September 2009

Christian Louboutin Sole Seduction

This designer woos women with far more than the
color of his shoes’ undersides  by Konstantin Kakanias

Edwin Fotheringham, illustration, christian louboutin, shoes, fall collection

A phone rings in Hollywood.

Christian Louboutin: Cheri? Allo? Allo?
Konstantin Kakanias: Darling, darling, is that you?

CL: Allo? Can you hear me?
KK: Thank God—it’s you! Where on earth are you?!

CL: In Borneo, on my way to Hong Kong.
KK: Borneo? But I thought Borneo was a mythical place..

CL: It is divine. I’m on the boat with Diane and Barry, flying to Hong Kong this afternoon, then on to Syria—
KK: But, darling, I miss you so much! When are you coming to L.A.?

CL: Then to Dubai and finally Egypt to design the new collection.
KK: But, mon amour, I want to see you.

CL: I will come to L.A. in two months. My new shop will be opening. Oh, did I tell you? I am filming a remake of the shower scene in Psycho. I really do not want to do an opening for the store—red carpet, pffff, so, so passé. I’m doing the film instead of an opening.
KK: Darling, how divine! Who is the director?

CL : [Pauses.] I am!
KK: I love it—how exciting! But, sweetie, who is playing the role of the mother?

CL: [Pauses bit longer, then laughs.] I am!!

This is a typical conversation that I have with Christian, from wherever he is in the world, with me almost always in Hollywood. Isn’t that a lesson in glamorous geography? He’ll call me from Russia, on his way to Georgia (to smell roses) and from there to Dubai (“Shall I open a store?”), to Qatar (to have tea with the brother of the Emir), to Japan (for personal appearances), back to Moscow (to open another store), then back to Paris (to change clothes) and finally to Italy and his factory, to supervise the making of the collection. And, yes, me...I am still in Hollywood, at home. How can I follow? How can I compete?

I have known Christian Louboutin for the last 30 years. I remember him vividly in Paris in the early ’80s: a thin, handsome young man dressed in extraordinary costumes—a kind of eccentric Parisian dandy. We were then part of the same gang, inhabiting the notorious nightclub Le Palace and its chic basement—by invitation only—Le Privilege, where fashions, ideas, contracts, love affairs and dramas were performed and created around dancing, 18th-century elegance, Parisian air and punk extravagance. I compare Le Palace and Le Privilege to the Moulin Rouge of Toulouse-Lautrec and Manet or the Studio 54 of Warhol and Halston—clubs that became social symbols that changed culture and the structure of society forever.

Who could have imagined that this young, poetically handsome boy—who at 12 wanted to work in the music hall because his heroes were Carmen Miranda, Yma Sumac and the divine Josephine Baker—would become the most influential and desired shoe designer of our moment? And who could have guessed that he would become one of the men I love the most—a real treasured friend? The kind who, when once I was sick in the hospital, flew all the way from Paris just to see me.

I have a confession: Neither of us has really grown up, and this is Christian’s ultimate charm. His childlike way of being does not change, regardless of the company or the surroundings. He is as adorable with the sailor on his boat—while floating on the Nile—as he is with the queen of Jordan, and that makes him immediately likable. He approaches his work with the freshness and curiosity of a child—so important for anyone creative. And like a child, he can have tantrums—not like the ones of a diva but those of a toddler.

I cannot forget the huge fights we had for two days in a row while visiting Ludwig’s palaces in Bavaria. Did it happen because of Ludwig’s dark aura, or was it just us, two overgrown children of 40-plus years? The fight peaked with Christian jumping fearlessly from a moving car on a deserted road in some Wagnerian forest—dramatic and very James Bond. (I still cry over the 800 euros I had to pay to the rental car company for the damage we did to the door.)

“I like to undress women—not to dress them,” Christian told me the other day on the phone. It was 2 a.m. in Paris, and he was walking by the Seine. “You know, like Manet’s Olympia or Helmut Newton’s photographs—naked women with shoes. This is what I am trying to do.” He then went on a monologue. I could almost see him talking, the sequined lights of the Pont Neuf mirrored on the ink-blue water.

“You know, I never opened a fashion magazine till I was 16 years old, but I was obsessed with dancers: Les Folies-Bergère, Le Lido. Yes, I wanted to be a shoe designer, but I never thought it could be a profession. But what was the alternative? Doctor? Too dirty! Air-hostess? Maybe not! Then someone gave me a book on Roger Vivier, and, cheri, instantly I knew that was it!”

Ten years later, in 1988, Christian went to work for Vivier, known for his magnificent shoes and for his work with Christian Dior (the real one!). “I was so lucky,” Christian recalls. “Vivier epitomized the chic of the old world. I learned so much, and I adored him.” Soon after, Christian opened his first store: a jewel-like, tiny space in the neoclassical passage de Véro-Dodat in the heart of Paris. He decorated it in a quasi-surreal way, inspired by the work of the great Christian Berard. One triumph followed another—women went crazy!

In the past 18 years, the tiny store has expanded to the point that it now occupies half of the street, a byzantine labyrinth—or rather a casbah of offices, design studios and storage. There is an atelier (“Cheri, for the grand clients,” Christian laughs), reached through ancient baroque gates, where an Ali Baba treasury awaits: shoemakers, feathers, leathers of all qualities, wooden models of the feet of Nicole Kidman, Monica Bellucci, Caroline de Monaco and the like and farther on, in an empty room, a huge trapeze. Yes! Christian loves to swing on the trapeze above his creations. He says he keeps his form with it!

Other shoe designers were trying desperately to invent new ideas, logos, anything that could capture the attention of the market and, alas, came up with atrocities even a rhinoceros would think twice before buying. But Christian managed to come up with the most genius idea—and the simplest. Red!

“I really wanted to add some color—I’d had enough of black, black and black. I wanted to match a color of the face, so I asked a very lazy assistant to add some red on a black shoe. She was staring at it for hours! At the end, I got mad and painted, myself, the sole of the shoe—with RED nail polish!” With this almost conceptual gesture, Christian immediately made history. His are the most feminine shoes, in the grand Parisian tradition, but are also pop objects, immediately recognizable. The solid red sole wants you to notice, follow, desire it. It makes you feel special and initiates you into Louboutin’s special world. The rest of the shoe he decorates with the most unpredictable material: recycled shreds of magazines and dirt from Paris (enclosed in plastic), silver religious objects made in an oasis in Egypt by Coptic monks (Christian will travel to the Sahara for days to beg them to make them for him), pieces of old velvet (bought at a bazaar in Samarkand), recycled faux jewels (that belonged to an infamous Folies-Bergère danseuse).

Going into Christian’s store, being one of his best friends and not a woman, is so, so frustrating (oh, my size-12 hairy Greek feet!)—a torture. I simply love all of his shoes. His creations are mementos of femininity, charm, sex and this je ne sais quoi that only a Parisian air can capture.

“Paris is my home,” he told me last February, while devouring his second burrito after a night of wild dancing. And he meant the whole city. Although he is the essence of a Parisian, he is equally at home in Egypt, where he has an ornate house with domes and courtyards and a boat that floats on the Nile (a replica of a traditional 1910 sailboat that he named DahabibI—“my darling boat”); a fisherman’s hut in Por­tugal (“to relax by the sea”); a 13th-century chateau in Vendée that he shares with his business partner, Bruno Chambellan; and an 11th-century palace—or rather two—that he just bought in Aleppo, Syria (“Darling, I am totally broke, but it was love at first sight”). His taste is unique, and he mixes everything with such flair: civilizations, periods, worlds, sublimity and trash.

I saw the garden Christian created at his home in Vendée when I visited him and his boyfriend, Louis Benech, the great French landscape architect. The garden is a magical experience. There among the roses, the beds of peonies, the corridors of acanthus, the secret gardens, the scented “rooms,” the climbing hydrangeas and the perspectives of cypresses, I saw my friend in a totally new way.

He was touching the plants—often calling them by their Latin names, with such love, tenderness and pride. Christian, my darling friend, the most celebrated shoe designer of our time, the darling of stars and society, is a gardener.

He is also an aviculteur. The visit ended at an enclosed area where he keeps an extraordinary collection of exotic hens, chickens and peacocks that he brings back from his travels.

Queens, princesses, actresses, rock stars, fashion icons, intellectuals and working girls alike are treading the globe on Louboutin red soles, charmed by his magic touch, almost like Don Giovanni’s ladies in the Mozart opera. The first lady of France, Carla Bruni, was photographed from the back recently, climbing the stairs of Buckingham Palace, and the first thing you noticed were her red soles! Angelina Jolie was shot in Mr. & Mrs. Smith from her Louboutins up. The list is endless. Elizabeth Taylor, Demi Moore, Madonna, Diane von Furstenberg, Sofia Coppola, Daphne Guinness—all close friends of his—are devoted to their Louboutins. It is a cult! Christian does not believe in advertising, as he doesn’t really need it—the red sole is an ad in itself.

Los Angeles—as David Lynch, who collaborated with Christian on a photo project of unwearable fetishistic shoes, demonstrated in Mulholland Drive—can be a very lonely place, maybe the loneliest I have ever been. Even going out does not really help; it can make me feel lonelier. But then I went to a party for Chloé at Milk Studios, and among the beautiful young people, I started noticing red soles all around me. Like magic, my loneliness evaporated. I knew Christian, although not there, was around and, as always, loved me.