“The idea of a high heel now is completely different,” declares luxury French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, he of the signature red sole, who has designed his share of stratospheric heels. “Before, the high heel was eight centimetres and a half. The first season [I started designing], I did a shoe which was eight-and-a-half centimetres—around three inches and a half—and people were saying, it’s nice but it’s much too high.”
He’s gone higher. But, he explains, “what matters is not actually the height of the heel but the arch. If you’re on a five-inch arch, it’s probably more complicated for some people than being on a seven-inch arch with a three-inch platform.”
He’s even done nine inches—with a platform. He concedes that without the platform, a shoe that high would be difficult to walk in. He is amused by tales of women, in a twist on the Cinderella tale, anaesthetising their feet to be able to walk, if not a mile, then certainly a few metres, in vertiginous heels. One well-known Filipina actress—an avowed Louboutin fan—is said to apply Emla (a topical anaesthetic) to her feet just so she can dance all night in stilettos. There are also stories of women who go to the extent of having Botox injections on their feet in order to walk in high heels, though this does not apply specifically to Louboutin's own red-soled creations.
Note that the master craftsman actually cautions against this, saying it could even lead to serious injury, because you can do great damage to your feet if you can’t feel anything!
He has a point. To wear his shoes is to step into a world of unabashed yet powerful femininity, no doubt influenced by his childhood growing up with his mother and sisters. His towering heels, platformed or not, are like a talisman of sorts, exuding both strength and sensuality. A woman should be able to walk in his shoes and feel comfortable and capable, although he notes that “a lot of people are buying shoes, not necessarily to walk in”.
Take So Kate, for instance, one of his most iconic designs, with a heel measuring five inches—without a platform. “Five inches is easy for people who like and are used to high heels. More than five becomes a bit of a complicated issue, and I’m talking of the arch. Five is the maximum; I did five-and-a-half and we sold them all, but it was really for people who are—well, dancers, because for them it’s easy, the arch is so high already. It’s really not for walking. It’s a very sexy attitude. Think of it as lingerie.”
Sex is indeed packed into every inch of a Christian Louboutin shoe. So is function, and so is a unique sense of grace fused with tenacity—which is not at all surprising when one discovers that the Paris-born designer has great affection for dancers. It was an early dream of his to draw shoes for the women who starred in musicals. Following an internship with the famed Parisian cabaret, Les Folies Bergère, he began his career by designing shoes for showgirls.
“I always wanted to make shoes, basically. I started pretty early, designing perhaps when I was 11 or 12, not thinking it was a serious job.” The youthful sketches soon gave way to an undeniable vocation, and at 18, after his internship, he realised that Paris wasn’t quite Broadway, and that he wasn’t going to get very far without real training.
“Still, it was a very important experience,” he says, “because you learn a lot from showgirls. Definitely a lot. Because they need to dance in the shoes, and so the shoe is an accessory to their body and to the volume that they have to represent on stage.”
A significant lesson he learnt from his stint at the cabaret was that the showgirls had to perform in his shoes, so they had to be able to forget about the shoes. “It’s present but not present. And I kept those elements in the DNA of my brand.”
His first big break was in 1982, when he landed an interview with the Director of Christian Dior at the time, Helène de Mortemart, whom he cold-called while flipping through the yellow pages, calling couture houses in alphabetical order.
“There was Balmain, but nobody answered, and then there was Dior.” Charles Jourdain was manufacturing the shoes for Dior at the time, and Louboutin was hired upon de Mortemart’s recommendation. From there, he began freelancing for several other prestigious brands; this continued until he opened his own luxury house.
At the end of 1991, Louboutin chose the historic Passage Vero-Dodat in the Palais-Royal district as the location of his first boutique, which remains the flagship store in his growing retail empire of 137 boutiques worldwide. He credits the timelessly chic and sophisticated Princess Caroline of Monaco for “discovering” him, before fashion editors ever extolled the sexy heights of his stilettos, or noticed their distinct red sole.
He regards the Monégasque princess as one of his “fairies” along the way to the international success he now enjoys and quite richly deserves. The first important fairy in his life was his “fantastic mother”. Dior’s Helene de Mortemart was another, “because she didn’t know me, but sent me to Charles Jourdain. That really settled my technical background”. Fairies can be male, too, and Roger Vivier is one of them; Louboutin says, “[He] was very sweet to me. A male fairy, but still a fairy.”
Louboutin opened his boutique towards the tail end of 1991. He recalls, “A month after, a journalist came; she was going to do a report on new shops in Paris. So she was waiting in the store—my small office was at the back of the store. Two or three minutes after she arrived, in came Caroline of Monaco with a friend, and she started to show the shop to her friend. She already had come before, but I wasn’t there that time, on her way to her decorator nearby. So I took the journalist to my office at the back, and she didn’t tell me but she was very impressed to see someone so high profile in such a new store. Her article came out in January or February and the buyers came because of that article.”
Louboutin and Princess Caroline of Monaco have since become very good friends, and they often have a good laugh reminiscing about that fateful day. “She says she’s a good salesman anyway! Because she was in the store and she basically sold the entire store to her friend!”