If Christian Louboutin weren't wearing a gray-and-neon-yellow hoodie, he might disappear into the bric-a-brac that clutters his dimly lit Paris office. There's a faux-cheetah rug with a decorative head staring up from the floor. A dingy Snoopy doll slouching on the bookshelf behind his desk. A massive painting of nearly naked boxers standing ringside. And a 3-ft.-wide photograph of a naked woman on her back, legs akimbo, writhing in high heels. "Shoes have to seem of sex," Louboutin says, his sonorous tones bouncing off the creaky wooden floorboards. "It makes part of the identity of my shoes."
Those shoes are notably absent from his office, though they clutter his conversation. "A while ago, I saw this woman arriving in my store in Paris. She was very elegant, very delicate," he says, folding his hands in his lap and sitting upright to demonstrate her prim posture. "She put on the Pigalle" a patent-leather pump that most buyers prefer in black with a 5-in. heel. "She walked around and said, 'It feels great. I look like a slut! I feel like a slut!'" A few hours later, another woman short skirt, spilling cleavage picked up the same shoe. "But she said, 'Oh! I look so chic, so elegant!'"
In this tale of two shoppers, what happens between the ears is as important as what happens below the ankles. "Shoes," Louboutin says, "are a mirror of what you want, what you are or what you're missing."
What he sees in that mirror are straps, studs, fur, glitter and, of course, superhigh heels. Since setting up his first boutique in Paris in 1991, Louboutin the subject of a retrospective at the Design Museum in London beginning May 1 has become one of the few household names among shoe designers, surpassing his rivals Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik in global recognition. Kicked out of school at 16, Louboutin, 49, now employs some 500 people around the world. Every year he sells more than 500,000 pairs of mules, lace-up boots and bejeweled heels, each with his signature red sole amounting to more than $250 million in sales in 2010. His footprint is only growing: in 2012 Louboutin will open stores in 13 more cities, including Sáo Paulo and Istanbul, extending his network of 49 existing stores. Women fork over anywhere from $395 (for the Hola Nina summer sandal) to as much as $6,395 (for the 6.2-in. Daffodile platform heel, covered in Swarovski crystals).
"When a woman puts on a heel, she has a different posture, a different attitude," he says. "She really stands up and has a consciousness of her body." Consciousness of comfort does not factor into his design process which is not to say that the Louboutin woman must suffer unduly for her art. "I'm really like a doctor," he says. "I have my tricks, which makes a thing that is not looking comfortable possibly comfortable."
"A girl wearing Louboutins is instantly more intriguing," says burlesque star Dita von Teese, who performs only in Louboutins. "It says that she has good taste. It says that she's not too conservative because that flash of red sole is really something sexual." Louboutin likes to point out that the arch of a high heel mirrors a woman's foot position when she orgasms.
His style balances ornament and architecture; the clean silhouettes temper aggressive accents like silver spikes, as on the shoe called the Kryptonite, and glittered lettering that spells out S-E-X, as on the shoe simply called Sex. The Guinness features a heel made out of a beer can. The Déjà Vu, a black patent-leather pump, is covered in dozens of googly eyes. The Pesce, an open-toe pump with a fish-head appliqué on its vamp, regurgitates the wearer's toes. The Anemone, a pink satin heel with a burst of feathers and ribbons at the back, resembles the aftermath of a battle royal between a showgirl and a flamboyant ostrich.
Louboutin's love of color and embellishment stems from growing up in 1970s France, which he remembers as dreary and austere, with anonymous white and gray concrete buildings popping up all over Paris. "There's nothing I liked visually of the period I was a child," he says. "There was no dream in it, and nothing sparkled." His best friend wore colorful dresses from America; classmates taunted her "simply because she was clean."
"There was this big thing of feminism in France, and it was all about wearing no makeup and looking pretty crappy," he says. "And if you were having heels, you were evil." He became obsessed with a sign at the Museum of African and Oceanic Art: a high heel with a large red X over it, representing a plea from management to avoid wearing shoes that might harm the flooring.