When Christian Louboutin launched his brand in the early 1990s, most luxury labels belonged to the person who ran them. Today the fact that his company remains privately owned, by him and Bruno Chambelland (a childhood friend and his business partner since day one), sets him apart. “If you own your brand, you’re free,” says Louboutin. “And when you’re free you don’t necessarily have to follow a straight path.”
The 57-year-old designer grew up in Paris and started his career at shoe brand Charles Jourdan before working as a freelance designer for Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. He opened his first shop in 1991. The following year he nabbed some red nail varnish from his assistant and painted a scarlet patch on the sole of a shoe – and an empire was born.
Louboutin designs men’s and women’s shoes and his repertoire includes accessories, perfume and, naturally, nail polish. He now has 161 shops in 34 countries. To coincide with an exhibition of his work at the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, monocle meets him at Claridge’s, his favourite London hotel. Perhaps surprisingly for someone synonymous with high-heeled glamour, he’s wearing double denim and trainers – an outfit that matches his laid-back demeanour.
Have you always followed the same design process?
Yes. Everything starts with a pencil and a piece of paper – the drawing of the shoe. I have quite a specific routine: I isolate myself for two weeks. I design the winter collection in France or Portugal; the summer collection in a hot country, either Brazil or Egypt. I’m influenced by light and the climate and when I’m sketching I need to be in places that I know well. If I go somewhere I’m not familiar with, I’m too curious – I want to explore. I work from very early in the morning until lunch; let’s face it, in the afternoon, after lunch, it’s a different thing.
Do you think in terms of specific customers when designing?
I’m not thinking of a particular client or segment of society; I’m thinking of characters. Someone I saw in the street – or in a movie – who interested me. When I’m designing for men, I won’t necessarily add a foot in the drawing because the shoe remains an exterior element. But, for me, it would be complicated to draw a woman’s shoe without a foot in it because shoes are part of a woman’s body: they transform her body language and she’s a continuation of the shoe’s silhouette.
Your brand is associated with sexiness. Is that intentional?
There’s often a big difference between what a designer has in mind when they create work and how the audience might view the final product. When I started to use spikes, especially on patent leather, people perceived it as a reference to s&m; in fact, I was inspired by haute époque furniture, made from dark wood with metal studs. I quite like the idea of putting my designs in someone else’s hands and seeing all the lives they can take on from there.
Do you feel pressure to maintain a certain look?
No. When you build a collection you need have to have variety. It’s interesting to me that I’ve become the master of high heels because I love flats. My very first style, back in 1991, was a flat loafer. And in each of my collections I have always had – as well as high heels – flats, boots, sandals and so on.
How has the fashion industry changed since you started?
When I started, most brands belonged to the person whose name was on the shopfront. Yves Saint Laurent belonged to a man called Yves Saint Laurent; there was a very elegant gentleman called Hubert de Givenchy who owned Givenchy. Now many brands are ruled by global conglomerates so it’s completely different.
Does the fact that your brand is independent mean that you have more freedom?
Of course. When your brand is being driven by big directors, you have strict objectives and targets. For almost 30 years now, I’ve done whatever I want and collaborated with whomever I like – artists and exceptional craftspeople with a unique savoir-faire, many of whom are taking part in the exhibition – and I feel very lucky for that. It’s not that I don’t have deadlines or things I have to deliver but at least I’m free to make my evolution mine. It is tempting [to sell] at times, especially when people propose quite substantial amounts of money. But if I want to keep doing what I do, selling doesn’t make sense.
What are the main challenges faced by luxury brands today?
The first thing is to remain relevant. Also: what are the values you carry as a brand? Are you showcasing them? I think part of the reason I’ve been around for this long is because people see that there is someone behind the shoes. The bigger a brand is, the less human it seems. You have to show some humanity in your work.
Visit ‘Christian Louboutin: L’Exhibtion(niste)’ online at lexposition.christianlouboutin.com/en/home/