The way to a woman’s sole

Christian Louboutin has been credited with many things, most notably, the birth of a new status symbol — the red sole. As the designer celebrates 20 years in business, Annmarie O’Connor takes a look at two decades of the ultimate foot candy

IF FASHION kills the thing it loves, then its living legacies are a rare breed. Perhaps this is why industry milestones are such cause for celebration. Take cult shoemaker Christian Louboutin who is currently marking 20 years in the business with a series of high profile events and the launch of a special capsule collection. The anniversary line which features 20 iconic red-lacquered styles, updated for 2012, is more than just a shoe in with the public; it’s a snapshot of the man who has captured the hearts and soles of women worldwide.

Since launching his eponymous brand in 1991, Christian Louboutin has been credited with many things: the return of the stiletto, the highest heel (8 inches) outside of the fetish world, and most notably, the birth of a new status symbol — the red sole. Selling an average of 600,000 pairs of ‘Loubis’ a year with women paying on average €500-€1,000 for a taste of his foot candy in 51 boutiques worldwide, this is more than your average shoe obsession. So just what is the appeal?

That question is best answered with a look at the man himself. Louboutin first developed a fascination with shoes upon visiting the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanieas as a teenager in his native Paris where he saw a sign forbidding women from wearing sharp stilettos. This image fuelled his rebellious nature, a deviance which, combined with his love of cabaret and exotic destinations, would underpin his early sketches and subsequent iconic designs.

Expelled from school at just 16, he then interned at the Folies Bergére where he ran errands for the dancers. During this time, he sketched fantasy shoes for the showgirls, a pastime which subsequently resulted in jobs with both Charles Dourdan and Roger Vivier — the inventor of the stiletto; this, combined with freelancing stints at Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel, led to the opening of his first Paris salon in the early nineties.

This heady combination of cabaret and couture helped shape, not only his signature styles, but the philosophy surrounding them. Shoes, according to the designer, were a true rite of passage into womanhood; and their height part of ‘the natural desire to be closer to heaven’. With this he professed to make women look long-limbed and sexy; eschewing comfort for the more demanding reward of desire.

Indeed, women may love heels, but both men and women adore a pair of Louboutins. From the revealing toe cleavage to the shape of the heel arch (said to resemble the position of a woman’s foot during orgasm) and its attendant lotus gait, the pleasure is not simply reserved for the fairer sex. In fact, it is in plumbing both the male and female psyche that Louboutin tapped into true fashion gold.

Inspired by the fact that men always look back to watch a woman walk away, lore has it he painted the sole of a shoe prototype, inspired by Andy Warhol’s Flowers, with his assistant Sarah’s red nail varnish. The Pensée (Pansy) launched in a/w 93 and in turn copper-fastened the red sole as a fashionable badge of honour.

Since this eureka moment, his client list has read like a who’s who of the A-list from royalty (Princess Monaco was his first customer) to red carpet regulars Sarah Jessica Parker and Angelina Jolie; with author Danielle Steel reported to own over 6,000 pairs of ‘Loubis’.

Even Adam Clayton was photographed wearing them last week at a charity event.

Shoe lover, Xposé presenter and model Glenda Gilson is also a self-confessed acolyte. “People wonder why you spend €800 on shoes. It’s madness but you’ll never see a shoe built like a Louboutin,” she says. They’re like works of art; an outfit in themselves. You can team a pair with a Penneys dress and still be the best-dressed chick in town.”

Gilson, who own several pairs from boots to classic courts, attests not only to their aesthetic appeal but to their wearability. “I’m really hard on my shoes so it’s all about the cobbler. I bring mine to C&B Shoes and when I get them back they’re like new again.”

With such an ardent fan base comes the expected barrage of high street copycats, not to mention counterfeit sites offering discounted ‘Loubis’ to unsuspecting bargain hunters . In 2010, the company launched a website called Stopfakelouboutin.com and in 2011, filed a trademark infringement of its crimson sole against Yves Saint Laurent, seeking $1 million (€757,558) in damages.

But life isn’t all bunions for the foot candy merchant. The company’s mission statement “to make shoes that are like jewels” was made manifest with the recent incarnation of the 6.2”. Swarovski crystal-encrusted ‘Daffodile’ platform heel. The damage? $6,395 (€4,832).

Thankfully, fans don’t need to be that well-heeled to buy into the fantasy. The ’20 Ans’ collection co-opts some including: ‘La Pluminette’, a feathered strappy sandal inspired by his ‘birds of paradise’ – the showgirls; the ‘Highness-Tina’, an eponymous fringe tribute boot to Ms. Turner; ‘The Copt’sandal, inspired by a Coptic cross bought from a local Egyptian artisan; and the ‘Armadillo’, an elegant peep toe d’Orsay pump, updated with a metal pin heel and a delicate ankle strap.

For the die-hard enthusiast, a series of international events will also mark the 20th anniversary, from Louboutin’s collaboration with the Parisian erotic-cabaret troupe Crazy Horse, a retrospective in London’s Design Museum, the opening of the designer’s archives in Champgillon, France and an exhibition at Miami’s Art Basel festival.

As for the possibility of another seminal fashion milestone, the Frenchman appears quietly confident. “In France, 20 years defines a generation,” he states. “This is a celebration of the first generation of this brand; an anniversary of its first young adventure.”

And the legacy lives on.

The Christian Louboutin 20th Anniversary Capsule Collection is available at Brown Thomas, Dublin, 01-6056666.

Picture: Florian Seefried/Getty Images


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