Style: Taking a few more steps along the road to fame
Monday 29 September 1997
The shoe designer Christian Louboutin compares his creations to birds. "They have the same grace," he says, and winged creatures occupy a significant place in his universe. The walls of his Paris offices are lined with posters of ornithological species, and fantastical stuffed birds decorate his London boutique, which opened on Thursday.
Louboutin designed the shop himself, and dramatically describes its style as "an Indian version of David Lynch" - that is, very few objects, strikingly lit in the same way as the director's film sets, with a few saris, crystal chandeliers and Indian papier-mache sculptures thrown in.
His shoes can be equally fantastic. He once enclosed a love letter in a pair of transparent platform shoes for the French actress Arielle Dombasle, as well as a lock of hair and a quill from her philosopher husband. He has made heels from beer cans he found in a bin outside a Chinese supermarket; he tried to cover shoes in fish scales; and he made a pair with one gold and one silver heel for a client who couldn't decide which colour she preferred.
His list of clients is nothing if not impressive. Among his loyal following are Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Catherine Deneuve, Cher, Serena Linley and Ines de la Fressange. He will team up with Stella McCartney to design the footwear for her first collection for Chloe. He has also designed the shoes for Julien Macdonald's latest catwalk show. "I wanted to work with a designer with artistic flair and French sophistication," says Macdonald, "and I love Christian's unusual use of bright colours and textiles."
"He always does something different," agrees the interior designer Allegra Hicks, "and he does absolutely fabulous flat shoes."
The last pair Hicks bought were some chain-mail sandals, inspired by the fate of Zenobia, the ancient queen of Palmyra, who was captured by the Romans and bound in chains. Other past inspirations have included Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and a leather screen he found in Cordoba.
For the present collection, the starting point was an embroidered Moroccan jacket offered to him by the great shoe-meister Roger Vivier. There are also other designs, inspired by Chinese buttons he recently brought back from Hong Kong, and some shoes made with the British market in mind. In the past, he has created shoes especially for Royal Ascot.
He now plans to cover shoes in tartan and launch a French equivalent of the Wellington boot for the Chelsea Flower Show. "I will call it the Napoleon boot," he proudly asserts. Strangely enough, 32-year-old Louboutin's own shoes are decidedly shoddy. He bursts into his office, straight off a train from Rome, with a scruffy pair of baseball boots on his feet. He rings up for a coffee from the local cafe, puts an ice-cube in it when it arrives, and continues to field telephone calls and questions from his assistants throughout the interview.
It quickly transpires that he likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice. He speaks with the rapidity of a TGV and is given to hyperbole, but fortunately for those in earshot he is also extremely amusing.
"He is a curious, enthusiastic person," says Allegra Hicks. "For him, everything is a discovery. Everything is fun. He is positive, interesting and funny."
He is also immensely cultivated. References to films and artists slip easily from his lips. "He's educational," declares Macdonald. "He's got a wealth of knowledge."
Louboutin's first memory related to shoes was a sign in a Parisian museum prohibiting the wearing of high heels. Other early recollections include Tina Turner strutting her stuff in stilettos, Janis Joplin kicking off her mules into concert audiences, and his sister falling down the stairs in a pair of cork platforms.
He originally wanted to work in the music hall ("Nobody wears a shoe better than a dancer on stage," he says), but ended up training with Charles Jourdan instead. He then freelanced for Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, before opening a boutique in Paris's Passage Vero-Dodat in 1991. A second Paris boutique will open this autumn, near Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
Along the way, he came into contact with Vivier, who most famously made shoes in the Fifties for Christian Dior. Louboutin helped to put together a retrospective of his work in 1988, and learnt a few important lessons from the master. "He taught me a sense of sculpture, and that a shoe is above all a form. You can add whatever you like to it, but if the form is ugly, the whole thing will be ugly."
Curiously, Louboutin is not interested in branching out into men's footwear. "Designing for men is completely different," he says. "For women, a shoe can never be too fine, the leather too thin, the suedes too delicate and the buttons too small. For men's shoes, it's the opposite. If I really had to do something different, I would design garden furniture."
He did flirt with the idea of becoming a landscape gardener in his early twenties, and has developed a magnificent garden at his country retreat at Champgillon in the west of France. There is a maze, inspired by The Shining, another part which was triggered off by a Romy Schneider film, and an exquisite Gallo-Roman garden.
His favourite garden is Nimfa to the south-east of Rome and whenever he travels, it is either to visit a garden or - rather peculiarly - to eat yoghurt. "The best ones are Greek and Moroccan, and the worst are American. They are really disgusting."
Unfortunately for him, he was flying off to New York the day after we met.
Christian Louboutin, 23 Motcomb Street, London SW1 (0171-823 2234)
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