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Red soles: Celebrating shoe designer Christian Louboutin and his eclectic inspirations

Christian Louboutin at the Exhibition[niste] exhibition in Paris.
Christian Louboutin at the Exhibition[niste] exhibition in Paris. © Christian Louboutin

In the first major Paris retrospective devoted to flamboyant French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, an exhibition at Le Palais de La Porte Dorée explores his eclectic influences and inspirations. 

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When the young Christian Louboutin went to Le Palais de la Porte Dorée as a child, he was captivated by the colours of the tropical fish, the collections of African and Oceanic Art, and a sign outside banning high heels.

He’d never seen such shoes before. In the 1950s in Paris, women – including his mother – wore flats. These shoes were vertiginously high with a sharp metal heel that threatened to damage the museum’s precious mosaic floors.

“This is where it all began,” he said at the opening of a show that’s been described as a “celebration” rather than a retrospective of his work. “I realised you could draw things that didn’t exist.”

The museum proved a source of inspiration in many other ways. Every Sunday he would go there with his sisters, exploring the galleries filled with objects from Africa and Oceania: tropical fish and totems, sculpted faces and sceptres, Art Deco furniture and feathered masks. 

The "Maquereau" shoe, designed by Louboutin in 1987, in front of Paris's Tropical Aquarium
The "Maquereau" shoe, designed by Louboutin in 1987, in front of Paris's Tropical Aquarium © Christian Louboutin

 

It gave him a taste for travel and it introduced him to worlds far beyond the 12th arrondissement (district) and the Brittany countryside where he grew up.

It’s only fitting that the same museum now pays tribute to the legendary shoe designer in the first major Paris exhibition of his work.

“It’s a look inside an artist’s mind,” said Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, who described himself as the exhibition’s guest curator. “It’s a trip into his imagination.”

In a tribute to Louboutin’s flamboyance and sense of performance, the show appears to have been choreographed rather than displayed in a traditional, linear fashion. Curtains peel back to show hologram performances by burlesque dancer Dita von Teese and the Guinean football freestyler Iya Traoré. There are belly dancers and Bhutanese theatre, a circus-like atmosphere of sequins and sawdust, and nods to Indian and Egyptian films.

Rooms are flame-red – a tribute to his red-soled shoes – and framed by stained-glass windows made especially for the exhibition by the Maison de Vitrail, or lit with rows upon rows of ivory candles. 

The Louboutin retrospective pays tribute to the designer's eclectic influences and inspirations
The Louboutin retrospective pays tribute to the designer's eclectic influences and inspirations Marc Domage

 

Shoes are mounted on walls, encased in glass boxes or, in one case, enthroned on a silver palanquin.

Shoes that range from the raunchy to the demure – thigh-high boots and classic “Pigalle” heels – are displayed alongside 1950s flats. There are shoes made from synthetic crystal or covered with studs or inverted nails. Some are kitsch, quirky and covered in feathers. Others have been custom made for the likes of Tina Turner. 

One room is given over to “Fetish”, a collaboration with filmmaker David Lynch, while others feature work by the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi and the video artist Lisa Reihana.

There’s a Puckish sense of playfulness running through Louboutin’s eclectic sources of inspiration. A cosy English grandmother’s sitting room – where a teapot sits, waiting to be pressed into service – is not quite all it seems at first glimpse.

One room is devoted to a shoemaker’s workshop, where in a tribute to craftsmanship, a string of short films shows Louboutin at work at the different stages of making a shoe. Another room features a Bhutanese stage with gigantic carved wood columns. 

Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi at work on "This too will end,if you go on a step or two," an installation at the Louboutin retrospective.
Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi at work on "This too will end,if you go on a step or two," an installation at the Louboutin retrospective. © Christian Louboutin

 

Louboutin, who compares the clicking of heels to flamenco music, says his first love was dance and theatre, rather than fashion. At the age of 15 he interned at the cabaret music hall the Folies Bergères, where he made coffee, sewed on sequins and ran errands. In his spare time he sketched shoes for the dancers.

“A dancer’s shoe is very important,” he told French daily Le Monde earlier this year. “It gives the angling of the body, it gives stability and it gives the silhouette.”

“What touches me the most about the exhibition,” Gabet told FRANCE 24, “is the first room” – which is filled with some of Louboutin’s early sketches and shoes, colour palettes, press cuttings, mood boards and portfolios.

“When you look carefully, you realise that this young guy, with no financial help or any big business, had so many great, fabulous ideas.

“That’s what creativity is. When you look at the fish shoes and the other shoes, and you realise that, ‘Wow, this was in the late ’80s ...’ And this passion and creativity as a very young man was already there,” Gabet added. 

Burlesque dancer Dita von Teese features in a hologram performance in the Louboutin retrospective.
Burlesque dancer Dita von Teese features in a hologram performance in the Louboutin retrospective. © Marc Domage

 

Kicked out of school at 15, Louboutin spent much of his teenage years at The Palace, the legendary Paris nightclub that was famed for its flamboyant DJ and its diversity.

At 18 he went to work for Charles Jourdan at the Maison Christian Dior, and then shoe designer Roger Vivier, where he learned the value of a correct line and high-quality craftsmanship.

In 1987 he made his first shoe, the “maquereau”, inspired by the iridescence of the fish in La Porte Dorée’s aquarium.

But it was while making the “Pensée” (Thought) shoe in 1992 that he saw his assistant painting her nails a vivid blood-red, and decided to paint the sole of the shoe the same colour.

“It’s as if the shoe came to life,” he said. “It looked like the drawing I’d imagined. It was a kind of revelation.”

Another shoe, “La Pigalle”, is a direct tribute to the sketch of a stiletto he saw as a child – a shoe that took further shape in his mind when he first saw Kim Novak wearing heels in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo”. 

Christian Louboutin's "Pigalle" shoe, inspired by the dancers of the Folies Bergères.
Christian Louboutin's "Pigalle" shoe, inspired by the dancers of the Folies Bergères. © Christian Louboutin

 

It was a shoe that he’d sketched repeatedly since childhood. Fed by film, inspired by the dancers of the Folies Bergères, and laced with a flamboyant flash of colour, he describes the “Pigalle” as “the essence of femininity, a shoe reduced to its simplest expression”.

No one knows exactly when the sign banning high heels from the Palais de la Porte Dorée was taken down. But it’s only fitting that the museum that inspired the legendary shoe designer pays such idiosyncratic tribute to him today.

Christian Louboutin – L’exhibition[iste] is on display at Le Palais de La Porte Dorée until July 26, 2020.

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