Reclining like a Freudian analysand on a red divan in his Paris office, Christian Louboutin looks as if he’s prepared to spill his guts. Instead, he yawns and grumbles that last night’s party left him “wiped out.”
The fete in question marked the opening of “Fetish,” an exhibition at the Galerie du Passage Pierre Passebon of David Lynch’s photographs of women in Louboutin’s towering shoes, which attracted a sophisticated Parisian crowd that included France’s new first lady, Cécilia Sarkozy. There, Lynch mused on the universality of his motif. “We all have a set of fetishes,” he offered. “And Christian knows a few things when it comes to shoes. You know what I mean?”
Obviously thousands of women do. In his 15 years in business, Louboutin, 43, has become a darling of the chic-shod set, renowned both for his flattering stilettos and his sparkling personality. Yet, not one to rest on his laurels, the designer has ratcheted up his luxury profile even higher by quietly opening a made-to-measure salon on a courtyard across the street from his rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau headquarters.
“I was scared,” Louboutin says, kicking off his Sperry Top-Siders and pulling on the collar of his striped rugby shirt. “At first I thought, What if I don’t have any clients?” Au contraire. In the past six months, 70 of Louboutin’s most faithful regulars—Sofia Coppola, Zoe Cassavetes, Arielle Dombasle, Liliane Bettencourt and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison among them—have given his bespoke service a whirl. “This is a world of standardization,” he says. “So when a woman comes to me with a wish, it’s exciting to be able to realize it. To fulfill a woman’s precise desire—that is the ultimate luxury.”
Louboutin hit on the idea for a custom service thanks to a couple of “happy accidents.” First, he was approached by a man whose small custom-made shoe studio in Paris was on the brink of bankruptcy because of a dearth of clients. The designer found the idea of helping to save the operation while using its artisanal savoir faire to create his own made-to-order business “trés sympathique.” Days later, a second man ambled into one of his Paris shops and offered to sell him a lamp. “He told me it was in an old photo studio right across the street from my office,” Louboutin says. “I went to see it. I didn’t like the lamp. But I loved the studio—it was perfect for a bespoke atelier.”
The designer’s made-to-order studio.
Soon the designer had rented the studio and spiffed up the ground-floor space with a pair of Egyptian columns and exotic doorways he sourced in Java and Cairo. He hired the owner and staff of the failing made-to-order business. And he then hung out his shingle.
“Made-to-measure is quite technical,” Louboutin says, explaining that every initial order begins with the time-consuming task of sculpting a cast to match each client’s foot. The procedure takes five weeks and costs $3,400. “Once we have the cast, the shoe can be made in a week,” he says. The casts are saved, but every time a customer orders a shoe in a new heel height, a new cast must be made. A shoe selected from Louboutin’s existing collection can be custom made, tweaked for color and materials, and will cost 25 percent more than the regular price. One designed entirely from scratch costs more.
As he wiggles into a more comfortable position on the divan, Louboutin says that he has been enamored of shoes for most of his life. In fact, he dates his obsession very precisely to a visit to a museum at age 12. At the entrance he was struck by a sticker picturing a prohibitive slash through a pair of stilettos, warning women to keep their heels off the gallery’s delicate parquet floors. “I was totally fascinated by that sign,” he recalls. “I’d never seen shoes like that. I started to draw shoes all day long at school.”
A workbench with a cast of a foot.
At 18, Louboutin landed a job at Charles Jourdan and then worked as an assistant to the late master shoe designer Roger Vivier, who became his mentor. He also juggled freelance assignments for houses including Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent and, in 1992, struck out on his own. His supersexy styles and distinctive red lacquered soles were immediately successful, and soon glitterati such as Nicole Kidman, Catherine Deneuve and Gwyneth Paltrow were beating a path to his door.
These days Louboutin says he sells about 340,000 pairs of shoes a year. He has two shops in Paris, two in New York, two in London and one each in Moscow and Los Angeles. Over the next year he plans to add additional boutiques in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Tokyo and Las Vegas. Business may be robust, but Louboutin insists that the visceral process of design remains his principal source of joy. That’s one reason, he adds, he would never compromise his freedom by selling his business to an outside group. “I’ve had my share of offers [from investors],” he says. “But I don’t want to change my way of working. If I were to join a group, I’d have to follow a group strategy, which I think is contrary to the individual. Individuality feeds my creative force.”
Louboutin’s clients nourish his imagination too. “I totally understand Valentino,” he says. “He loves his clients—they are his whole life. My clients have talent. It’s in spending time and talking with them that I decide to design certain things.”
The appreciation Louboutin feels for his femmes is mutual, says brewery heiress Daphne Guinness, who calls him one of her dearest friends. “He can make anyone’s leg look sexy,” she claims. “He’s an artist.”
And like many artists, Louboutin says that inspiration strikes him in odd ways. “I bought a children’s chair the other day,” he says. “It’s wound with rope and has a sort of sailor’s feel to it. I’m using it as the basis for a shoe. A great doorknob can become the idea for a shoe.”
Though his primary focus has always been to construct shoes that “flatter the leg,” Louboutin has become more of a purist recently, ditching the wilder ornamentation of his earlier days in favor of focusing on a shoe’s architecture. “I did my share of feathers and spangles,” he says with a smile. “My nightmare would be for a guy whose girlfriend is wearing my shoes to say that he’s not going out with her in shoes like that.”
a shoe takes shape.
Not that Louboutin thinks men understand everything about women and their attachment to shoes. “I’m always astonished by how much men misunderstand women,“ he laments. “For one, men don’t understand how a woman can own 300 pairs of shoes. For a woman, it’s the most natural thing in the world.”