One afternoon in early March, the shoe designer Christian Louboutin decided to go for a ride on his Vespa. He had just had lunch at a brasserie near his office. The bike, a navy-blue model, was parked by the curb. Louboutin put on a helmet. He pushed the visor up and mounted the machine. I got on behind him. We accelerated tipsily and zoomed off into Paris traffic, dodging bollards and side mirrors.
Louboutin opened up the throttle on Rue de Rivoli. The day was bright and cold. My eyes were tearing. There was a carrousel, a stripy blur. Somewhere in the Second Arrondissement, a traffic light turned red. Louboutin idled at the intersection. Two women came around a corner, unwitting participants in a street-corner défilé. One of them was pushing a wheelchair. Her passenger had a blanket over her lap and, on her feet, a pair of golden shoes that, glinting in the sunlight, looked as though they were encrusted with coins.
The scene, Louboutin said, was “something out of Buñuel.” A similar thing had happened once before, when a disabled woman showed up at a signing session—Louboutin autographs shoes, as an author does books—and presented him with a pump of medium height. “I thought, If I were in a wheelchair, I’d like to be in super-high heels,” Louboutin said. “But it’s funny. People have a strong relationship to their body, and it was quite moving, I thought, that this person, who is paralyzed, still cares about what’s correct for her feet.”
In homage to the Surrealists, Louboutin once created a pair of pumps with a hydrodynamic shape, a bulging eye above the pinkie toe, and tessellating rows of black and gold scales—the foot as a fish. He has designed pairs of shoes with heels of mismatched heights. For a private client, a mine owner, he made a pair of shoes with ruby soles. (Instead of working under armed protection, as the client wanted him to, Louboutin paved the soles in zircons and shipped them to Hong Kong, where the decoys were replaced with real gems.)
In 2008, in a cave in Armenia, scientists discovered what is thought to be the world’s oldest leather shoe, a fifty-five-hundred-year-old cowhide moccasin—a woman’s size 7—with laces and straw padding. But, somewhere between the Chalcolithic age and the Kardashians, shoes went from abetting to embellishing, and even impeding, the feet as a way of getting from one place to another. (The offices of fashion magazines often smell like locker rooms, owing to the rows of stale sneakers and ballerina flats that lurk beneath the desks of carless career women.) To Louboutin, shoes are less interesting for their physical properties than for their psychological ones. A shoe can be an icebreaker, or an inkblot. Louboutin said one day, in the course of praising a Viennese fetish boot from the nineteenth century, “A shoe has so much more to offer than just to walk.”
Louboutin sells more than five hundred thousand pairs of shoes a year, at prices ranging from three hundred and ninety-five dollars, for an espadrille, to six thousand, for a “super-platform” pump covered in thousands of crystals. The sole of each of his shoes is lacquered in a vivid, glossy red. The red soles offer the pleasure of secret knowledge to their wearer, and that of serendipity to their beholder. Like Louis XIV’s red heels, they signal a sort of sumptuary code, promising a world of glamour and privilege. They are also a marketing gimmick that renders an otherwise indistinguishable product instantly recognizable. Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto, told me, “Louboutin took a part of the shoe that had previously been ignored and made it not only visually interesting but commercially useful.” With flickers of telltale color, Louboutin’s shoes issue their own press releases: Oprah interviews George W. Bush, Beyoncé attends the N.B.A. All-Star Game, Carla Bruni strides into No. 10 Downing Street. Louboutin does not advertise, and he says that he does not give shoes to celebrities. (He offers them a discount.) Still, he has elicited the most frenzied attention to soles since the days of Adlai Stevenson. People make marriage proposals in his boutiques. There is a Louboutin manicure, in which the underside of the nail is painted with scarlet polish. Last season, Racked, the shopping Web site, live-blogged the Louboutin sample sale: “9:02am: Staffers keep shifting the line location. Now we’re standing on 38th Street, like ON the street behind those big orange barriers used to designate construction zones.” On “So You Think You Can Dance,” Jennifer Lopez emerged from a giant shoe and performed a song called “Louboutins”: “Watch these red bottoms / And the back of my jeans / Watch me go, bye baby.”
Louboutin’s aesthetic is part Marie Antoinette and part the Mummers. He has covered shoes in gold studs (a recent boot brought to mind an abacus), dotted them with googly eyes (he got the idea from a greeting card), and topped them with plumes (a pointy-toed stiletto looks as if it had tussled with Tweety Bird). But, beyond adornment, what draws the eye to the Louboutin foot is its silhouette. On a shoe he made last year, a spike juts from the top of the foot like a rhinoceros horn. A parabolic pump called the Daffodil appears to have been conceived in a fun-house mirror. Louboutin is fond of protrusions and cantilevers, of big toe boxes like the prows of ships, of bulging heel cups and plunging cleavage (his décolleté is that of the toes).
One of his most popular designs is the Very Privé, a sinuous high heel with an open toe and an extreme, hidden platform. Before the Very Privé, which he first issued in 2006, Louboutin was less well known than his main competitor, Manolo Blahnik. The Very Privé was Louboutin’s iPod, its futuristic contours rendering everything that came before it fuddy-duddy. With several swoops of his pen, he had managed to make Blahnik’s princessy slingbacks look as if they were meant for ladies who spend their days eating charity lunches of chicken salad and melon balls. The Louboutin woman might order a rare hamburger. “I’ll do shoes for the lady who lunches, but it would be, like, a really nasty lunch, talking about men,” Louboutin said. “But where I draw the line, what I absolutely won’t do, is the lady who plays bridge in the afternoon!”
Self-serious monochrome fashion people are not Louboutin’s target audience. (Shawna Rose, his head of communications in New York, refers to them as “the black-and-camels.”) He gives his designs onomatopoeic names, like Toutenkaboucle, or raunchy ones, like Zigounette (“tiny dick”). Once, he made the straps of a sandal out of tape measures. Another time, he put pockets all over a boot, like a safari jacket, and called it CNN Girl. Occasionally, he goes overboard with the jokes. For example, he designed a shoe with a trompe-l’oeil heel that made its wearer appear to be standing on a curtain tassel. “It was a big failure,” he recalled.
He believes, anyway, in repelling preciousness with a sense of humor. “Really good taste, you have to forget about it,” he said. “We have a phrase in French, le petit quelque chose qui fout tout par terre, which means ‘the little thing that fucks everything up.’ So, with a very classical shape, you use, like, a really funky fabric or an overshiny thing.” In 2006, Louboutin took the basic shape of the Very Privé and swaddled it in fuzzy orange mohair—a Snuffleupagus of a shoe. Hamish Bowles, the European editor-at-large for Vogue, said, “There’s the promise of something wicked in Christian’s shoes. They’re a little dangerous, and there’s a sense of teetering on the precipice between avoiding dreary conventional good taste and tumbling into something far more outrageous.”
Louboutin is well read (Houellebecq, Oates, Kapuściński) and widely travelled (a few years ago, he and Diane von Furstenberg vacationed in Uzbekistan). An avid horticulturalist, he charmed Catherine Deneuve at a dinner party by talking with her for hours about a rare species of peony. But he is also puckish and warm, with a penchant for vests and bow ties, fedoras and fezzes. At heart, he is a showguy, and his shoes are miniature stages. In the midst of a breakfast at a hotel in Paris, Louboutin was fiddling with his iPhone. He wanted to make a note of “pinkie finger,” a new phrase he had learned. (“Sounds a little gross!” he said.) He touched into his photo gallery, and flicked to a picture, taken at a café in Rome, of a freshly prepared latte. Whoever had made it had poured the foam into a heart shape. “I ask the waiter, ‘Does it mean anything?’ ” Louboutin recalled. “ ‘This side or that side?’ ” He turned the phone upside down, so that the heart became buttocks. “So I said, ‘O.K., I prefer the second one!’ ” The carny in Louboutin adores a spectacle, the naughtier the better. In 2007, he collaborated with David Lynch on an exhibition of photographs of naked women wearing extremely painful-looking shoes. “Some of the people who came to see it were really sort of coming out of graves, almost like vampires,” he said. Louboutin does not begrudge his sadomasochistic constituency. “You really need to be a criminal or a pervert to shock me,” he said.
Louboutin told me that he had once become embroiled in a mystery. He had been sitting in his office when the phone rang. It was a police inspector, calling to say that he had found Louboutin’s card in the handbag of a woman who had stabbed a man. The inspector and Louboutin talked for a while. The woman, it turned out, was a prostitute, with a history of insanity. After Louboutin convinced the policeman that he was but a coincidental contact—the card was from one of his boutiques—he put down the receiver and started sketching. “I was trying to imagine exactly the type of shoe the type of girl who would be in that situation would have,” he said. “So I ended up doing a shoe that is, like, a high heel with a point and a detachable sling strap, which can be useful if she wants to knock somebody.” The shoe was gold and strappy. He called it Murderess.
Christian Louboutin is to Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau what Marc Jacobs is to Bleecker Street—the sovereign of an urban fiefdom, expanding in concert with his company’s fortunes. Louboutin opened his first shop at the end of 1991, in the Galérie Vero-Dodat, a skylit arcade that connects Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs. The arcade, populated largely by moribund antique shops, was often deserted. Louboutin took a few laps through the area every day, in the hope of creating an illusion of activity. Today, Louboutin has thirty-five stores in sixteen countries. He has annexed half of Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau to comprise what the painter Konstantin Kakanias, a longtime friend, has called “a byzantine labyrinth or, rather, a casbah of offices, design studios, and storage rooms.” Louboutin often administers to the colony from afar: a recent itinerary included stops in Geneva (work), Havana (fun), Miami (fun), and Rio de Janeiro (work and fun), with a few days in Paris before he continued on to Milan, New Delhi, Mumbai, and Shanghai (mostly work). Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a Fleet Street or a Madison Avenue, dedicated to the perfection of a single craft. Employees stream up and down the pavement, identifiable by their extremities. Their soles are like tail-lights: red on the way back.
When Louboutin is in town, a festive air prevails. He pops in and out of doorways, dodging buses and darting into shortcuts and passageways—industry as an Advent calendar. In early March, he had just got back from Brazil, where he and Hugo Marchand, his studio director, had gone to work on the summer collection for next year. Louboutin, who is forty-seven, had come to the office straight from the airport. He was wearing brown moleskin pants, a green cardigan sweater, and a plaid shirt with some sort of plant life on the placket. In gold-rimmed spectacles, he appeared the archetypal bootmaker. (He had lost a more fashionable plastic pair in Brazil.) His head, bald and browned, bore a faint pink welt. “The wave jumped on me and banged me!” he said. “I was like an ostrich, my head in the sand.”
Louboutin was sitting in the central room of his design offices, in a two-story building that one enters through a courtyard hidden from the street. The second floor has a peaked glass roof, like a greenhouse. Hanging from the ceiling was a glittering Spanish galleon, accompanied by a pair of chandeliers decked with Disney-like candlesticks. Fashion is still a Post-it Note business, and the pace of work was relaxed. Shoes were strewn all over. Assistants sat at makeshift desks.
Louboutin started his company after working for Charles Jourdan. With Roger Vivier, he curated an exhibit of Vivier’s work. From Vivier—“the Fabergé of footwear,” who invented the comma heel—Louboutin absorbed a sense of artistry. Even now, he thinks of shoes not merely as merchandise but as music. “My favorite sound is definitely mules,” he told me. “If it was an instrument, it’s really ping—the touch of the black keys of the piano.” At Charles Jourdan, Louboutin learned the industrial side of the business. “It was no fantasyland,” he recalled. “It was, like, toughland. I was smelling glue.”
Louboutin began as his company’s only employee. He now employs four hundred and twenty people. He hired a chief operating officer, Alexis Mourot, in 2007, but the enterprise retains an idiosyncratic, human feel. On the official Web site, a little Louboutin figure—a cutout from a vacation snapshot—jumps into the frame, wearing nothing but a bathing suit and a red backpack. Louboutin’s employees, known as Loubi’s Angels, post their favorite songs on the “LouboutinWorld” Twitter feed. The tone of the Louboutin Times, a monthly newsletter, is conspiratorial: a guide to becoming the perfect guest advises, “If your host is tacky (what fun!): hunt down the requirements for a full-on ‘foam party’; a reminder of his/her days in Ibiza.” At the offices, I saw more pens and paintbrushes than keyboards. “I am not producing pills to cure people, so I feel that the whole system should be slightly joyful,” Louboutin told me.
According to Louboutin, Ferragamo tried to hire him years ago, but he relishes his independence. I asked if he ever felt overwhelmed by his success. “I don’t know how to be unhappy,” he replied. He added, merrily, “When I have meetings scheduled so tight that I can’t go to the loo, that’s where I draw the line!”
His office was crammed with souvenirs of his peregrinations: sphinxes, skulls, obelisks, a bright-green wall clock bearing the likeness of a Shia martyr. There was a stack of a hundred and forty-nine Bollywood posters that he had bought in Mumbai, and a Christian Louboutin Cat Burglar Barbie, wearing a black latex catsuit and many-buckled sandals. Czech beads mingled with strands of turquoise from the Tucson Gem Show. (Louboutin’s customers often end up wearing things that might otherwise have made their way to his mantelpiece.) In a kitchenette, a half-eaten panettone sat on the counter. Louboutin had transformed the bathroom into a sort of bulletin board. Taped to the walls were pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Gabby Sidibe, horse-riding sheikhs and the Marlboro Man from Afghanistan, alongside Louboutin’s “Christian L” nametag from Mattel and an article about a poodle groomer.
Louboutin, as a shopper, rivals Elton John. He once bought eight sets of antique wooden doors in Egypt, where he has a house and a dahabiya, a traditional, two-masted sailing cruiser that he christened Dahabibi (“my love boat”). He also has a fisherman’s cottage in Portugal, a palace in Aleppo, and, in the Vendée, a thirteenth-century castle that he shares with Bruno Chamberlain, his longtime business partner. He told me, “I have this disease that if I feel good somewhere I sort of buy a house.”
At the office, Louboutin was inspecting the prototypes for a pair of shoes that he had designed as a birthday gift for the rugby player Gareth Thomas, who announced in 2009 that he is gay. Louboutin was inspired by the story, and the two became friends. (Louboutin has been in a relationship for many years with the landscape designer Louis Benech, but when I asked him if they lived together he smiled and said, “It depends.”) Louboutin put on the prototypes. They were pull-on brown leather loafers, across the vamp of which he had had the seamstresses at the House of Lesage embroider replicas of Thomas’s tattoos (crosses, a scorpion). In July, Louboutin will open a store for men on Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He plans to offer the tattoo option to his male customers—“We’ll call it tattoos-to-measure,” he said. After half an hour of test-driving Thomas’s shoes, Louboutin had homed in on a few deficiencies. “I’m seeing too much elastic, so that needs to be redone,” he said, of the part of the shoe, near the instep, that expands and contracts like an accordion. “Also, the leather is too scrunchy,” he said. “See how it scrunches?” He traced some tiny fault lines traversing the front of the shoe. “It should be a drier leather.”
The doorbell buzzed, and a deliveryman appeared, bearing enormous white amaryllises. An assistant signed for them, and presented the flowers to Louboutin. He read the card. “Ah, Victoria,” he said, explaining that he had done the shoes for Victoria Beckham’s runway show. “She is very polite. She’s thanked me twice already.”
A Louboutin shoe begins with a sketch. Louboutin likes to conceive summer collections in warm locales, and winter collections in cold ones. Usually, he and Marchand dream up their thongs and wedges while floating down the Nile, but this year, because of the unrest in Egypt, they relocated to Brazil. “One day or two days, and it starts flowing,” Louboutin said. “Every drawing brings me to another. It’s like a sentence. Or, do you know the game cadavre exquis”—a Surrealist parlor game—“where one sentence builds to another? What is really important is the heat. It’s difficult to think of winter when it’s sunny, so it’s really a big thing for me to have the correct radiation.” In Brazil, Louboutin had been thinking about shells (“not decorative shells, but more like the light of the shell”), nineteen-sixties jewelry (“It’s funny, I always have this handicraft thing”), and the sound of waves (“Being close to the sea made me start drawing”). He had met the architect Oscar Niemeyer, whose undulating work in Brasilia he has long admired. Louboutin recalled a conversation he’d had with Niemeyer: “I said, ‘I’m going to tell you something pretentious, because I do not consider architecture shoes, but we have something in common, which is that we are belonging to the universe of curves.’ ”
Once the sketches are complete, they are sent to the Louboutin factory, outside Milan. A team of artisans works long hours to translate Louboutin’s pen-and-paper fancies into three dimensions. Three weeks later, a set of prototypes will arrive at Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Louboutin’s sketches are like recipes, in that their end products can turn out much sweeter or spicier than he intended. “You have this idea in your head, and then it arrives in, like, electric-blue napa,” Louboutin said. “It’s kind of scary.”
After examining the prototypes, Louboutin and Marchand reconvene. “We go to the castle in the country and look at what works, what doesn’t work,” Marchand said. The basic unit of shoemaking is the last—a sort of mannequin, in the shape of a human foot, upon which the shoe is constructed. For many designs, a new last will need to be made. Other times, Louboutin reinvents a shape he has used before in a new color or a different fabric. The serial nature of his line is an inducement to his customers, who collect the shoes as Yankees fans might caps of different colors. “We think of them as a family,” Marchand told me. “We’ll say, ‘Oh, Bamboo had a baby with Bianca.’ ” (Their spawn is a bright-yellow high heel called Banana.)
Louboutin’s lasts are shorter (from toe to heel), higher (in the arch), and tighter (across the width of the foot) than those of most designers, and their proportions have become even more exaggerated over the years. Elizabeth Semmelhack, of the Bata Shoe Museum, said, “He has sort of upped the ante in terms of how high the heel can soar.” Louboutin is fond of (and famous for) his nude-colored high heels, which extend the figure to superheroic proportions. His best shoes are almost prosthetic, morphing the body—lengthening the legs, defining the calves, lifting the butt—as radically as it is possible to do without surgery. “One thing I detest, I have to say, is when a shoe is too soft, and it’s molding to the foot,” Louboutin said. “This is quite disgusting. And I really, really hate incredibly long shoes, where the last is very pointy, almost like Aladdin.”
The shoes that Louboutin sells in stores are made at his factory in Italy. But he maintains a small atelier on Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a sort of Santa’s workshop from which he can cater to the whims of his private clients. Their requests range from the quotidian (extra padding, special sizes) to the more outlandish (red-soled booties for a baby, high heels for a man). “It’s very much a laboratory,” Louboutin said. “It’s super-interesting for me, because I can try new things.”
One day, I wandered into the atelier. Waxy lasts in red and pink and yellow hung from rods, like nautical buoys. They bore names such as Janet Jackson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Prince—a Madame Tussauds of the feet. Nearby, a shelf overflowed with rows of light-brown shoeboxes. They had been labelled in black Magic Marker: Melle Alba, La Falaise, Arielle, Daphne. (The last two names refer to Arielle Dombasle, the lounge singer, and to Daphne Guinness, the beer heiress—the wife and the mistress, respectively, of the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.) A man in an apron was sitting on a low stool, affixing leather to a last with copper nails. Every once in a while, he dipped a wooden stick into a gluepot he had fashioned from an empty confiture jar.
The base price for a custom-made pair of Louboutins is four thousand dollars. “After that, if the style already exists it’s regular price plus thirty per cent,” Louboutin explained. “If it’s completely completely crazy or unusual, I make an estimate.” The one thing Louboutin does not tweak is the color of the sole, even though charities are always hounding him to do a pink one for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or a green one for Earth Day. Shawna Rose told me, “I don’t even torture him with it anymore.”
Louboutin hit upon the red-soles gambit in 1993, his third year in business. Things weren’t going especially well—after a promising first season, Louboutin, naïve about the timetables of manufacturing and delivery, had not got his second collection of shoes into the store until weeks too late. “I completely missed the season,” Louboutin recalled. “Bruno, being so protective, didn’t even let me know we were losing money.”
Louboutin had thought of making a shoe inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Flowers.” The prototype, a pink stacked heel with a cartoonish cloth blossom, had arrived from Italy. “I was very happy, because it was similar to the drawing,” Louboutin recalled, “but the drawing still was stronger and I could not understand why.” Louboutin continued, “There was this big black sole, and then, thank God, there was this girl painting her nails at the time.” Louboutin grabbed the nail polish—it was red—from the assistant and slathered it on the sole of the prototype. “Then it popped,” he recalled, “and I thought, This is the drawing!” Part of the genius of the red sole is that it is beautiful. The other part is that it requires a lot of refreshing: Louboutins, which look horrible scuffed, start to depreciate the day you walk them off the lot. One day, Louboutin was in London, when a gust of wind came along and lifted the long black abayas of a trio of women in front of him—all of them shod in red. “That was my favorite!” he recalled. Louboutin says that, even during the recession, when Net-A-Porter resorted to wrapping packages in butcher paper, and Hermès to offering plain white bags, no one requested a muted Louboutin.
Despite the cachet of the red soles, Louboutin has not been particularly aggressive in fending off imitators. It took him until 2007 to file for trademark protection in the United States. (“The shiny red color of the soles has no function other than to identify to the public that they are mine,” he attested, in a petition to the court. “I selected the color because it is engaging, flirtatious, memorable, and the color of passion.”) Because celebrities love the exaggerated look of Louboutins, and because people love celebrities, Louboutins have penetrated—via US Weekly and TMZ—the acquisitive consciousnesses of even the most far-flung shoppers. The Internet is awash in vertiginous shoes with slightly too orangey soles and a dubious grasp of French spelling. (A guide called “How to Spot a Fake Christian Louboutin” warns that it might not be a Louboutin if the “shoe silhouette is granny rather than sleek” or it “smells like toxic glue.”) “When I see that it’s a full global thing, that it’s an evolution of a silhouette, this can make me happy,” Louboutin said. “But when I am really pissed off is when it’s just a total knockoff and a fake.”
Last year, Louboutin launched a Web site called stopfakechristianlouboutin.com, which features a list of authorized retailers, alongside a video clip of a bulldozer plowing through heaps of fake shoes. But the use of a color is a tricky thing to enforce. Recently, it came to his attention that a fifteen-year-old entrepreneur in County Kildare had started a company called Rosso Solini, which sells slivers of red polymer plastic that adhere to the bottoms of your shoes: “Transform your high-heelers into a designer fashion statement in less than four minutes!” Louboutin has approached the news mostly with resignation. One of his employees said to me, “What are we supposed to do, call her parents?”
This fall, Louboutin marks the twentieth anniversary of the company with a book about his career, to be published by Rizzoli. One morning, I tagged along to a meeting he was having with the book’s co-writer. The discussion was in French, and I didn’t understand a great deal of it, except that someone had come up with the idea that the book should include a sort of centerfold, a “pop-up jambe.” I started to drift off. Eventually, my inattention was pierced by the sound of Louboutin singing. I looked up. He had climbed onto the conference table and was lying on his back, as though he were draped across a grand piano, crooning “Sophisticated Lady” and scissor-kicking his jambes—clad in studded high-tops—through the air.
“It was the night club,” Louboutin said, whizzing past the neon marquee of Le Palace. “It was the first time in Paris that people were super dressing up. The music was great. We were this band of super-young people, in all our best clothes.” The amount of time that Louboutin spent at Le Palace in the late seventies and early eighties cannot be overstated, nor can the amount of time he has spent talking about it since. Razzle-dazzly (on opening night, Grace Jones drove through a cloud of dry ice on a pink Harley-Davidson and sang “La Vie en Rose”) and eclectic (Mick Jagger mixed with club kids and Mitterrands), the place was the crucible of Louboutin’s sensibility, the point of departure for everything since. Hamish Bowles, the Vogue editor, remembers Louboutin as a “giddy, fun-loving party boy” and a “very early bloomer” who would take to the dance floor in vintage matador getups. Roland Barthes wrote that Le Palace “isn’t a ‘club’ like the others, it gathers together in an original place pleasures ordinarily scattered: that of the lovingly preserved theatre, the pleasure of the gaze; the excitement of the Modern, the exploration of new visual sensations due to new technologies; the joy of the dance, the charm of possible encounters.” Louboutin put it to me more succinctly, shouting over the buzz of the Vespa: “It was the center of the universe!”
Louboutin headed westward on the Boulevard Saint-Martin, then looped south toward the Bastille. Earlier, he had shown me some old strips of photo-booth pictures: a friend, a beautiful girl with poufy hair; he, a feral preadolescent posing hammily with his face in the girl’s crotch. “The photo booth was right there,” he said, as we circled the Bastille. Louboutin has, throughout his life, retained a sense of theatre. His friend Konstantin Kakanias, writing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, recalled a blowup that erupted between him and Louboutin, “two overgrown children of 40-plus years,” in the midst of a road trip through Bavaria. “The fight peaked with Christian jumping fearlessly from a moving car on a deserted road in some Wagnerian forest—dramatic and very James Bond,” Kakanias wrote. “Very gay James Bond,” Kakanias told me, later. “It all started over which of Ludwig’s castles was prettier.”
Soon, we arrived in the Twelfth Arrondissement, the neighborhood where Louboutin grew up. His parents, Roger and Irène, met in Brittany and moved to Paris shortly after marrying. Roger was an ébéniste, a carver of fine woods. Irène was a housewife, the indulgent mother of three daughters and a much younger son. The Louboutin daughters, like their parents, had pale skin. Christian’s was noticeably darker. Louboutin has said that his father wanted little to do with him, though he once showed him how to whittle, with the grain, a piece of pearwood. Christian thought that he might have been adopted, and confronted his mother: she told him that there must have been an African slave somewhere in the family’s bloodline. The apartment where Louboutin now lives, on Rue Volney, is decorated with the bust of an African.
Louboutin parked the scooter outside No. 43 Rue de Fécamp. It was a complex of ten or so red brick buildings, set back from the street. They were a little run-down but attractive, with balconies and mansard roofs. At the entry gates, Louboutin got into a conversation with the complex’s superintendent, who told him that in the nineties the area had been plagued by drugs and violence. “When we were here, it was sort of Harlemish,” Louboutin said. “You’d have fights between kids, kids burning cats, dogs being poisoned—but no drugs.”
We walked down an alley, stopping in front of Louboutin’s old building. “Those two windows!” he said, indicating a sixth-floor apartment. When Louboutin was ten, he asked his mother for a private telephone line. She obliged. He wrote the numbers of his friends directly on a wall, near his bed. “I was always so happy to see my friends dancing above me as I went to sleep,” he remembered. An old report card shows that Louboutin missed school sixty-four times in one semester. When he didn’t feel like going, he enlisted the help of his mother, who would write whatever note of excuse he dictated.
Louboutin’s old church, Saint-Esprit, was a few blocks away. “I tied everyone’s robe to the bench during my First Communion, and, when they stood up, the whole thing flew over,” he said. “But then I did, like”—he mimed an innocent face, and folded his hands in prayer—“the little boy-angel!” We passed by his elementary school, the École Brèche aux Loups. He recalled, “This mother of my schoolmate, she was so glamorous—I was always waiting to see what outfits she would wear.” When Louboutin was twelve, he moved in with an older friend.
“How did you get money?” I asked.
“You don’t need money when you’re twelve!” he said.
Louboutin presents his early separation from his parents as an inevitability, rather than as a trauma: he was a tween with a portfolio, a half-pint of the demimonde who, even at the age of twelve, had people to see and ventures to tend to. Besides, he says, he dropped in on his parents all the time, for lunch or for laundry. They were fine with his sophisticated life style.
Back on the Vespa, we crossed a highway and entered the Bois de Vincennes, a sprawling park. We circled a lake, near a structure with a domed roof—the Pavilion of Cameroon and Togo, erected for the Colonial Exhibition of 1931. By Louboutin’s time, it had been turned into a Buddhist temple, with a Japanese garden of bamboo and pussy willows. Its exoticism piqued his curiosity. He devised an elaborate travel game, conjuring a sort of early virtual reality. “I would go to the travel agent’s office, and look at airline timetables and plan routes,” he recalled. “I’d convert money, and check to see that I wasn’t running into any national holidays, and figure out what fruit I could eat.”
We exited the park, turning left onto the Avenue Daumesnil. As we passed the Museum of African and Oceanic Art, Louboutin gave me a nudge. There, as a schoolboy, he had encountered a sign that featured a shoe with a spiky heel in the middle of a red circle with a diagonal slash. Its point was to prohibit high heels, which would have damaged the museum’s mosaic floors. Louboutin was fascinated by the taboo. He began carrying a notebook everywhere, sketching shoes. (One of his early drawings depicts a cloven stiletto, with two heels.) Louboutin, who had kept up his absenteeism, was expelled from school when he was sixteen. He didn’t mind. “Yes, I wanted to be a shoe designer, but I never thought it could be a profession,” he told Kakanias. “But what was the alternative? Doctor? Too dirty! Air hostess? Maybe not! Then someone gave me a book on Roger Vivier, and, chérie, instantly I knew that was it!”
After he left school, Louboutin went to work at the Folies-Bergère, the carnal Parisian cabaret where Josephine Baker wore her banana skirt. Louboutin was a sort of mascot, tending to the showgirls and showing them his drawings. Often, they dispatched him to the butcher’s, instructing him to buy pounds of veal carpaccio. Louboutin recalled, “I said to them, ‘You all are eating veal carpaccio all the time!’ They said, ‘We’re not eating it, stupid, it’s to put in the shoes.’ ” When Louboutin designed the Very Privé—an illusionist’s shoe—he was thinking of veal carpaccio.
“Men are like bulls,” Louboutin said. “They cannot resist the red sole.” We were eating lunch at one of his neighborhood brasseries—Louboutin had ordered blood sausage—and he was expounding on the sexes, and sex, and how both of the former project ideas about the latter onto shoes. “I think I have a part of myself which is a woman,” he said. “When girls are together, they speak completely differently than when there is a guy around. But, with me, they don’t see this masculine thing stopping them, and there is not this boundary.” Louboutin took a bite of his food. He doesn’t think he is a woman, he continued; he didn’t start crying during the movie “The Piano.” Still, he said, he has an ability to meld the needs of Venus with the desires of Mars. He said, “The core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men.”
I, a woman, find wearing high heels agreeable only on the very rare occasion that (1) I will be ferried between destinations upon a palanquin or (2) I am going to a cocktail party and, at five feet two, don’t want to spend the evening discussing the latest movies with somebody’s nipples. Louboutin, however, is not sympathetic to complaints about the deleterious effects of high heels on locomotion. He told me a story about a client who, having bought her first pair of his heels, was forced to slacken the pace of her morning walk. “She began to notice the little details of her neighborhood for the first time,” he said, proudly. To me, this sounded like luxury foot-binding, but to Louboutin it was evidence of the quality of her life. He is an exponent of what might be thought of as a Slow Foot movement, asserting that a sort of virtue is forged in the discipline of wearing exquisite, handmade shoes, even if they cramp the metatarsals. Clogs are a particular bugbear. “I hate the whole concept of the clog!” Louboutin said. “It’s fake, it’s ugly, and it’s not even comfortable!” He continued, “And I hate the whole concept of comfort! It’s like when people say, ‘Well, we’re not really in love, but we’re in a comfortable relationship.’ You’re abandoning a lot of ideas when you are too into comfort. ‘Comfy’—that’s one of the worst words! I just picture a woman feeling bad, with a big bottle of alcohol, really puffy. It’s really depressing, but she likes her life because she has comfortable clogs.”
To Louboutin, shoes are like books, or workouts: if they don’t demand anything of you, you’re not going to get a lot out of them. Wearing gorgeous shoes is a form of self-enrichment. “The shoe is very much an X-ray of social comportment,” he said.
Selling shoes at his first boutique, Louboutin became a keen student of consumer behavior. He noticed that Japanese women tended toward ankle boots, that most American women had pedicures, and that most French women didn’t (“When I started, sandals were not a possibility for the French”). Whatever their nationality, Louboutin’s customers enacted the same ritual upon trying on a pair of shoes. “When a woman buys a pair of shoes, she never looks at the shoe,” Louboutin said. “She stands up and looks in the mirror, she looks at the breast, the ass, from the front, from the side, blah blah blah. If she likes herself, then she considers the shoe.” Fortunately for Louboutin, women like themselves in designer shoes more than they like themselves in many other pieces of designer clothing. “The foot has this lucky thing,” Louboutin said. “A lot of women don’t like when they’re sort of fat, but a fat foot is as beautiful as a skinny foot. Think of Greek statues. Look how many people love the foot of the baby! There is something super-charming about the baby foot.”
Louboutin considers his shoes as a sort of man-bait: men like high heels, and women like being liked by men. “It’s not like we’re designing an object,” Hugo Marchand told me. “Christian will never do shoes that don’t give an advantage to his customers.” Louboutin recalled, “One man said to me, ‘I have never looked at shoes before,’ and it was a huge compliment.” He went on, “I would hate to be in a position of a person that does things that repulse the guy.” At this, I mentioned a fur boot that Louboutin made, with a cleft for each toe, so that the foot looked like a lion’s paw. I doubted that many men would find it as amusing as I did. Louboutin looked apologetic. “Yes,” he said. “That is for a woman who is alone.”
Louboutin knows a couple who met, and married, after the man approached the woman about her red soles. With their erotic connotations, Louboutin’s shoes have served as props in many romances, not all of them innocent. Michael Nitis, the manager of Louboutin’s boutique on Horatio Street, in New York, told me of clients who shop uptown for their wives and downtown for their mistresses; another customer, every time he buys a pair, “gets an extracurricular activity behind closed doors from his wife.” Men buying for women, as a rule, gravitate toward spindly, soaring styles. They don’t like thick heels or wedges. “The Pass mule”—a tarty d’Orsay sandal, balanced on a golf tee of a heel—“is really the mistress shoe,” Louboutin said. “It depends on the country, but the code is definitely leather, which is flesh.”
Louboutin will hire a salesperson on the basis of personality as much as on that of retail experience. “I’m kind of, like, deformed,” he said. “I buy the smallest thing, like a stamp, and I’m thinking, This person would be good for the shop.” Louboutin poached a hostess from an Air France lounge; another time, he hired the bellboy who was assigned to look after him at a hotel in Dubai. Female salespeople offer reassurance; the role of the male salesperson, Louboutin said, is “the ideal flirt.” One of the company’s biggest sales so far this year was at the Madison Avenue boutique, when a woman “with a transatlantic accent” came in and spent fifty-five thousand dollars in less than half an hour, buying, among other items, five pairs of crocodile Biancas—one for each of her houses.
Someone I know used to tell her husband, when a particularly high credit-card statement arrived, that Christian Louboutin was her gynecologist. She wasn’t entirely off—Louboutin considers the fomenting of human reproduction part of his job. He treats his admittance into the secret world of women an almost medical confidence. One day, at his offices, he wanted to demonstrate the way that a pair of his shoes can extend the line of the leg. He summoned one of his employees and had her step on top of a concrete bench. Louboutin then instructed her to hike up her skirt. “It’s all a matter of this here going up to here,” he said, tracing a line from foot to hip, up the length of her stocking. “I haven’t yet met a woman who told me, ‘I wish I had shorter legs.’ ”
A few days later, I was walking through a muddy field in the Vendée, waiting for Louboutin to wake up. Dogs barked and the smell of woodsmoke filled the air. The brown heads of hydrangeas bobbed in the wind. After twenty minutes or so, I walked back through a formal garden—hedges like sliding doors—and into the kitchen of Louboutin’s castle, where I sat before an enormous, blackened hearth. Copper pots of every size hung from a rack; a side table, covered with a rough striped cloth, heaved with bowls of chestnuts and shallots. There were peeling cabinets brimming with dusty decanters and chipped dishes, antique cookbooks, stray bulbs of garlic, a snorkel mask. Around nine o’clock, Louboutin shuffled in, wearing a faded flannel Pendleton shirt, the collar turned up, corduroy pants, and a pair of red Converses.
“Good morning,” he said. “How did you sleep?”
We had spent the previous night in the castle, after taking the TGV from Paris to Nantes. From there, we drove about an hour to reach Louboutin’s house, just outside the village of Champgillon. The place was old, grand, and freezing. In a sombre dining room, I bumped into a taxidermied boar, wearing a golden crown and carrying a tray of silver napkin rings. (At his apartment in Paris, Louboutin has a stuffed cougar: “We call it Sweet Demi. We walk in and say, ‘Hi, Demi!’ ”) A set of Ingres drawings hung on the wall of the living room, where Louboutin designs his winter collections. The curtains were deep purple. The walls were painted a color that Louboutin described as jaune d’oeuf.
In the kitchen, Louboutin pulled some jars of homemade preserves—pêche, poire, mirabelle—down from a high shelf. He took a rubber band off the top of one of them, removed a piece of plastic wrap, and, with a knife, jimmied out a disk of wax. We spread the jam on fresh bread from the village and drank milky tea. Louboutin was planning to heat up some lunch, later on, but he was having trouble lighting an ancient oven. He took out his iPhone and called Bruno, who was in Luxor. He joked, “It’s the Egypt Oven-Emergency Hotline!”
Midway through breakfast, the cloth on the side table caught Louboutin’s eye. I had a pen and a piece of paper, which I gave to him. He started sketching, quick flicks of the wrist yielding graceful blue lines. Soon, a shoe had started to take shape. Its sole was high and thick, with the swooping shape of a roller coaster.
“It seems pretty obvious that you do a wedge,” Louboutin said. “It’s a striped Basque fabric, and, when I think of the Basque, I’m going to think of pelote. They have these things that they use to protect against sweat, so I would do something like a handkerchief here.”
He made a few more dashes with the pen, and a cute, floppy bow materialized, tying up the toes like a present. Louboutin continued, shading in some edging along the wedge: “This would be osier, a woven-wood type of thing.” I asked him why. “It makes it less of just a fabric shoe, which can look kind of cheap,” he said. “It adds some construction, some depth.”
He started scribbling another bow, around the ankle. “Alors,” he said. “That’s just, like, a detail. It could be nice to try to have it in leather, instead of fabric.”
After breakfast, Louboutin wanted to show me around the garden. He planted much of it himself—before becoming a shoe designer, he was briefly a garden designer—and he takes great pleasure in watching the grounds of the château cycle through the seasons. Louboutin traded his Converses for a pair of heavy boots, and we went outside. The daffodils were just coming up. A quince tree was dripping with buds. Louboutin bent over and pulled some weeds from a bed of dusky hellebores.
We walked by a rose garden, and through a grove of conical yews, coming to a bed of annuals. “It’s going to be all sorts of pink and purple mix,” Louboutin said. “A sort of bright Indian garden!”
“Bonjour!” he yelled, to a man in a beret and galoshes, carrying a weed whacker.
The sun was shining, and the dogs had given way to songbirds. Somewhere near an allée of irises, I lost Louboutin. I turned around to glimpse him urinating under a rare palm tree—le petit quelque chose qui fout tout par terre. ♦