Christian Louboutin's Greatest Heights

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Christian Louboutin's red soles have become a cultural phenomenon. Harriet Walker celebrates the 20th anniversary of his label

When Christian Louboutin opened his first boutique 20 years ago, little did he imagine that he would teach a generation to appraise shoes in an entirely new way – by their soles.

"When I launched the company, I knew nothing about business," he admits, "only that I wanted to make shoes. I never thought about the future. It's a really lucky star that has brought me to this point, more than ambition, dreams or imagination."

The Parisian designer's take on footwear has always been flamboyant, eccentric, exquisite in its unashamed luxury and couture-style finishes. But it wasn't until two years into trading that Louboutin hit on the red lacquered underside that has made his name and brand a global phenomenon.

Inspecting prototypes for a collection in 1993, Louboutin was dissatisfied with the contrast between the vibrant upper and the stolid black sole of the now-cult 'Pensée' style. The designer grabbed an assistant's pot of red nail varnish, so the legend goes, and began painting. Since then, those glimpses of scarlet (supposedly Pantone 18, Chinese Red) on red carpets, front rows and pavements alike have become a byword for quality and fashionable status. They are also the subject of a court stand-off between Louboutin and the French house Yves Saint Laurent, who last April stood accused of having copied the idea; the case rumbles on in New York.

"Louboutin shoes are timeless and classic," says Lorraine Candy, editor of Elle. "There's a sense you are wearing luxury and you're a woman of status. A flash of the red says 'this is the woman I am. Sexy, stylish and spirited'."

To celebrate 20 years of the label, Louboutin is releasing a capsule of classic footwear styles today (one for each year) as well as a selection of one-of-a-kind bags – one including a 3D rendering of the Parisian skyline on its shoulder strap, which are available in all his boutiques but also at a temporary concept store in Selfridges. Last year saw the publication of an exclusive monograph of sketches and biography, and later this spring, London's Design Museum will host a retrospective exhibition in honour of the brand's milestone.

"We wanted to celebrate his career," explains curator Donna Loveday. "He has built one of the most successful shoe brands in the world and we want to explain why. These shoes are beautiful things, even divorced from the wearer, you just want to put them in a case and gaze at them."

Louboutin, 49, was born in the 12th arrondissement to a cabinetmaker and a housewife. He had an unorthodox childhood, skipping school whenever he could and moving out to live with a friend at the age of 12. His first job was as an intern at the infamous Folies Bergère, where he would help the entertainers backstage. This led to a lifelong fascination with cabaret and nightlife, which shines through in his shoes, with Burlesque references and dramatic designs which try to capture some of that on-stage glamour. (For the anniversary, Louboutin has also collaborated with avant-garde cabaret troupe Crazy Horse, on a production that opens tonight in Paris.) Included in the capsule is a boot, the "Highness-Tina", designed in homage to Tina Turner and decorated with spiralling tiers of suede fringing.

His shoes caught the fashionable imagination, with his pioneering innovation of the "hidden" platform at the ball of the feet, allowing ever more vertiginous stilettos. These are at play in his iconic "Very Privé" and "Madame Grès" styles , which changed the silhouette of footwear during the Nineties. Louboutin shoes are instantly recognisable, even before you contemplate their undersides, for their elegant mix of the sinuous and the architectural.

And of course, the wit; Louboutin's collection last season included a pair of yellow furry stiletto boots moulded into the paw-shape of a lion. "I have always thought of women as exotic birds of paradise," he says. "I hope that when wearing my shoes, they feel as special as these precious creatures."

"The rich, imaginative world of Louboutin is completely compelling," explains Harriet Quick, fashion features director of Vogue. "This is a designer who understands how to make heels 'speak' in an erotic, joyful and flirtatious language – a wonderful sense of 'folies' encapsulated in 3D designs that make one happy, and do great things for your posture and legs."

These are not necessarily shoes to go shopping in, nor is the wearer expected to be getting in her own groceries anyway. Louboutin does offer some flat shoes (although notoriously, the lowest heel in his spring 2008 collection was five and a half inches), but the focus is all on sexy, spindly height.

Nevertheless, Louboutin does not rely on shock tactics. He has a wealth of training behind him, having worked in his early years for the likes of Charles Jourdan, one of the first footwear licensees for Dior in the Fifties, and Roger Vivier, who made the Queen's shoes for her coronation. Both were titans in the (quite extensive) world of shoe slaves, and Louboutin has grown up, over the past 20 years, to be quite their equal.

The Christian Louboutin Anniversary Capsule is available now from Selfridges, selfridges.com

Christian Louboutin, 1 May - 9 July, Design Museum, London

Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Sport
Raheem Sterling of Liverpool celebrates scoring the opening goal
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One quarter-finals
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
News
Not quite what they were expecting
news

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at the Golden Globes in 2011
film
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

    Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

    £40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

    £30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    Th Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up