On Nov. 30, Christian Louboutin will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 36th annual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Nov. 28 print issue on the designer’s career.
On a sunny day in October, Christian Louboutin found himself in an only-in-New-York scenario. Surrounded by crowds of tourists at the front of the New York City Public Library in Bryant Park for his FN cover shoot, the shoe legend wandered the marble steps and sidewalks in near-total anonymity as cameras followed. Close by, groups of amateur crews conducted their own photo shoots, blind to the fact that one of fashion’s most recognizable names was walking among them.
It was a stark contrast to the personal appearance that Louboutin would make just days later, up a few blocks at Saks Fifth Avenue. There, the designer hosted one of his signature shoe signings, his first in New York since the pandemic and timed to the exclusive release of the LoubiFamily collection, his debut line of children’s footwear and pet accessories.
To witness Christian Louboutin at one of these shoe signings is a bit like watching a rock star navigate the fanaticism of a post-show meet-and- greet. There are the spellbound lookers-on, a sea of camera phones in the air, lines snaking every which way. A kinetic energy permeates as customers — fans — nervously clutch shoes, boxes and shopping bags, plotting out what they’ll say when it’s their turn to meet the footwear designer. Elvis may have had his blue suede shoes, but for 30 years and counting Mr. Louboutin and his red-bottomed soles have elicited the oohs, the ahhs, the autographs, speechless moments and maybe even a fainting spell or two.
With the new categories came a whole new crowd at Saks: A mother and her twin daughters had flown in from Calabasas, Calif., decked out in matching hot-pink feathers and sequins with a pair of holographic heels for the designer to decorate with his collection of paint pens. Shoppers arrived with arms weighed down with not one or two, but three, four, even five tan-and-red Christian Louboutin branded shopping bags.
It wasn’t always this way. As the designer himself tells it, his first personal appearance was an early lesson in humility.
“There was my name on a billboard, it said ‘Please welcome Christian Louboutin.’ But it was written: ‘LOOBOUTAIN,’” the designer recalled during a conversation with FN that coincided with a private shoe signing in his hotel suite for top clients. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, they don’t even know my name.” It was the mid-’90s, at a department store in Atlanta. “I came with paper to sign. No one asked me to sign anything! At one point, this sweet salesperson arrived with a woman who had just bought two pairs. She says, ‘This is Christian Lahh-boutin the designer, do you want him to sign your shoes?’ She looks at me and says, ‘No!’ I left after two hours of staying by myself at the store. I was totally depressed. For a while I thought I would never do that again, it was so humiliating. But at the same time, it made me laugh.”
Louboutin’s signature — his autograph and his famous red soles — would soon become sought after, and through the years the designer has amassed many tales through those interactions. From 5 a.m. plane rides and three-hour waiting lines to young creatives looking for advice on how to make it — even a woman who used a pair of Christian Louboutin heels as motivation to learn how to walk again after a serious injury — the designer often finds himself drawn into the more intimate moments of his customers’ lives.
“The stories are associated with important moments: a meeting, a first love, wanting to feel good,” Louboutin said. “It’s very nice — there is nothing more I can say — that you become part of very intimate, pivotal moments for people in their lives.”
Equally surreal are the more overt moments of fandom, where those rock star parallels become more eerily apparent. “This guy came with his girlfriend or wife and said, ‘I am here because I wanted to see for myself. She always says that if she had to choose between me and you, she would choose you!’, Louboutin recalled. “And the girl said, ‘Yes! I would definitely leave with you and your shoes.’” Turns out, the high-heel love triangle is a common interaction at the meet-and-greets. “A lot of people would say this to me. It’s a bit strange at the beginning, but also sweet.”
All the fawning, the applause, the adoring masses point to Louboutin’s unique position in pop culture and fashion. It’s an intersection that is only truly populated by a handful in the fashion industry, a world in which everyone is well aware of each other but only a few resonate outside of the bubble. The designer considers himself to be someone working outside of fashion, only using the industry for the practicality of producing footwear and accessories within it. Still, he’s managed to seduce all sides, delivering a heady mix of old-fashioned Hollywood glamour, the sultry camp and winking audacity of cabaret, highbrow art and artistry and a near- universal attraction to shoes, particularly high heels, that transform their wearers into other beings.
“In America, there is this term ‘pop culture.’ There is no term for pop culture in the French language. In France, when you say populaire it can mean mass or cheap. It’s not necessarily a compliment,” said Louboutin. “[It’s being] successful in a large way. To me, there is no reason to say popular is cheap. There are a lot of people who are very popular who are not cheap.”
It is certainly not the word to describe the designer’s products, which fall squarely in the luxury market, the highest level of pieces living in the couture landscape (and museums). The Louboutin lacquered red bottom has long been a badge for reaching a certain level of wealth and status, and the designer’s network of serious collectors runs deep. Cardi B summed it up in her 2017 breakout hit “Bodak Yellow”: “These expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes.” But “Louboutin” and “red bottoms” have been referenced in countless songs and appeared in a litany of film and TV moments.
When Louboutin opened his 2020 exhibition, “Exhibition(iste)” at the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, his goal was to maintain a level of pop culture familiarity, while also revealing more about his own life in the process, especially his childhood, growing up near the museum in Paris’ 12th arrondissement.
“What I really wanted once I decided on the place was to do a popular exhibition,” said Louboutin. “I knew that [the museum location] would bring a lot of memories with it, and it would be telling my story. It would be about this little boy coming from this specific working-class neighborhood. That was why I called it ‘Exhibition(iste).’ I would be exposing myself, I would have to talk about myself, which is not necessarily something that I do. In French, ‘exhibe’ is ‘showing.’ So if you say someone is an ‘exhibitioniste,’ it’s someone who is ‘over showing’ in a way. It’s like someone naked. I know that, it’s fine. It’s fine to talk about your story. And yes, it’s a way to expose yourself.”
The designer has continued to reveal more since the exhibition debut. A second, expanded chapter of the show opened this summer in Monaco. And a long-awaited hotel is slated to open in Portugal in the spring (near the designer’s home). More and more, Louboutin appears in his own campaigns, including the latest for LoubiFamily.
While his public persona is relatively new to the brand, the designer has always found ways to inject his own personality and interests into design. The spring ’22 collection features pastel mules with monochrome oversized studs, pumps with constellations of crystals in a “Louboutin” motif and a continuation of a new lipstick heel, certain to be
a collectible. Other collections hone in on his love of travel (which he has since resumed following the pandemic, though with more mindfulness of his twin daughters’ school schedules, he notes). For the brand’s artisan-focused Caba line, Louboutin plans to follow his Greekaba capsule by focusing on the intricate lace and linen work of France’s Brittany region, where his family is from.
The designer is also working with celebrities, though only for serious projects. In 2021, Louboutin partnered with Idris and Sabrina Elba for “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” a capsule dedicated to African culture and building social justice. All the proceeds were donated to grassroots nonprofit organizations. Earlier this year, the trio debuted their second capsule for the line.
“We [decided we would] design a collection totally dedicated to what happened to George Floyd, to help people fight injustice and racism,” Louboutin recalled. “But we said, let’s not do it now, let’s do it when it’s no longer a story in the headlines. Let’s do something that will take some time, so we don’t forget what happened. We have to remember.”
Louboutin’s proximity to celebrity has certainly helped keep his name in the pop culture lexicon. A steady flow of red-carpet moments and new cameos in TV and film has ensured that the brand remains relevant, especially to a younger audience. But it’s not just about youth or the zeitgeist. For the designer, there is an inherent showmanship, a love of performance, theater and art. And a sense of optimism for the future.
“I’m not nostalgic. For some reason, I have just always loved every step of the way, every period that I had.” ❚