Christian Louboutin Retraces His Steps

The rock star of red-soled luxury footwear looks back on his career in a lavish new retrospective.

WORDS Laurie Brookins
March / April 2020

Photography by Roger Davies

When Christian Louboutin was nine years old, you could find him most weekends at the Palais de la Porte Dorée, an art deco building in Paris’ 12th Arrondissement, originally designed to house the Colonial Exhibition of 1931. In the early 1970s the Palais’ offerings included the National Museum of African and Oceanic Arts, in addition to an aquarium on the lower level. Young Christian was mesmerized by the blend of global cultures and nature, all situated within a dramatic space featuring frescoes and a mosaic-tile floor behind a bas-relief facade.

“I really fell in love with the place,” Louboutin says. “This is where I discovered the beauty of objects—plates, jewelry, textiles—all from places I could only dream about, like Egypt or Asia. It was here that I learned that different civilizations and cultures could have different points of view. The Palais opened my eyes to a lot of things: a desire to travel to experience other cultures, and definitely a love of objects.”

Those mosaic floors would also play an integral role in Louboutin’s life, though it would be years before he understood their significance. To guard against damage to the floors, the museum displayed signs featuring an illustration of a woman’s high-heeled shoe, with a large red X over the offending footwear. The message was clear: Stiletto heels were forbidden, to guard against a shoe kicking up a piece of mosaic or otherwise damaging the floor.

Louboutin's iconic Pigalle pump

Louboutin never forgot this illustration, which ultimately would influence his career. But just how deeply it resonated with him has only become clear as he discusses his latest project: “Christian Louboutin, L’Exhibition[niste],” a retrospective of his work at the Palais de la Porte Dorée that runs through July 26. “Because of that sketch, I learned that everything starts with a drawing,” he explains. “Everything we are surrounded by exists because someone picked up a pen and started drawing.”

It’s no accident that the museum’s long-ago illustration not only resembles one of Louboutin’s most iconic designs, his Pigalle pump with its pointed toe and stiletto heel, but would also inform every shoe he has drawn since. “My sketches are always on the profile from that side, or from a three-quarters view,” he notes. “I’m not even sure I could do a sketch with the shoe facing in the other direction, it’s that deeply engrained in me.”

“Christian Louboutin, L’Exhibition[niste]” is a name filled with double entendre—“I feel like I’m exposing myself, revealing everything,” he says—and explores not only his incredible body of work since launching his label in 1991, but also the myriad roles art and popular culture have played in Louboutin’s designs. He’s been name-dropped in multiple songs, while his signature red soles make copious appearances on red carpets. A pair of Louboutins transcends utility, communicating messages of luxury, glamour, empowerment and freedom of expression. The exhibition has been designed to convey these ideas while also offering a glimpse into Louboutin’s design process. “For me, designing a shoe has been an experience that speaks of a lot of things I like, so this isn’t so much a behind-the-scenes look,” he says.

“It’s a look inside my mind, inside the global world I’m thinking of when I’m actually designing.”

Paris' Palais de la Porte Dorée, site of the curent exhibition

The exhibition is sponsored by Nordstrom, which has carried Louboutin’s designs for more than a decade. “The great thing about Christian Louboutin and his product is the authenticity,” says co-president Pete Nordstrom, a fourth-generation family member of the retailer. “That happens because of his hands-on execution. It’s his creative vision, and the standards he has for craftsmanship and quality make the product special.”

“Christian is a well-traveled and curious man with wanderlust, whose stories are told through his shoes,” says Linda Fargo, senior vice president of fashion and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, which has sold Louboutin’s designs since his label’s earliest days. “He’s also no stranger to the forbidden. This draws women to his work. A woman feels either taller, more alluring, more no-nonsense, or more of whatever she wants to be, simply by wearing his designs. And his references are endless—they go where he goes, to Istanbul, India, China, Africa.”

The exhibition was not born of any milestone or seminal moment Louboutin wished to commemorate; rather, it was his love of the Palais de la Porte Dorée. Over the years he has continued to visit and support this exhibition space so integral to sparking his career, located in the Paris neighborhood where he grew up (indeed, if Louboutin wasn’t at the museum or aquarium, he likely could be found at the zoo in the adjacent Bois de Vincennes, the city’s largest public park). But Louboutin noticed that the building was sorely in need of restoration, especially since the museum’s collection had been moved to the Musée du Quai Branly in 2003. “There was once a beautiful pair of tusks adorning these tall doors, and during one visit with the president of my company [Bruno Chambelland], I noticed that one of the tusks was missing,” he recalls. “Bruno was once an auctioneer, so he’s very fond of objects. He said, ‘We must do something to restore this space.’ ”

Louboutin's re-creation of the sign that originally inspired him, which banned high heels inside the Palais

In 2017, conversations about support with Hélène Orain, executive director of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, led to the idea for the retrospective. “She always said I was the best ambassador for the building, and when the exhibition was suggested, I thought, Of course,” Louboutin says.

“Over the years other sites around Paris had been proposed, but nothing really spoke to me. I know now that I had been waiting to realize that this would be the place.”

Knowing Louboutin would need a curator, Orain suggested Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Located in the western wing of the Louvre, the city’s museum of decorative arts often hosts fashion exhibitions, including a much lauded 2017 Dior retrospective that was co-curated by Gabet. “What Christian has achieved in the last 30 years is hugely important,” he says. “When you say his name, not only do people recognize him for his work, but it’s also become a symbol of luxury, created by a man who has proven he can be successful in business while also being a visionary. It’s really one of the top five brands in the world today, alongside Chanel, Cartier, Dior and Hermès.”

Early discussions between Louboutin and Gabet, however, made it clear that neither was interested in a “brand exhibition,” something that felt more commercial than artistic. To tell the story of Louboutin’s journey, they agreed that art would need to be placed on equal footing with shoes. “There’s been a great deal of freedom and creativity in the execution of this,” Gabet notes. “But Christian doesn’t need to check with anyone. He’s not obligated to others in his business to tell a story in a way they might advise.”

The designer at age 14

To create a universe that would mirror the diversity of images that have inspired Louboutin over the years, he and Gabet reached out to a variety of artists and artisans to create exclusive collaborations, from stained-glass windows by Paris-based La Maison du Vitrail to miniatures by Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi. “I’ve always loved his work—there’s something quite special about miniatures, in that it obliges people to look quite closely,” Louboutin says. “It’s very easy to impress with something in a large, dominant size. Shoes are small objects, so perhaps that’s why I like miniatures, in which you must look to notice the details.”

Pieces also have been designed to serve as highly specific framing for Louboutin’s shoes. A silver palanquin has been commissioned from a workshop in Seville; historically designed to carry a person or object of royal or religious importance, the palanquin in this exhibit will elevate a sculpture of a shoe, a nod to the almost religious fervor style enthusiasts can have for this particular object of fashion. “They removed everything religious, but kept the form,” Louboutin notes of the work by the Seville craftsmen. “The idea is to express how a shoe has become an object of adoration, so the palanquin is perfect for projecting this idea of iconography.”

Entertainment also serves as a central theme. At age 17, Louboutin landed an internship at the Folies Bergère, where the Parisian showgirls ultimately would inspire much of his work (his Pigalle Follies pump, for example, features a thinner stiletto heel than the Pigalle). Louboutin would go on to work for Charles Jourdan and Roger Vivier before opening his own atelier, but he often revisits his love of showgirl imagery. For instance, he designed a 2012 bespoke collection as the first “guest creator” for the Crazy Horse Paris. “The exhibit shows a few things I drew but never really finished because it wasn’t perfect,” the 57-year-old Louboutin says. “There was a cane shoe that I did for the Crazy Horse: The dancer could lift the cane, and as she was doing so, she was lifting and removing the heel of her shoe. But it was never quite right, so now is my chance to redo it.” The exhibit also showcases the ongoing collaboration between Louboutin and filmmaker  David Lynch, which kicked off in 2007 with the photographic art project Fetish, featuring Lynch’s images of Louboutin’s most provocative designs, worn by Crazy Horse dancers.

With Oliver Gabet, curator of "Christian Louboutin, L'Exhibition[niste], at La MAison du Vitrail

Other designs for and inspired by entertainers—from Prince to Tina Turner, Josephine Baker to Michael Jackson, who died in 2009 before Louboutin could deliver the last design he created for him—will be featured in a theatrical display crafted in Bhutan. “We’ve been building this Bhutanese cabaret, very colorful and influenced by the 1930s,” Louboutin says. “Within this cabaret setting are niches featuring shoes designed for entertainers. It’s a tribute to all types of performers: singers, dancers, even athletes, because I believe when they’re playing, they’re also performing.”

The exhibition features 400 Louboutin designs, starting with his very first in 1987: Maquereau, crafted of metallic leather and inspired by the fish Louboutin would gaze at for hours in the Palais’ aquarium (“maquereau” translates to “mackerel”). “Christian has been very generous in opening his archives, but that’s also made the editing process a challenge,” Gabet says.

“He has hundreds, if not thousands, of models over the last 30 years, and he can tell you intimate details of each one.

Very often, those ideas are related to something very human and very personal—a friend, a meeting, a place he has traveled. And it’s difficult to choose between your friends.”

“I love my shoes,” Louboutin adds. “That’s why I needed Olivier as an editor.”

Pensée shoe design

Other pieces include 1992’s Pensée, a brightly hued Mary Jane style adorned with a graphic bloom that takes its cue from Andy Warhol’s famed Flowers series—also the first to feature Louboutin’s iconic red lacquered sole. Designs from his Nudes series, meanwhile, feature shoes finished in nine different skin tones; the exhibition also will display creations that have never been seen outside his Paris studio. “Some things I’ve never shown before—perhaps I designed something that was the essence of a theme, but it was too complicated to replicate for a collection,” Louboutin says. “Then there are designs that are the result of working with artists, as well as couture pieces. And the Nudes are about more than a beautiful shoe—a collection that highlights a range of skin colors also felt like a way to engage with our society. Your work can be completely decorative, but a deeper meaning doesn’t have to be a separate thing.”

Not to be forgotten is a look at how Louboutin’s shoes are made. “When people come to the atelier, often they’re amazed by the level of handcraft,” he says. “But a shoe is a small type of architecture that can be quite complicated, so it was important for me to show the work of the artisans.”

Fairy Garden shoe design

Rather than merely creating a display of cobbler’s benches accompanied by the tik-tik-tik sound of tapping tiny nails into leather, Louboutin chose to energize the experience via an animated film. “I wanted to explain the technique and give people a sense of the value of artisanship, but in a funny, lighthearted way,” he says.

“I don’t think people will be surprised to see beautiful shoes, but they might be surprised by the attention to craftsmanship and savoir faire, and that he’s willing to go anyplace in the world to get exactly what he sees in his mind,” Gabet adds. “That’s also why it was necessary for him to be involved in every aspect of the exhibition, because it very much reflects the mind of this artist.”

Once “Christian Louboutin, L’Exhibition[niste]” wraps in late July, the event may travel to other cities, but a public showing of his work is unlikely to occur again in Paris. “I’m very conscious that this is the one and only exhibition for me here,” Louboutin says. “It’s because of the place; it feels so intimate, so it would be too complicated to do it anywhere else in the city. The Palais is so close to my childhood history, and I’ve been living my childhood dream. So how could I do that anyplace else?”


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