MAESTRO OF DESIRE
Christian Louboutin’s understanding of women has helped him conceive accessories that trigger an unbridled yearning.
Christian Louboutin is here to talk about desire. Desire lies at the heart of his shoes – it’s a signature for vertiginous heels that toe the line between sexy and dangerous, red-soled, in patent, animal print, in sequins and shine. Desire is in the artwork on exhibit at the studio where the photographic shoot takes place. Someone is asked to phone the artist to make the necessary inquiries to purchase. “Christian Louboutin wants to buy my photographs? All of them?” the artist spluttered down the line in disbelief. Yes, he does – the entire series. Louboutin often purchases art, sculptures or other accoutrements on his travels, either for one of his many homes (at last count, there are six) or for one of his numerous stores around the world, which he personally decorates. So he knows a thing or two about desire – having it, fulfilling it and creating it.
“Desire, it is a thing that belongs to you and nobody can take it,” says Louboutin after the shoot with Vogue in Sydney. “It’s part of your inner character. Once you don’t have a desire you become a robot or a machine.”
He recalls a moment in his first store in rue Jean-Jacque Rousseau when a woman was taken with a particular shoe: big, puffy with pink feathers at the front and back. “She looked at it and said: ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so useless, but beautiful. I don’t know what I would do with it, but I absolutely need it.’ My work is actually provoking desire on the side of desire, never on the side of need,” he says in his French accent, and dropping in French words throughout conversation. “I don’t think anyone needs another pair of shoes. You want them. You desire them.”
Growing up with three sisters, Christiane, Claudine and Jocelyn, in France’s 12th arrondissement, Louboutin was expelled from school (three times!), ran away from home aged 12, visited Egypt and India as a young man, and worked at Folies Bergère as a teenager. Being a shoe designer was not part of the plan, but his colourful illustrations of fantastical, crazy, will-they-ever-make-these shoes landed him a job at Charles Jourden, after which he became an apprentice at Roger Vivier. From being around his sisters and the dancers of Folies Bergère, he observed women, noting their behaviours and conversations.
Striking out on his own was not what he intended. He dabbled in gardening and contributed to Vogue, but when a vacant space in the rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau arcade caught his attention, it became his first shoe salon in 1992.
Princess Charlotte of Monaco was his first client, and then came fashion insiders, who would whisper among themselves, sharing tips about the French shoe designer who had a little salon in a small arcade and created beautiful and fanciful shoes. A shoe design is right “when I like it”, he says. “Even better, when I love it.”
His store also ended up revitalising the area, so there are cool restaurants and the cult breakfast cafe Claus on the same street, which tells you a bit about the power of Louboutin. His is a chocolate box of a store, with arched windows and red carpeting; a staircase with a Spanish art nouveau-style balustrade.
“Qu’est ce que le luxe … le luxe,” he muses out loud. “What is luxury? It is an essence. Does that make sense en anglais?” ‘Modern’ he has a harder time with, he says, but has more explanatory thoughts on it. “What does it mean, exactly? Fashion is a reflection of our time, so fashion has to be linked to time, otherwise it doesn’t mean anything to anyone. So by essence, fashion will be modern.” He dances to the beat of his own drum, wielding fashion’s follies to his own style. In response to the headline-making athleisurewear boom, he did sneakers Louboutin-style, covered in studs, graffiti, metallic and celebrating a more-is-more ethos. Running shoes these are not. “Even if something is nice, if it doesn’t speak to you, it’s not your form of expression. It’s completely subjective – it’s your point of view, and you need to express your point of view,” he explains. “As a designer, you have to have a strict view, and that’s the difference between a designer versus a big brand that proposes many different things … I never [wanted] to build a company, I just designed shoes and ended up building a company. My first desire was to design beautiful shoes for beautiful girls.”
His designs have drawn upon exotic inspirations – vibrant pinks and metallic embroidery on a purse may call upon Indian textiles, and scarab beetles have adorned metallic-blue heels. A fantastical creativity had seen Louboutin as a child imagine he was actually from Egypt, because his skin was darker than the rest of his family. Speculation or kismet, he later found out that his birth was the result of his mother’s affair with an Egyptian man – and that knowledge of his heritage came to influence that year’s store window, which featured displays of pyramids and desert.
This is his first visit to Australia and he is enthralled by Aboriginal art. “When I see art, I see someone’s passion, like when someone sees and likes my shoes, they see my passion for what I do,” he adds. “It’s interesting with art to understand the story about it, where it comes from … it nourishes me. It’s natural to look at something and maybe it will influence me, but you can’t look at something and make it influence you; it’s not mathematical, it’s more organic.” He is due to visit APY Art Centre Collective after our interview to gain a deeper understanding of Indigenous artists and to purchase some art to take back to France.
“It’s funny, because I have always been known to draw dots whenever I am asked to sign soles,” he explains, reaching for his phone to show me photographs as examples. Through the sheer visual impact of those signature red soles he has been asked by his fans (of which there are many) to sign them with markers. He will personalise each message with those dots, or stars, or other messages, staying far past the schedule to spend time with each Louboutin wearer. “Some people say: ‘Oh, my gosh, you work all the time’, but it’s different. I think it’s much easier to work all the time doing something you love, rather than to work even half of your life doing something you don’t like.” He tells me he is lazy. Louboutin – who lingers hours beyond schedule at his stores, who stays up late dancing but is up early for shoots and meetings – is lazy? “Yes, I have always been very, very lazy. I never thought of working! But with commitment, I am less lazy, because after a certain age you understand the importance of commitment. But I am lazy when I don’t feel like doing something.”
Despite his seemingly outward exuberance, Louboutin admits he is shy. “I think it’s my culture. In the French culture you don’t introduce yourself and talk about yourself. In the Anglo-Saxon culture you do, you participate – it’s not really a French thing.” He tells me a story of seeing his father speak at his sister’s wedding while giving a speech. “I remember thinking: ‘My god, he’s crazy. I’m so ashamed.’ It’s not what you do in France at all. So that’s why I sound shy, because I’m not really used to speaking in front of people – it’s a huge effort.” Through his career he has befriended actors, like Blake Lively with whom he attended the Met Gala this year. (“I went with a dear, dear friend … it’s like being a kid where there’s the preparation, the fun, the excitement and then the party. I felt like a teenager going with a good friend to a great party and having fun before, during and after.”) He attests that they, like him, are shy, too. “But when you’re acting you’re not shy, you’re a different person, you are a different character, you’re playing a character who is not you. And then you go back to your inner person.”
As the celebrity of designers and other fashion figures has risen, he has taken the attention in stride. “I try not to do it [assuming the role of celebrity] so often, but the best way is to just do it and not think about it,” he says with a shrug.
Although he was born in Paris – “I’ll always live in Paris” – he identifies as Breton. His parents were born in Brittany, and it is where his family regularly holidayed. It is the land of salted caramel, striped sweaters and kouign amann, a speciality Breton pastry. I point out that I like the Pierre Hermé versions. “The real ones are not as chic as those!” he says, laughing. He heads to Google to look for an image to show to his PR team, who haven’t heard of them – though one of them is French. “They give you a heart attack, they have so much butter and sugar … but are delicious!” There’s also Brittany’s connection to water. “The people from Bretagne are very attached to the sea, because it faces the sea … the sea is linked to imagination,” says Louboutin, clarifying though, that this link isn’t about the beach or an ocean dip. “It is not about the beach culture, it is not about playing in the sea, it’s about the ‘horizon’ culture – there is a large panorama in front of you; there is the unknown and the exoticism of what is out there.” Naturally, France’s Bretons are the most well travelled, as he reminds.
One of the most satisfying moments in his life was teaching his two fraternal twin daughters how to swim within the first year of their birth. He was nervous for their safety since there were pools around them, so wanted the girls to learn quickly. “I really made a point that they needed to swim, and now they are three and they are swimmers,” he says proudly. “I love the sea and I really wanted them to be at ease with the water. I succeeded, so I am very happy.” Within a few months of their birth, he dipped them into the water, just for a taste of the faraway, of desire, of possibilities and of the horizon beyond.
“When someone sees and likes my shoes, they see my passion for what I do”
Christian Louboutin composes the magic. Ella wears a Rachel Gilbert dress, $3,499. Ryan Storer earring, $670. Christian Louboutin Eklectica shoes, $1,275. All prices approximate; details at Vogue.com.au/WTB.