Christian Louboutin: The joy of toe-cleavage

The designer whose shoes have been described as 'sex on legs' talks to Cat Callender about his passion for Parisian showgirls, how to look good naked, and the joy of toe-cleavage

"French weemen 'ate toe cleavage but I sink of eet as ze second décolleté," states shoe designer Christian Louboutin in his heavily accented, almost pantomime French. "Ze point is, eet's more provocative to show a low toe cleavage zan eet is wearing sandals that reveal all. In flip-flops you see everything but zat ees not at all sexy."

Clearly for Louboutin, the devil's in the details. Having dedicated practically his life's work to creating sensually explicit shoes that fetishise the foot in a subtle game of hide and seek, the 43-year-old knows a thing or two about provocative footwear. "Ze curved inside part of ze foot, ze instep, is ze most sexy part so I like to close ze heel and reveal ze arch," he adds, imparting yet another sartorial footwear maxim.

Until recently, Louboutin was one of fashion's best-kept secrets: worn by those who sit front row at the shows, the well-heeled and celebrities with style integrity. However, the current demand for increasingly niche, de luxe labels means Louboutin has attracted a growing clientele for whom the fact that he is not a household name is all part of the appeal. This, coupled with the fact that court shoes (a Louboutin signature - whether platform, wedge or stack-heeled), have never been more de rigueur, means the shoe couturier is experiencing something of a moment.

"Christian's absolutely having a moment right now," confirms Kurt Geiger's buying and creative director Rebecca Farrar-Hockley. "The minute we receive a delivery of his shoes, they sell out. Keeping up with the demand is becoming quite difficult." That Louboutin's bijou Chelsea store recently sold in a day what it used to sell in a month three years ago would only seem to support such claims. Indeed, it would seem Louboutin's high-heeled, sculptural designs have spellbound a whole new set of adoring and loyal devotees. "Christian is a magician, obsessed with beauty, legs and feet," purrs one of his biggest fans, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. "He understands women and makes them feel like Cinderellas."

"A good shoe is one that doesn't dress you but undresses you," explains the man himself, citing Helmut Newton's stiletto-clad Amazonian nudes as an example of what he is getting at. "So if a woman is naked, and still wearing shoes, she should still look nude." Naked or dressed to the nines, the Parisian's creations are a statement in their own right. While his shoes are sexy, they never cross over into "va va voom" territory. Instead his lacy, peep-toe heels, chiffon pleat platforms and crystal-heeled courts evoke the key-lit sexuality of screen starlets from a bygone era.

Such an aesthetic is, Louboutin believes, linked to two incidents when he was a child: one a visit to a local museum; the other to a fairground. "I have two memories. One that corresponds to the first drawing of a shoe that I ever saw and one that corresponds to the first shoe I was interested in. Near where my parents lived there was a museum that was an extremely beautiful building. Because of the mosaics on the floor there was a little sign when you entered. It was a high heel in profile with a red cross running through it because it was forbidden to wear heels in the mosaic floors," recounts Louboutin. "But my first memory of a real shoe was at a funfair near where I lived. I saw a woman who was literally wearing exactly the same shoe as the one on the sign in the museum. So I followed her. She was all in black and had the same type of hair as Kim Novak in Vertigo - but a very fat version. Then she went behind a Ferris wheel and suddenly I was grabbed from behind and punched and asked what I was doing. I realised I had been following a prostitute who was about to go with a client and I had been grabbed by her pimp."

That both memories revolve around shoes that were either considered forbidden or illicit is, according to Louboutin, a huge factor in having shaped his oeuvre. So too is the fact that what imprinted itself on his psyche was footwear that harked back to the refined chic of the Fifties - a period that continues to influence his work.

Born in 1963, Louboutin was a child of the Seventies. Seeking refuge from the decade he found himself growing up in, he immersed himself in the sexualised glamour of the world of French music hall revues. By 14, he was already a familiar face at the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère. His passion for dancing and showgirls disrupted his schoolwork to such a degree that he stopped attending altogether. By now, he'd set his heart on designing shoes for showgirls, and so at 16, pitched up at the Folies Bergère. "I arrived in the middle of a rehearsal and it was great. I had drawings of shoes for every girl, I knew all their names," he chirrups. "The girls saw my drawings and were like 'wow, what is that, this little boy, how sweet you are' and I became a little mascot."

The Folies Bergère was where Louboutin's shoe apprenticeship began. Although he never actually ended up realising his dream, he was able to channel what he'd observed about the showgirls and their shoe requirements into the shoes he later designed. From the Folies, he went to work for Charles Jourdan in 1981. Freelance stints at Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent followed, before Louboutin launched his own label and opened his first boutique in 1991.

"For a showgirl, shoes are very important. They provide them with their stability. They need to be beautiful and sexy but not steal the limelight," explains Louboutin of the valuable lessons he'd learnt back in the 1970s that he still applies to his shoes today. "First you should see the girl, her body, her shape. Shoes need to be able to both appear and disappear. They can't be clunky either. Even if they have a platform sole, it has to be hidden. I learnt all of this from the showgirls because their shoes are their weapons of seduction."

Granted, Louboutin is not known for designing sensible flats. However, according to the designer, his high-heeled signature not only evokes the high-octane aesthetic of the showgirls, but also his experience of growing up in a household of women. "I was born and raised in a really feminine environment. I have four sisters. My younger sister is 12 years older than me," he explains. "So when I was six, she was 18 and the rest were in their twenties. It was really funny to be a small boy in a tall, female environment." In spite of the fact that Louboutin's heels teeter on the seemingly impractical, comfort, he insists, is high on his list of shoe musts. "I don't believe that one has to suffer to be beautiful," says the Frenchman, who enlists the women in his company to test-drive every pair he designs. "If you suffer in your shoes, it shows in your face. I don't see why any woman should be in pain."

He designs his collections in environments that proffer zero distractions from his second great passion: gardening. "I design the winter collection in winter, in my country house in France where it is cold and the garden is miserable so I don't go out into it," says Louboutin, who briefly turned his hand to landscape gardening in the late 1980s. "And the summer is done in Egypt. The great thing about Egypt is I have a boat. You're stuck on it and can't be distracted. And you're constantly moving so even if you sat on a chair and drew all day, you can go, 'ah I feel like I've done a lot of exercise today!'"

Undoubtedly the collaborations Louboutin's racked up over the years to design the catwalk shoes for the likes of Chloé, Lanvin, McQueen, Viktor & Rolf, Jean Paul Gaultier, YSL and Roland Mouret, have been profile-raising. But it's his whimsical decision to lacquer the soles of his shoes an eye-popping red that has proved to be one of the canniest marketing strategies. "Actually, it's gone beyond being my trademark," chuckles Louboutin. "Once a woman came into the store and said you have to do my wedding shoes because I am getting married because of you. It turns out she had been stopped in the street by a man who had started the conversation by saying he loved the red soles of her shoes. They ended up dating and getting engaged. She said it was because of the shoes. So you see, I can't stop doing red soles." Nor, it would seem, shoes that women continue to fall head over heels in love with.

Christian Louboutin, 23 Motcomb Street, London SW1X 8LB (020-7245 6510)

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