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In a world of endless hyperbole, it’s difficult to overstate the aura of Christian Louboutin. One of the great gods of fashion, he has, along with Manolo Blahnik, remained at the pinnacle of the foot-centric fascination that has pulsed through, and to a large degree fueled, fashion for well more than a decade.
This story first appeared in the June 21, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Louboutin is a seductive charmer — talkative, interesting and interested, a natural conversationalist. Not that he considers “natural” a condition of superiority. Why should people not work on themselves, he theorizes? Does making an effort with one’s presentation make a person less smart, less sophisticated, less genuine? Rhetorical questions, at least to a guy who champions the power of the five-inch heel.
Louboutin talked with WWD on Tuesday morning, just after he toured his glamorous new 1,600-square-foot shop-in-store at Saks Fifth Avenue, his brand’s first such retail outpost in the United States.
WWD: So, tell me a little bit about the shop. Why did you select Saks for your first U.S. shop-in-store?
Christian Louboutin: With me, it’s always very personal. And I’ve known Ron [Frasch] now for all of my professional life.
WWD: So there’s a comfort factor.
C.L.: Ron has always been supernice. Also, he is someone who likes to speak, who likes to move, et cetera. [The decision included] my team, because, Alexis [Mourot], who is my chief operating officer, is really taking care of that. But it’s also definitely a man-to-man thing. Ron is superenthusiastic. The business side, of course, is important, but [so is] the enthusiasm which goes with it. If I like the people, I can keep on with the project. It sort of makes sense and is not complicated to do a meeting.
WWD: Relationships are so important in this business.
C.L.: Of course, you may have to do things with people you don’t necessarily like, but you go much further with people you do like. I’m someone who always thinks — when it’s about my design, when it’s about my friendship, my love, et cetera — definitely long-term. I’m quite obsessed with long-term. In the company, if I have to hire someone, and now Alexis knows, if the person has been [at other places] six months and then three months and then six months, it will never happen. One of the first things that I’m watching for on the CVs is the sort of person who has been in place for a long time.
WWD: Where does that come from?
C.L.: I was brought up with a family that was very stable. My father was always with my mother, et cetera. I never even saw fights. It’s always been based on trust. This is my company. It’s privately owned with two of my oldest friends who are my two business partners: Bruno Chamberland and Henri Seydoux. They are my closest friends since I was a child. I was roommates with Henri when I was 15 and I’ve known Bruno since I was 18. A lot of people would say, “You shouldn’t work with friends.” For 22 years we’ve been working together and we remain best friends.
WWD: Tell me about starting the company.
C.L.: In ’91, I was already designing but I never really thought to be a company.
WWD: Did you expect to keep working for other houses?
C.L.: Exactly. I did work for Saint Laurent, for Chanel, for Maud Frizon, for Italian factories. I was really obsessed with buying objects. There was something that I wanted in a gallery in Paris and the guy wouldn’t sell it to me. But I knew the guy, it was a guy named Eric Philippe [owner of Galerie Eric Philippe]. At one point, he said, “So what about your shoes? What about your designing?” And I said, “Well, I stopped designing shoes. I started doing landscaping.” He said “Really? But you miss shoes.” I was 27, and I said, “I do, because the complicated issue is you have to be very patient to be a landscape architect, and I’m really not patient.”
WWD: You’re not patient?
C.L.: No. In your 20s, you’re not patient, or you really are special. I said, “I miss it, because designing shoes, everything that has to do with fashion, you welcome impatience.” He said, “Why don’t you do the thing yourself?” He would have said anything to get rid of me at this point. “At the end of the gallery, there is this little place…” So, I looked at the place.
WWD: And that was it?
C.L.: Two days later, or something like that, I had dinner with Bruno and Henri. Henri said, “You have been designing forever. Let’s do it. It’s not that difficult.” So we started with that shop, which I still have.
WWD: How have you resisted outside investment?
C.L.: Designing is very, very personal to me. An important element of my character is that I’m a free person. There is no doubt, you can feel more protected if you are under a group. But if you’re under the umbrella of a group, you’re also under the spell of a group. And I don’t think I need that….Sometimes you sort of have to value the importance of the nonimportant.
WWD: That’s a great line.
C.L.: When I started, there was a guy who I knew a bit in the fashion industry. He told me, “You have two ways to start a company. One way, you start by yourself, so you’re literally in a cellar, and eventually, after 10 years, you have your head out of the cellar. The second possibility, you start with a bit of money and you can enjoy life.”
So I thought, if I start like that, if it doesn’t work, it’s not going to be my fault, it’s going to be the fault of the others….I thought, if it’s my adventure, I have to do it myself and I have to understand everything that happens to me and I have to feel responsible. And the reality is, I didn’t have my head in the cellar for 10 years. Not really. [But] sometimes, when you are feeling a bit weaker, you think, “the trial would have been set up in two seconds.”
WWD: The trial?
C.L.: Trial, you know, with YSL and the trademark. If I had been in a group, in one second it would have been resolved. It’s when that type of thing happens to you that you feel very weak as a small company. But, thank God, I’m still very, very happy that I kept my way….I don’t have this problem of waking up and thinking, “I have to explain myself to people.”
WWD: The trial — looking back, what did you get out of it?
C.L.: I didn’t want to go to trial. I knew the owner of this group, and I went to them very nicely and very normally, and said, “Listen, I’m just ready to close my eyes, but I have this trademark and you can’t do that.” But they’ve been — I don’t know what to say about that. I’ve been totally fooled. Because I thought at the beginning that you could believe in what they were saying. But you can’t.
WWD: You went to François-Henri Pinault directly?
C.L.: Of course. I know him very well. I thought he could handle the situation, but obviously he couldn’t or he just wouldn’t. But if you know the person, you just say it face to face….But what has been very good about this trial, I realized, because of my company’s Facebook or people calling me or letters that I received, I realized that a lot of people I didn’t know had been supportive of my case. And the funny thing is that there had been this David against Goliath, you know? And a lot of people were supportive…I just had a lot of energy coming from people telling me I was a role model. I took it seriously, thinking, “Well, if I represent freedom, I can’t let freedom…” It’s almost a war like democracy versus totalitarianism.
WWD: Overstated, perhaps?
C.L.: That’s the way they behaved with me. They’re like, “You’re a peanut.” I’m like, “I’m a peanut, but still”…It was almost like a macho type of thing. They had to win. Period. They had to win to show that you they cannot be crushed by a small person…I had no choice but fighting.
WWD: You’re a major star, but the litigation process reminded you that, in the big picture, yours is still a small company.
C.L.: It is very complicated to be by yourself. It is complicated to be independent. It requires a lot of energy. It requires a lot of money.
WWD: In the end, was it worth it?
C.L.: Yes. I was happy that it was over, that my trademark had been recognized.
WWD: What is it about shoes? What is it that has this whole romance, fascination, eroticism, the dream element?
C.L.: It’s not new. Even from the cinema, for the longest time, you have a dialogue that goes through shoes. The opening of “The Girl Can’t Help It” with Jayne Mansfield, it’s just a girl walking and every guy is staring at how she walks. “Some Like It Hot,” the opening is Marilyn moving. The shoe carries the woman. The woman carries the clothes, but the shoe carries the woman. The shoe carries the character, a big part of the attitude. So I think this is where the sexuality comes. It’s just on your foot, but it diffuses something all over your body….Also, there is something quite democratic in shoes. If you don’t like your body, you feel you are too fat or whatever, you can still like your feet, so you still have attention to your shoes….If you think about it, a skinny foot is considered beautiful, but a plumpy foot is also very, very charming. It’s one part of the body that can be charming in a lot of the aspects and in a lot of shapes.
WWD: I read that you don’t design for the pleasure of women, that you design for the pleasure of men.
C.L.: No, it was sort of misunderstood. What I was saying is that when I’m designing, there is a designer, there is a man, and there is a friend of women. It’s almost three people who are different in terms of character. I never forget that shoes also have to please men. As a man, I totally understand looking at a girl and saying, “Darling, we’re having dinner together tonight, so do you mind to change?” I understand that type of mentality from a man who loves his wife, his woman. He’s concerned about the way you look. It’s not an ugly thing. I understand also that a woman could not care. I like my design to please women, but also to please to men. I don’t like the kind of design that men are like, “Oh, God.” I just don’t like that.
WWD: Have you ever drawn or made a shoe that you know that women will love but you think men will hate?
C.L.: I have the tendency to not produce that shoe. Sometimes, the designer is winning: It’s a great f–king design, I have to have it, and the designer wins. But many times, I don’t let the designer invade the man who loves women. This is my nature because I was brought up by women, I was brought up with sisters. I know how much looking good is important to girls from an early age. As a salesman, opening a store, I remember the first thing a woman does as she puts her shoes on. She puts her shoes on, she goes straight to the mirror and she actually turns around to look at her ass. Then she goes back and looks at the rest of her leg, and then she considers the shoe.
WWD: Do you design with clothes in mind?
C.L.: Never. I do like fashion, but when I’m designing, I never think of clothes. The object of the shoe, for me, is it. I can imagine that some heels don’t look good with fluffy skirts, et cetera. But it’s not a natural instinct to think clothes. When I draw, the girl is naked always. I never put in an element of clothing.
WWD: Have you ever thought of designing clothes?
C.L.: No. Someone approached me and proposed I do a line….I said, “I don’t want to do clothes. I have no interest and I have no desire to do clothes and I have no desire to put my name on everything.” I never wanted to work for the fashion industry. I wanted to design shoes, which happen to be in the design [world], in the fashion industry. But it’s not that I thought, as a child, “What can I do to be in the fashion industry?” I was focused on shoes.
WWD: Where do your inspirations come from?
C.L.: It’s coming from everywhere. I travel a lot and I look at a lot of things. I love objects, any types of objects. I have a lot of objects. I buy a lot of things like fine art, handicrafts, fabrics, textiles. I go to any type of museum, textile museums, in the whole world. I travel a lot to see things. It pleases your head. But in the process, what I don’t do, I don’t document it.
WWD: What do you mean?
C.L.: I don’t do photographs. I think that inspiration — everyone gets inspired by [something]. If you go to an exhibition, a lot of people are at the exhibition so it makes sense that a lot of people have the same references.
If you look at a beautiful portrait of a woman painted by Goya, and if 10 designers look at the same portrait and love that portrait, and then they go do the dress, if they have a document, it’s the photocopy of the dress. But if you’ve been inspired by it but you don’t keep it in front of you, it goes from the filter of your memory. That’s your design.
I’ll give you an example. When I first did the red sole, it was by a shoe called pensee. I thought of one of Andy Warhol’s paintings. It was called flowers or pensee or whatever. I thought, I’m going to do it in the colors of Andy Warhol and reproduce that flower as a mary-jane, and the buckle will be this big flower. I thought of that painting but I never looked at it. When I was happy with the shoes, I looked at the painting. I thought that it was three petals outlined with a dark color, et cetera, and when I looked at the painting it had four petals. There was no outline. It was dark on the back and there is not a center. Still, it’s my interpretation of Andy Warhol’s one painting. What I’m trying to say is that in my process, I’m influenced by a lot of things but I don’t document things. I store a lot of things in my memory. It comes out the way it comes out.
WWD: That’s interesting.
C.L.: The only moment is when shoes I’ve found in the flea market or whatever have one detail that I’m interested in. That’s a technical part.
WWD: When you’re designing a collection, do you work for a set number of hours every day?
C.L.: Yes. I isolate myself. No phone. When it’s a summer collection, I go to a place where it’s hot. When it’s a winter collection, I stay home in the country, and it’s often cold enough. If it’s not cold enough, then I just don’t put on the heaters.
WWD: Do you ever feel a creative block? Some fashion designers say they need the deadline of the show to force the creativity.
C.L.: I have to go to the factory after. I have to have the designs done. I start a collection with my drawings and I isolate myself for two weeks. It’s always the same thing. The first day, I’m sort of vague, but then it’s fluid. I do hundreds of designs without stopping. I’m by myself but I have one person who is sort of editing the drawings.
WWD: How many samples are produced for a collection?
C.L.: Four hundred. I’m trying to squeeze it to 400, which become 200 and then the collection becomes 120 or 140.
WWD: I imagine the editing process is difficult.
C.L.: Sometimes some designs don’t look good [when sampled]. And some designs are like, OK, it’s fine, but that one is better. So you eliminate one versus the other. In one family you don’t need 25 sandals. You choose which one is the best. It’s not that difficult to edit. Actually, it’s a funny moment to edit. It’s something that I like. And I compose a family and if one is completely left by itself, then I keep it for next season. I never think, oh, next season is going to be too late…I don’t have this anguish that the last days of designing are the best. If some things arrive at the last minute and they can still be in the collection, that’s fine. If it’s too late, I keep it for the next collection.
WWD: Do you have an ideal woman, an ideal customer in mind?
C.L.: Not one, because it’s complicated to shrink every woman into one type of character. I’ve already had four sisters and it’s like, would you like to have just one sister out of four? No. I can’t shrink women into one. One woman is already a lot of woman. During the day, she’s going to change: what happened in her day, her working day, family, whatever. If she wants to please; if she’s in a bad mood. All different characters.
WWD: The great shoe stars: yourself. Manolo. Roger Vivier. Salvatore Ferragamo. Do you think this is an elite group of four? Am I leaving somebody out?
C.L.: No. Ferragamo. Monsieur Roger Vivier. Manolo. Who would I put? Perugia. But not like Manolo. Not like Salvatore Ferragamo either. Perugia was fantastic but he was unable to do one pure line. That was the thing. He never did a beautiful pump. Jourdan. Jourdan has been a fantastic company since the Seventies.
WWD: You’ve said that you learned the business during your time there. Was Jourdan an important creative?
C.L.: Jourdan was a very modern company in the sense that if you think Jourdan, you would definitely think Guy Bourdin — the importance of the image. For instance, I worked with Monsieur Roger Vivier. I knew Roger as a man. I worked with him in 1988 in Paris; I took care of the exhibition the [50th anniversary retrospective at the Musée des Arts de la Mode exhibition], I know a lot of his archives and everything. There is not one picture that is symbolic of Roger Vivier. The image of Roger is in his shoes. Even Ferragamo was stronger in the image; his face was well-known. There’s the famous picture where he’s lying down with all the elastics. You have iconic pictures of just himself [as well as] his shoes. Roger, it’s all his shoes. Ferragamo, it’s the shoes first and then him. But the power of Jourdan, apart from the designs, is it’s the only one in that category that is really advertising — the image of Bourdin. A lot of people do remember Jourdan for an image, a red spot with a green line. Red spot with a green line. But you may not remember properly the shoes. For that, Jourdan is probably a weaker design but a stronger image.
WWD: Who are the younger shoe stars today?
C.L.: I don’t really know. If I had to think of someone I consider a great designer, I would say Pierre Hardy. Hardy has these architectural designs, which are really fantastic. He actually does what Jourdan did with the picture; he does [it] in the shoes by itself.
WWD: Why did you decide to start handbags?
C.L.: I was still spending very much time in the store. I had a lot of people asking me for handbags. So it came quite naturally.
WWD: Do you enjoy it?
C.L.: Yes. But not the same way as when I’m doing shoes. For instance, I really need someone going into the factories. Shoes I do all myself. I sleep in the factory [in Baragiano, Italy]. I built an apartment on the roof of the factory. So I sleep in the factory.
WWD: Tell me about the beauty project. Why beauty?
C.L.: When I was a teenager, one of my big-time heroes —and I’m superhappy for her because she’s getting married again — was Tina Turner. In the Seventies in France, if you were a girl, you had to have no makeup, bad boots, et cetera, looking scruffy. As a kid, I was always like, “Why, if a girl is sophisticated, if she cleans her hair, if she wears makeup, she’s stupid? Tell me why a woman who likes to put on heels and who cleans her hair is a stupid woman?” And no one was explaining everything.
They were like, “Oh, because [if you focus too much on your appearance] you’re a kept woman and you’re an image for the man.” I just don’t think women are all that stupid. And I was always giving the example of Tina Turner. What I’m trying to say is the idea that you have to be natural — I think it’s completely stupid. Being natural is like being unsophisticated. I do think you can be naturally sophisticated. Just like you can be naturally smart. There is something that’s ingrained in people. You can be naturally someone who likes to be delicate. It’s not because you have been taught that way. Naturally, some people are more sophisticated. “Natural” shouldn’t be no makeup, roots, being in a pajama all year long. Thank God, culture has elevated people more than that. That’s why I’ve always loved makeup.
So many women in history, women who made history, they didn’t have to look like bad versions of bad guys or men. For me, beauty has been there for 5,000 years. It’s Nefertiti. If you see the bust of Nefertiti, it’s one of the most beautiful faces, an incredible beauty. And if you look at her, there’s nothing natural. The eyes are like this. The eyebrows are here. [He dramatically makes lines across his brow.] It’s perfectly designed. I don’t believe in God. I believe in the power of people. If I look at the landscape, I like the fact that people are able to [design it] themselves. Beauty is that thing. Also, makeup defines your character. It remodels your character to the woman you want to be. I’ve always liked this antinatural thing.
WWD: And are you just going to do your own stores? You’ll do major makeup counters, right?
C.L.: Yes. It’s going to be quite the whole integrated thing. It’s going to be quite something, actually.
WWD: Will you advertise the beauty?
WWD: Not even beauty?
C.L.: We’ll see how it will carry. But I want to do it my way. I don’t say my way or no way, like I know everything about everything. I don’t know anything about beauty. I don’t know anything about the cosmetics. But I want to try to do it the way I think it would be nice and would make sense. We’ll see.
WWD: One more question. During your 20th anniversary celebrations, you called your career “a still-young adventure.”
C.L.: Completely. I feel 20.