many people are doing things just to prove to other people they can do it — there’s a revenge aspect. I’m not a competitive person, I’m not jealous. That’s not infused into me. I hope I never change.”