Interview: Christian Louboutin, shoe designer

ONCE a precocious little boy who stalked the Folies Bergeres, Christian Louboutin has come a long way – as a retrospective of his most iconic shoes now reveals

THERE is a game Christian Louboutin likes to play. He has played it ever since he was a boy growing up in 1970s Paris, sneaking into the Folies Bergeres to watch the dancers in all their feathered splendour, more birds of paradise than people. Even then he noticed the shoes as much as he did the showgirls. Anyway, Louboutin likes to look at a woman’s face, her body and her silhouette. He notes the way she carries herself. He wonders who she might be. And then he tries to guess what shoes she is wearing.

I think about this as I get ready to meet him at the Design Museum in London, where a retrospective celebrating the 20th anniversary of the house of Louboutin is opening. By get ready, by the way, I mean sit in a rubble of flat shoes and trainers, cursing. Eventually I choose a pair of black brogues: flat, but at least patent. Louboutin is into patent leather in a big way. Ditto studs, crystals, metal, feathers, ribbons, decollete (of the toe persuasion) and, above all, heels. Anything that’s the opposite of a sensible shoe. Put it this way. This is the only interview I’ve done where the prep has involved giving myself a pedicure.

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We are talking about the world’s most famous shoe designer, the man who put sex back into stilettos. Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Beyonce, Carla Bruni, Tina Turner, Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker, Oprah – it seems there isn’t a famous and, more importantly, wealthy woman left on the planet who is immune to the pleasures (and pains) of a pair of Louboutins. Their signature red soles are the last word in glamour. Woman cripple themselves for them, literally and financially. The author Danielle Steel has 6,000 pairs. Last year, a whopping 700,000 Louboutins were sold. Meanwhile, a lawsuit against Yves Saint Laurent that seeks to protect those iconic red soles rumbles on.

The man himself lives for shoes. Louboutin loves to sleep above his factory outside Milan, no doubt counting shoes instead of sheep, and one imagines him smelling of eau de leather and spending the working day running a fingertip along women’s arches and sighing beatifically. Basically, Louboutin is Grimm’s fairytale shoemaker come to life, but his elves are raised up on spikes sporting glossy red soles.

Can he tell if a woman is wearing Louboutins by looking at her face? “I am always surprised by who wears my shoes,” he says. “This is a good thing. There is no type of woman, but all my women like to feel feminine. They are women who are happy to be women.”

OK ... I fold my legs under my chair. What shoes does he think I’m wearing? Louboutin cocks his head and studies my face. He takes this game seriously. “When I first saw you I did not look at your shoes, I don’t do that, but it has to be black shoes,” he says with the theatricality of a shoe sleuth making his denouement. “I would be shocked if you had white shoes, or clear shoes, or coloured shoes. I am thinking perhaps a round ballerina flat with a bit of pleat in the front ...” I reveal them and his eyebrows raise. “I am surprised,” is all he adds.

Has he ever worn a pair of his own stilettos? “I tried once,” he admits. “There was a time when the heel was very difficult and some of the girls in the office were saying it made them stand too far back. I decided to have a pair of shoes made for me with that heel. I put the shoes on and walked around. Afterwards someone asked me, how did I feel wearing this shoe?” Louboutin makes a face as if this is the most inane question in the world. “I did not think about it as a feeling. I thought about the structure, the gravity, the engineering of the shoe. Actually, I completely forgot to look at myself in the mirror.” He does it now instead in jest, miming checking himself out in his imaginary heels, arching his back and sticking out his bottom on the seat.

Before we meet, I wander around the exhibition, which is like a cabaret with shoes as the stars. Lots of red carpet, velvet curtains and mirrors. Louboutin, in this context, is the master of ceremonies, the magician, as his close friend Diane von Furstenburg calls him, who sends Cinderellas to the ball. An enthusiastic elf in black patent Louboutins accompanies me. “I’ll go a couple of inches higher tonight for the party,” she purrs, adding that she got her first Louboutins when she was 17.

We linger in front of shoes that look like weapons (a fetishistic collaboration with film director David Lynch), shoes like lion’s paws, ballerina shoes with outrageous points that run the length of them, shoes made of trash, shoes made of fish scales, shoes with Marie Antoinette’s face on them. The shoes have showgirl names like Highness Tina, Lady Peep and the Pigalle, one of Louboutin’s most iconic shoes, named after Paris’s red light district. They are shoes as sculpture, as well-suited to a plinth as a foot. They are also shoes as sex, which makes everyone a bit giddy. Whenever a woman clicks past in high heels, we look down one by one in a kind of Mexican wave, each of us lusting after a glimpse of red sole. It feels illicit, sexy, a bit cultish.

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When Louboutin draws the front of a shoe, he thinks of Marlene Dietrich. When he draws the back, it’s Marilyn Monroe. “I’m talking about the essence of femininity,” he says. “Marlene represents elegance and posture. She is the master of knowing how to cross the legs, how to arch the step. The front of the shoe has to represent Marlene’s sense of character. Then there is the way you walk in it. It’s symbolised by the back of a woman and who better represents that than Marilyn? Think of the first time we see her in Some Like It Hot, walking away – the silhouette, the hips, the curve, the way she moves. It’s a perfect example of how a shoe gives intonation. A shoe tells you how to walk.”

Happily, the man lives up to the shoes. Louboutin is quite the character, with an accent as thick and French as creme fraiche. Feathers, for example, are “fezzerz”, and he pronounces lots of things “stoopide”. He is good company and tells elaborate, meandering stories that could, and do, go anywhere. He is dressed in a terracotta checked jacket, blue jeans and steel-toed black shoes (Louboutins, obviously) and looks much younger than his 49 years, with only a little grey in his beard and a neat, bald, brown head. He acts younger too and comes across as sweetly boyish, fidgeting constantly, sticking his tongue out to show displeasure, and needing an elf to come and untangle a teabag from his mug.

The only time Louboutin’s mood clouds over is when I ask him how he would respond to those who claim his heels are too high. (When he designed shoes for Barbie, he demanded her ankles be slimmed down, which didn’t endear him to feminists either). The argument against heels is simple: they hurt women, make them vulnerable, and give them bunions. Not so empowering?

“I am more feminist than feminists,” he insists, outraged even though he must get asked this all the time. “How can those women say that? How dare they imagine, if they have such respect for women, that any woman would do something she did not want to do? It’s really degrading to women to think they are that stupid, that they do things according to rules made by feminists. I think it’s an incredibly dated idea. No one is dictating the height of a heel. I don’t put a gun to anyone’s head.”

We move on to his new collection, which for the first time features tartan. He loves Scotland, it turns out. A legendary globetrotter, Louboutin has a houseboat in Egypt, a fisherman’s cottage in Portugal, a palace in Syria, a 13th-century castle shared with a business partner in France, as well as a home in Paris that he shares with his partner of more than a decade, a landscape architect called Louis Benech, and the apartment above the factory outside Milan.

“The person I’m going to lunch with today is super Scottish,” he tells me proudly. “Natasha Fraser.” This, by the way, is the ex-European editor of Harper’s Bazaar and daughter of Lady Antonia Fraser. “I have very good Scottish friends,” he continues. “I spend a lot of time with Natasha in her house near Beauly. Ah, oui … I have always loved tartans – such an ornamented type of weaving, so vivid in colour, and such a masculine aspect. But actually I think tartans can be feminine or masculine. Think of the kilt, and then all those hairs on that little bag ...” He sighs in satisfaction at the thought of a sporran, which would, now I think about it, be the ideal model for a Louboutin shoe.

Louboutin was born in 1963, the only son of a cabinet maker and an unconventional and loving mother who doted on him. He was the youngest of four and his sisters were much older than him, which made for the perfect education. They talked as if he wasn’t there. He paid attention.

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He was also much darker-skinned than everyone else in his family. “You know, I felt I wasn’t French. My family was very French and so I decided they had probably adopted me. But instead of feeling it was terrible and that I was an outsider who had to go and find my real family, I invented my own history, full of characters from Egypt because I was very into the pharaohs.”

The sense of difference was liberating rather than isolating. “I thought it was a great thing,” he says. “People tend to fear the ghosts in their own family. You feel these family curses and think if it happened to my father, it could happen to me. I had none of that so I could be anything. I pictured myself as an alien in this super nice family. It drove my imagination. When I eventually met my cousins on my father’s side and saw they looked exactly like me, I was so disappointed.”

This leads to a long, rambling story about a racist attack he experienced as a teenager. Louboutin was 13, and had already left home, apparently with his parents’ blessing. He was a party boy and could be found most nights of the week at the legendary Palace nightclub. One day he was out with a friend “in leopard, with high heels” who was half-Spanish, half-Vietnamese. Louboutin, who “was going to pee my pants”, used a restaurant toilet.

“The staff went crazy,” he tells me. “One guy grabbed my friend by her hair and started calling her a little bitch. I took my fist to him, and he screamed, ‘Don’t you dare touch a white guy or I’ll crush your nose even more flat than it is’”. I wasn’t in a black or mixed race family, so I had no experience of racism. But still, I was different.” He was so young at the time. What did he do? “For a few days I wanted to go back there and kill them,” he admits. “I was full of anger.”

It sounds like an anarchic, dangerous childhood, but he doesn’t see it that way at all. He tells me he has such a naturally sunny disposition that things generally don’t bother him, and it’s all down to his mother. “She was a free spirit,” he says. “She never judged anyone and no one judged her. All her energy was driven towards making people happy and loving people who loved her. She was quite an example. She was so nice to people, so encouraging. She gave me the best start.”

She died in 1991, the year Louboutin opened his first boutique in Paris on the rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, where it remains today. Now, of course, it runs the length of the street. “The reason I started this company was because of my mother,” he tells me. “She did everything for me. I owed this to her. When she died I became an adult. I was very much the over-protected son before that. All this is the result of her work.”

What about his father? “He was very sweet but very reclusive; a hermit actually,” Louboutin says. “He had barely any friends. He would spend every weekend at his mother’s house. He barely spoke to me, but he said one thing that really influenced me. He was showing me a piece of wood, and he said, ‘Christian, wood has a grain.’ In French we say a vein. He said, ‘You have to go in the same direction as the vein, never go against it if you want to make something beautiful’. I took this as a practical piece of advice but also metaphorically – it’s the same with people, with artisans, with relationships, and with shoes.”

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This is why Louboutin sees his own success as a series of happy coincidences. He has gone where life has taken him. Yet it doesn’t look that way from the outside. In fact, it sounds as though he was an unusually single-minded and mature boy, someone who by the age of 14 was already telling adults who asked him what he wanted to do: draw shoes.

How did this happen? By this time Louboutin was sneaking into the theatres and music halls of Paris. He had dropped out of school and, when he saw the Folies Bergeres, decided to present himself to the dancers with a clutch of drawings he had been doing for the showgirls. Drawings of shoes. “I am very bad at drawing,” Louboutin confesses to me, which I know isn’t true. “Seriously,” he goes on. “I can draw shoes. That’s about it.”

Anyway, the dancers were charmed and he became their “little mascot”. The story goes that one of his tasks was to buy raw veal for them so they could pad their shoes and relieve their aching feet. Decades later, this trade secret would inspire the hidden platform inside the Very Prive stiletto, allowing Louboutin, and his shoes, to reach ever greater heights.

Something else happened before that. One day, at the entrance to a museum in Paris, he saw a sketch of a stiletto. A red line was drawn through it to show it wasn’t permitted on the museum floors. A forbidden shoe, in other words. The young Louboutin was mesmerised. “I realised that you could make something exist simply by drawing it,” he explains. “But I still hadn’t seen the real shoe.”

He had to wait three years before that happened. “I was sketching shoes all the time by this point,” says Louboutin, who not long after would be working for Charles Jourdan, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Roger Vivier, the man who invented the stiletto. For now, though, Louboutin remained a broke teenager who couldn’t stop dreaming about a shoe.

“Then I saw it,” he says, beginning to fidget. “The real shoe, a classic 1950s pump. You never saw this in the 1970s. But this woman was in a fairground in Paris. She was quite a big woman with a big chignon, hair like this ...” He stops to draw an exaggerated circle around his head. “I was so drawn to her, the way she was walking. She seemed separate from other people, different to them. I started walking behind her. I followed her.”

It’s another classic Louboutin story – strange, sexy, and full of the sense that it could go anywhere. A bit like how his life panned out too. So what happened? “She was a prostitute,” Louboutin sighs. “I got kicked really hard by a man, her pimp I guess. Anyway, I looked at the girl and she looked at me. She didn’t have a clue what to think of this kid staring at her. But you know, all I was thinking was, ‘My God, these shoes exist after all.”

• Christian Louboutin at the Design Museum, London, until 9 July (