There couldn’t be a more recognisable shoe sole anywhere else in the world; that fiery crimson hue that’s graced red carpets, incited serious lust and incurred many a credit card debt. Christian Louboutin has single-handedly changed the once-overlooked, nondescript shoe sole into a bona fide status symbol.
This is a man that’s taken a part of the shoe that’s always been ignored and not only made it iconic, but also commercially viable. A private client loved the red sole so much that she even commissioned a pair with ruby soles. The process was a tricky one but Louboutin — lover of all things glamorous — couldn’t deny her. Instead of working under armed protection, he paved the soles in cubic zirconias and had the real gems embedded after they were shipped to Hong Kong.
Roses are red
But not all Louboutins were created equal. It was only in 1993, two years after being in business, that the iconic sole came into the picture. The designer wanted to make a shoe inspired by Andy Warhol’s ‘Flowers’. The prototype came — a pink stacked heel with cartoonish cloth blossoms — and it was similar to his sketches, but seemed to lack a certain je ne sais quoi, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. As luck would’ve had it, his assistant was painting her nails at the same moment, he grabbed the nail polish, slathered it all over the prototype’s sole and the rest was history.
To think a multi-million dollar business gained its footing (pun intended) with the help of a bottle of red nail polish. His towering heels are more than just an accessory; they have evolved to become a symbol of femininity and empowerment. As a 12-year-old Parisian, Louboutin had his first encounter with stilettos at in the most unexpected of places: a museum. He saw a sign indicating that high heels were not permitted, and was fascinated by the footwear’s shape. He was soon filling notebooks with his own design. A book of Roger Vivier’s (his shoes are known as the Fabergé of footwear) gifted by a friend further inspired him in his formative years.
Louboutin wasn’t exactly an exemplary student. Following expulsion from school at 16, he moved on to do odd jobs, like sewing sequins on costumes, at the world-famous Parisian cabaret Folies Bergère, where he was enamoured by its glitz and glamour. “Yes, burlesque and cabaret have always been a big inspiration. In every woman there is a showgirl,” said Louboutin. Explains many of his shoe designs then.
An apprenticeship under legendary French shoe designer Charles Jourdan ensued, where he honed his craft as a cobbler for years and his destiny in shoe-making was set. Alongside his idol Vivier, he curated an exhibition of his work, absorbing the same finesse and artistry as the storied shoemaker and applying them to his own portfolio. Louboutin soon ditched freelance design work for his own shop in Paris in the early 1990s, where he focused on making stilettos that women around the world would come to covet for decades to come.
Soon after the launch of the unprecedented red soles, Princess Caroline of Monaco — one of his first high-profile customers — became a great fan, alongside Madonna, who wore his precariously high heels in several of her music videos. Diane Von Furstenberg, Jennifer Lopez (even made a song about it) and Sarah Jessica Parker soon hopped on the bandwagon too. Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss also made up his customer base. It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to sit up and notice Louboutin and his business skyrocketed to fame. Now, it’s almost blasphemy to speak about heels without mentioning Louboutins. His red soles have also made it into popular culture — a Louboutin-inspired manicure in which the underside of the nail is painted with red polish (use the ones he launched online for best effect). His shoes may be dotted with googly eyes or festooned with gold studs, but the red soles remain the one constant.
Warning: stilettos ahead
Wearing stilettos might literally be back-breaking, but Louboutin’s empire continues to grow exponentially, selling almost a million pairs of shoes annually at his 93 stores. But the red sole is more than a mere marketing gimmick that makes his product instantly recognisable; it’s a fantasy, almost a promise to a world of elegance and privilege.
At his factory in Naples, Italy, his legendary shoes start with the finest of materials, sourced from only the best tanneries and mills in the world and hand-selected by expert artisans. These artisans take Louboutin’s sketches to create a pattern that will become the wooden prototype. Once a pattern is finalised, each shoe’s pattern is hand-cut from leather, a process more sexily known as ‘Tagliere a mano’. Years of training means that no flaws in the skin goes unnoticed by the experts, so the shoes are made only from the most perfect leathers. After fitting a thick layer of cork composite — for comfort — at its base, the famous red soles are applied via ‘Blake Stitching’, an artisan technique that ensures the sole is properly adhered to the upper, which allows the shoe to move naturally with the wearer’s foot. The devil’s always in the details.
Almost like a homage to the label’s beginnings, the Frenchman also launched beauty products in 2013 such as nail polish and rouge in the same shade of fire-engine red. His signature red soles were extended to men in 2011. His bags see the same crimson hue line the inside, giving an unexpected burst of eye-catching colour.
His heels might cost an arm and a leg, but really, the reason — besides expensive quality materials — is less romantic: rising production and material costs. Growing competition for materials from Asian factories have jacked prices up so much that his production costs have doubled over the years. And while he employs some of the best shoemaking artisans in Italy, comfort has never been a priority. “People say I am the king of painful shoes. I don’t want to create painful shoes, but it is not my job to create something comfortable. I try to make high heels as comfortable as they can be, but my priority is design, beauty and sexiness. I’m not against them, but comfort is not my focus,” he mused.
Of the hundreds of designs he’s created in his storied career, Louboutin still finds himself drawn to his classic pumps, the Pigalle. “A good pump is a silhouette, like the bone structure of the face,” he explained. “It’s like a beautiful face with no make-up. You can cover a not-so-beautiful face with make-up, but it is just a mask – it is the same with shoes.”
Now, Christian Louboutin has almost five hundred employees (lovingly dubbed “Loubi’s Angels”); a notable improvement from being the company’s only employee when he first started out. Oh, and he has an estimated net worth of US$85 million. To think it all began with something as simple as a bright red lacquered sole.