SOCIETY AND THE ARTS
FOOTWEAR: THE SOLE OF SEXINESS
NO ONE EVER CALLED CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN'S STILETTOS SENSIBLEBY DANA THOMAS
Jennifer Lopez drapes languidly across the December cover of Harper's Bazaar tacked to the bulletin board in Christian Louboutin's Paris headquarters, kicking up her scarlet-soled silver strap sandals. "She looks so great there, doesn't she?" asks the 39-year-old French shoe designer. "She's by far the best." The feeling is mutual. Louboutin's towering creations, Lopez says, are her "biggest weakness." Her current favorite: black suede pumps with a white bow and spike heel. "They kill you," she told Bazaar. "But they are the sexiest shoes ever."
No one will ever mistake them for sensible. With his witty, wicked designs made of Charvet tie fabric, clear plastic and black lingerie lace--all with his signature red soles--Louboutin has helped lure women everywhere back into pointy-toed high heels and sole-slapping mules. His regular clients include Queen Rania of Jordan, Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and the world's most famous shoe fetishist, former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. But his influence is far more sweeping. "Louboutin makes flirty, saucy footwear, and he's the only one who does it with real polish and elegance," says Sally Singer, fashion news/features director for American Vogue. "He brings a real sexy Frenchness to shoe design."
It didn't happen overnight. When Louboutin reintroduced stilettos in the early 1990s after a 20-year feminist-imposed moratorium, women cried that they couldn't run in them. "But I ask you," he says incredulously, "who runs at work?" Louboutin credits women's reacceptance of high heels to Madonna, who wore them day and night, even onstage. "After Madonna," he says, "there was no more debate." But there was still the battle of the mules. "When I started doing mules 10 years ago," Louboutin says, "I remember people saying, 'If I wear those I'll look like a Spanish maid.' But I kept pushing. Now everyone wears them."
Louboutin traces his shoe obsession back to his childhood. Growing up in east Paris in the 1970s, he regularly visited an old museum bearing the sign of a stiletto with a big red X through it; the shoes were forbidden because the heels wrecked the parquet. At the time, everyone was wearing platforms; what, he wondered, was this steep, slim shoe? He began to sketch it on his schoolbooks and scraps of paper. One day a friend gave him a book about Roger Vivier, the shoe designer for Christian Dior in the 1950s, credited with inventing the stiletto. Paging through it, Louboutin realized he'd found his calling.
At 16, he was hired to design shoes for the Folies-Bergere and learned how to make them solid enough to withstand dancing and high kicks. Later he worked for Charles Jourdan, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, and helped curate a museum retrospective for Vivier, who was in his 70s. "Vivier taught me that the most important part of the shoe is the body and the heel," says Louboutin. "Like good bone structure, if you get that right, the rest is makeup."
In 1991, Louboutin opened his own boutique in Paris. One of his first clients was Princess Caroline of Monaco, who declared in the shop that the shoes were "so Anouk Aimee"--right in front of an American fashion editor. Today Louboutin has boutiques in Paris, Manhattan, Beverly Hills--and, come this spring, Moscow--as well as a steady made-to-order business. In fact, he's working on a one-of-a-kind pair for Lopez right now, though he won't say for what. "The way that girl moves in high heels, I'm very proud that she's a fan," he says. She's not the only one.
Copyright 2003 Newsweek: not for distribution outside of Newsweek Inc.