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December 23, 2011

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King cobbler with a red sole

CHRISTIAN Louboutin's sumptuous, red-soled, super-stilettoes have inflamed the hearts of celebrities and become the objects of desire for women - and men - the world over.

They are outrageous and fanciful, many dangerously high, many quite kinky and some painfully unwearable, except if the wearer is horizontal.

But many of the iconic shapes can be worn, although carefully - they make the leg look awesomely long. They are not bought because they are comfortable or practical, though there are some flats and low-heeled footwear.

The ubiquitous, instantly recognizable "red soles'' or "red bottoms" have been worn by France's First Lady Carla Bruni climbing the steps of Zarzuela Palace, Angelina Jolie in her films, Sarah Jessica Parker at her wedding, Lady Gaga in her concerts, among many others. Jennifer Lopez wrote a love song "Louboutin.'' Even Barbie wears them. The list goes on: Elizabeth Taylor, Demi Moore, Madonna, Diane von Furstenberg.

They may be the word's most famous shoes, with shiny, bright-red lacquer soles. The French luxury designer helped bring stilettos back into fashion in the 1990s and 2000s, designing dozens of styles with heel heights of 120mm (4.72 inches) and higher.

Louboutin sells 700,000 to 800,000 pairs of shoes a year. It costs 4,900 yuan (US$772) for a basic pair, perhaps 45,000 yuan for a limited edition. He consciously goes his own way, apart from the big luxury brands.

Wearing those stilettoes, it is said, a woman lets her inner cat out of the bag. High heels are empowering.

"Women love my shoes because they please themselves on them. The shoe elevates a women's every sense of self," Louboutin said on Saturday at his new stand-alone boutique on Xikang Road, opposite shopping center Plaza 66.

Two decades after he opened a small storefront on a whim in Paris' Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the stiletto master has opened 46 boutiques worldwide, including the one in Shanghai. A two-floor boutique is set to open in Beijing in January.

Shanghai boutique

In Shanghai the new tiled store facade sparkles with a glint of red - each scaled, reflective lacquered square decorated with a red edge, creating visual movement as traffic passes the store front, evoking the flash of the red sole on the Louboutin heel.

Inside the store, 47-year-old Louboutin is a star and Chinese fans got giddy waiting for him to sign a lavish new book "Christian Louboutin" published by Rizzoli.

The top cobbler's 351-page book, (more like an opulent monograph), is not just a book of pretty pictures of stilettoes; it's also a book to be read. Chapters include "A Life," "The Shoes," "The Fetish," "The Places" and "Twenty Years."

It was written by noted French writer Eric Reinhardt, including an extensive interview with Louboutin, photographed by Philippe Garcia and film maker David Lynch (with whom Louboutin collaborated on a "fetish" art photo collection of nudes in Louboutin heels); the forward was written by John Malkovich. It includes photographs of Dita von Teese (burlesque and fetish star), actress Kristin Scott Thomas, French pop singer Mika, as well as Louboutin's sister Farida.

Louboutin said he was approached two years ago to work on a book, realized his 20th anniversary in fashion was approaching and decided to take stock in a book project. He chose noted photographer Philippe Garcia, saying he didn't want a fashion photographer who would shoot in a seasonal way, making his shoes seem dated, rather than timeless.

Louboutin said shoes represent personalities.

"I have a quite feminine personality, much more than men: I love really new shoes. Mostly men have an attitude toward shoes that is forever, long lasting. I'm absolutely not like that. I have a lot of shoes and you don't even want to ask how many,'' he said.

The designer shopaholic clearly understands shoe addictions and says he is addicted to the excitement of watching his feet in new shoes.

"I'm not interested in the whole concept of comfort and practicality. You don't cherish when you buy full practicality," he said. "A lot of women coming to the store end up buying high heels even if they came for flat shoes.''

Between the first and second decades, he went from producing extremely ornamented designs to much purer ones. Louboutin's decorative designs in early years made him stand out and get noticed, a bit like teenagers who dress flamboyantly to get attention, as he did in the days of the famous Paris nightclub Le Palace.

"I still love to design ornamented shoes but I shifted things from dressy to undressed. My music hall background sort of came on stronger lately, in a sense that some shoes are there to keep you undressed.''

When he was 17 he was a wardrobe apprentice in the dressing rooms of the Folies Bergere and always wanted to design shoes for the dancers, but never got a chance because custom-made shoes were too expensive. Themes such as cabaret and show girls, fantasy and fairy tale, art and architecture are all reflected in his designs.

"A successful shoe is one that preserves and accentuates nudity. When a woman is naked with shoes, she is still naked and doesn't seem odd. Shoes don't take away the nudity but are like an extension of nudity. On the other hand, a naked woman wearing a hat is a nude with a hat.''

Helmut Newton's famous photographs of naked women with shoes are the proof that shoes preserve and celebrate a woman's nudity, he said.

Apart from the shoe and foot fetish, the stiletto is also a powerful evocation of sexuality because it changes the center of gravity so that the body curves backward, the breasts are thrust forward, and the bottom accentuated. Then there's the swaying walk.

"Heels oblige a woman to feel her body, to be aware of and empowered by her own body,'' the designer said.

Fetish shoes

In 2007, Louboutin created an unwearable fetish collection, which was not for sale.

"I just wanted to design, for once, a range of shoes not to walk in, and each one evokes a fetish symbol," he said. "Shoes appeal for different reasons and some are made to illustrate an idea. It doesn't necessarily need to be practical.''

Louboutin wanted to explore the extremes of human nature and push the notion of extreme fetish in his work, by creating shoes and then playing with their creative representation in two-dimensional images. Filmmaker and photographer David Lynch was the man to translate his vision. Throwing practicality out the window, he pushed design to the limits: 26cm heels and "Siamese heels," two shoes fused at the heel.

Fetish designs inspired London designer Bella Freud to collaborate with him on a range of knitted dresses and jumpers featuring his accentuated spiked heels.

He still loves to decorate and build shoes with unlikely materials: crushed beer cans shaped into heels, metro tickets and cafe receipts embedded in clear heels and exquisite Lesage embroidery and costume jewelry once owned by a show girl at the Folies Bergere.

Raised in Paris, Louboutin grew up in a family of seven: his mother, cabinet-maker father and four older sisters. As a child, he would regularly sneak out of school, from the age of 12, to watch the show girls at Paris theaters. He was often thrown out of school.

Louboutin never opened a fashion magazine until he was 16, but he was obsessed with burlesque dancers. He used to draw shoes for them but never thought that making shoes would be his career.

"Though I couldn't make dancers' shoes, I learned their shoes are very important. They must be stable and make their legs look good. That's where I learned that shoes are about posture and proportion. It's about silhouette and transforming the woman."

Later on, Louboutin did periodic work for the venerable Paris shoe brand Charles Jourdan and worked freelance Coco Chanel, Maud Frizon, Yves Saint Laurent and Roger Vivier before launching his own label and boutique in 1992.

Red sole

More than a marketing concept that would become famous, the red sole itself was a happy accident. It was while making Pensées shoes for fall/winter 1992-93 that Louboutin saw something was lacking and impulsively grabbed the nail polish of his assistant Sarah and painted the sole red. The red soles instantly became his trademark.

Louboutin says women inspire him.

"I feel in a way that every girl is a bit of a show girl. I work on unveiling the show girl in every girl."

It's offensive to say that women buy shoes to please other people or just to feel trendy, he said. They buy them to please themselves and feel empowered. Though his home is in Paris, Louboutin spends most of the time traveling and he owns other homes in France, Egypt, Syria and Portugal. In Egypt he owns a houseboat in the Nile and a home with domes and courtyards; in Portugal a fisherman's hut; in Vendee, France, he shares a 13th century chateau with his business partner Bruno Chambelland; in Aleppo, Syria, he bought an 11th century palace. He collects furnishings and objects he finds interesting. "I like to buy objects from different culture and periods and mix and match them in my houses," he said.

He spends two-thirds of the year traveling with his partner or friends. "I'm not a coconut beach type. When you travel you don't necessarily work in a classical process, but looking at things, nourishing yourself, or catching objects, nature, the colors of different countries definitely inspires and nourishes the work,'' Louboutin said, adding that avoids places that are crowded and touristy. "India is crowded but I love India. Egypt is very touristy but I could manage to go to the sights at certain hours.''

Today he feels the same enthusiasm he felt in 1992 when he unveiled his first shoe. "It feels like Christmas when I look at new styles. I design for pleasure and that never changes. You can see the difference when someone designs with his full heart and someone who designs only for the market."

"If you last, it means you are faithful to what you like and what you are about. You cannot lie about that for 20 years," Louboutin said.

"It's about the freedom. If you are free, you live in a very different way. It's definitely inserted in your designs.''


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