In 1873 Impressionist painter Claude Monet in Coquelicots painted a vibrant splash of red poppies across the lush green fields of the French countryside. French shoe designer Christian Louboutin has created a similar effect in today’s fashion landscape. Did the designer have in mind this particular wildflower, the red poppy or (Papaver rhoeas in the botanical jargon) when he painted the soles of his signature shoes bright red? Christian, who is versed in botany since his long-time partner is the famous landscape architect Louis Benech, does not look surprised by this analogy. “That shade of red is very close, if not a perfect match to the Louboutin red,” he replies.
There is something fragile and powerful in women in high heelsChristian Louboutin
Like wildflowers, Christian’s chef-d’oeuvres grew unintentionally in the fashion field. “My sketches were not reproduced exactly as I had designed them and I couldn’t figure out why. The two dimensional sketch was so powerful on paper, but when turned into a three-dimensional object, it was somehow lacking energy. Frustrated after having tried different things to liven up the design, I spontaneously grabbed my assistant’s red nail polish and painted the sole. I instantly knew that this would be a success!” he says, elated as if he were reliving that moment of ingenuity. Christian’s “wildflowers” became an instant hit with the aristocracy from Princess Caroline of Monaco, one of his very first clients, to famous Hollywood actresses. Flashing one’s red soles became an indication of power and wealth. Just as Louis XIV had declared the red heel an exclusive privilege of the members of the court, Christian determined the red sole would be the new status symbol of our age. A press clipping with a shining red detail hangs on his studio wall and certifies this very fact. It is a celebrated journalistic snapshot of Carla Bruni Sarkozy (then first lady of France), elegantly walking up the stairs of Zarzuela Palace in Madrid with the then Princess Letizia of Spain. Christian believes this picture of Bruni wearing his design is the perfect illustration of beauty, power and politics. Their stride, to him, looks like animation. “Two women with the same silhouette, the same posture and the same confidence.” He thinks it could never get more perfect than that.
His factory in Nerviano is a worldwide supplier producing a variety of shoes from boots to flats to his most recognizable high heels and menswear. I ask Christian amidst the brash blue rails that hold the unfinished designs, what is it about high heels that makes women look so seductive. “High heels have some sort of trompe l’oeil effect. They enhance the swaying motion of a woman’s derrière; they make their legs look longer and taller over all. There is something fragile and powerful in women in high heels,” he answers. He then invites me to his studio whose walls are covered with sketches and other inspirations and shows me a prototype. He insists that the most important part in shoe design is fit. “The arch of the sole has to be in synch with the arch of the shoe. A concave surface should perfectly fit a convex one. When you have carved the details to perfection, they imply nudity and this is the utmost image of elegance when it comes to shoe design.” Christian’s carved artifacts are then embellished with exotic artisanal details using techniques that he discovers while travelling around the world.
But how did Christian get into shoe design in the first place? The designer’s interest in the art of shoemaking started at a very young age. As a boy in Paris, he would sneak out of school to watch the showgirls or the shoes of the showgirls of the music hall Folies Bergère. Being fascinated by the showgirls is one strong childhood memory. A few years later in 1976, while visiting the Musée National des Arts d’ Afrique et d’Océanie at the Avenue Daumesnil, a 1930s building with priceless wooden floors, a sign struck him. Stiletto heels were forbidden. “I became obsessed,” he says of his fixation on that sign. “How could they design a shoe that everyone wore in the 70’s and forbid its use?” Christian dropped out of school despite his family’s opposition and started to sketch. Based on his Folies Bergère inspirations and on the stiletto, he assembled an impressive portfolio that landed him a job at Charles Jourdan. In 1982, he became an apprentice to shoe designer Roger Vivier, then worked as a freelancer for the fashion houses of Chanel and of Yves Saint Laurent until 1992, the year he opened his own boutique in Paris.
It seems natural that the first people to model his creations would be no other than the showgirls of the Folies Bergère. “I had to have experienced ladies and the Birds of Paradise (nickname of the Folies Bergère showgirls) effortlessly and elegantly walked in my designs.” Experienced also were the women who tried his most extreme collection, a non-commercial project called Fetish, done in collaboration with American director David Lynch in 2007. The two creative geniuses met in Paris when Lynch first approached him to design some shoes to be shown as birds in cages for his exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. They quickly became friends, and when Christian decided to work on the idea of extreme fetishism, Lynch was the obvious choice to interpret the shoes in a surrealist way.
The director organized a set with Adolf Loos furniture and assigned two voluptuous dancers of the cabaret Crazy Horse, Nouka and Baby, to model the designs. “David worked for two days with his Hasselblad camera and just one assistant. He looked like he was brushing with light,” Christian recalls. Lynch, who cited German artist Hans Bellmer and Italian painter Giovanni Boldini as his influences, said that he was trying to bring the viewer’s attention to new desires. To complement this forbidden environment the director opted for some pictorial abstraction in order to achieve a dreamy effect. The highly artistic results blend the conscious with the unconscious and deepen the foundations of the real just as in surrealism.
That art is a major source of inspiration for the French designer and is a part of all the fashion house’s advertising campaigns. Christian and photographer Peter Lippmann have been collaborating for the last six years and every season their campaigns echo famous still life paintings. One year they organized sumptuous arrangements in the same way that the Dutch golden age painters Willem Claesz Heda and Pieter Claesz had done for their breakfast and banquet pieces. In between Venetian glass cruets, gilt bronze goblets, silver cellars, mincemeat pies, lemons, olives and oysters, they placed a Christian Louboutin shoe off center. The images are crafted with a painterly approach and are impressive for their execution and mimicry.
For the Spring/Summer 2014 collection Christian and Lippmann focused on flowers and photographed Louboutin accessories beside or nestling in lush bouquets of peonies, sunflowers and dahlias, recreating works by Pieter Brueghel, Paul Cezanne, Henri Fantin-Latour, Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro and Vincent Van Gogh. These images skillfully harmonize the objects d’art with the art. From Monet’s Coquelicots evoking the signature color to Lippmann’s recreation of Monet’s Vase de Fleurs that conceals one pair of floral shoes, nature blooms in sync with Christian Louboutin’s creations.
Nerviano, 2009. All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni www.artflyer.net