Christian Louboutin’s red stamp of approval

Christian Louboutin needs no introduction. In fact, all it takes is a flash of a shoe’s red sole to bring him right back into any conversation. There’s a lot of that — the flashes, we mean — what with 8,00,000 pairs of shoes being made last year alone, retailed from 159 department stores and boutiques in 35 countries. Say you steer clear of big weddings, red carpet events, high-powered conferences or even airports (Louboutin’s neoprene sneakers with electric colours are key to travelling in style these days)... there’s still popular culture. “These expensive... red bottoms... bloody shoes...” raps Cardi B in her famous 2017 single, ‘Bodak Yellow’, one of countless Louboutin fans on a long list that also includes Jennifer Lopez, Madonna and Lady Gaga. And let’s not forget who shod actors Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh at their much-discussed Sabyasachi Mukherjee-styled wedding last year. It’s no wonder the French designer gets by with none of the usual advertising.

Christian Louboutin’s red stamp of approval

Strong Indian links

In Mumbai for Mukherjee’s 20-year anniversary show, Kashgar Bazaar, Louboutin seems tired when we meet in his suite at the Grand Hyatt. The lights have been dimmed, a plate of fruit salad lies forgotten, and he is trying to recollect the name of a 1950s Hindi film by peering at a photo of Nargis on his phone. His communications team — there are four of them in the room with me — promise to get on the job.

While I’m raring to go about his sculptural shoes and empowering heels, I must admit that this fascination with Indian movies isn’t recent. The designer, who has been visiting the country since 1979, knows his Bollywood and Bengali films. He has made references to Guru Dutt and Mrinal Sen in the past; and at the well-attended show at the same hotel later that night, is on familiar terms with Bollywood’s successful young stars, from Alia Bhatt to Kalki Koechlin. “He’s a sponge,” says Jean-François Lesage when we speak a few days later, as he fondly lists how the much-travelled and well-read Louboutin is always open to cultural influences. The Chennai-based embroiderer and Louboutin go back a long way, having collaborated on several collections.

Back in 2011, they created menswear designs inspired by 19th century art and British street style — Tasselissimo and the majestic Mikaraja featured tassels and fine embroidery. But it is “the naughty queen Marie Antoinette”, the iconic shoe from 2009, so exclusive that only 36 pairs were made (and priced at approximately ₹4,36,000), that he remembers best. “Working along with Christian Louboutin means being able to enter his own imagination and mythology, which goes from ancient classical knowledge, architecture, archaeology, botany and decorative styles, up to pop songs and singers and movies, as if all that put together could stand on a stage as a musical,” adds Lesage.

Christian Louboutin’s red stamp of approval

Like meets like

Recalling “Christian’s fascination” with the art work in his Chennai house, the hand-painted Tamil movie posters, and even the stripped walls of the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Chennai’s Mylapore, Lesage observes that the shoe designer is similar in many ways to Sabyasachi Mukherjee. “Behind Christian there is always passion, love stories, humour, and whimsical angles to look at life on very solid ground,” he continues. It is true that Mukherjee shares Louboutin’s love for garden landscaping. At the French designer’s13th-century French château in France’s Vendée region, where he has an orangerie, and grows kumquats, everything has been planted under his personal supervision. (Early on in his career, Louboutin had taken a break from designing shoes to work as a landscape gardener, which was, he says in his 2011 eponymous book by Rizzoli, “highly instructive”.) As for Mukherjee, he has had a say in every one of the 4,000 plants and trees in the garden in his new Kolkata home. You also have both designers collecting everything from sofas to portraits and bric-a-brac on their many travels. And storing them in warehouses for use at a later date. In Louboutin’s case, perhaps in the hotel he is planning to open in Portugal next year. Mukherjee, meanwhile, has often shared his desire to set up a heritage hotel too.

A common language

It’s no wonder that the two hit it off when they met “randomly, by accident” according to Louboutin, in Mukherjee’s store. “What happened is that Mukherjee asked me if I could do shoes for his couture fashion shows in India... we started to collaborate, integrating my shoes in his shows,” he told The Indian Express two years ago. “The great thing about Jean-François and Sabya is that we speak the same language,” says Louboutin to me. “When you are collaborating with people, it is very important to have the same point of reference, and the same visual language. It is extremely relaxing to be with people who speak the same language,” he says.

Kashgar Bazaar is Louboutin’s fourth collaboration with the Bengali designer, and echoing the main story of global nomads, gypsies and the Silk Route, he had thigh-high boots, loafers, espadrilles and more, featuring exquisite embroidery and plant and animal detail. “What Sabyasachi and Christian have in common is that they are not fashionistas. Fashion for them is a medium of expression they have chosen over anything else,” says Lesage, referring to each designer’s multiple passions. Both are perfectionists, have great social media presence and know their market: @louboutinworld has 12.3 million followers on Instagram. At the show last Saturday, both impressed with their remarkable vision and storytelling, as they proved how one can keep collaborations fresh and intriguing, yet relevant.

Beauty and soaring heels

The verdict is still out whether Louboutin’s heels (he brought 4.72 inch stilettos back in fashion in the 1990s) are a tool of seduction or empowerment. But the demand for them remains sky-high. That said, India is a bit different from the global audience. “When we opened our store in Mumbai (2013), women would come in and ask for very low heels,” Louboutin recalls. “It was funny because this was despite [the brand] being known for high heels. It was also nice because it meant that people felt something for the brand. but still wanted it to be adapted to themselves.” The brand’s extension to beauty, with nail colours, lipsticks and fragrances, has also been well-received, and this season sees the LoubiGraffiti collection, with ultra-pigmented lip colours. “When we launched Beauty, I wanted Oscar Neimeyer (the Brazilian architect) to design the lipstick. I spent an afternoon with him. He was 99 then and very sweet. He wrote me a letter, which I stupidly lost. It had a poem about why he was doing architecture... it was about the country, the beach and the beauty of the female body. He asked if I could wait three years till he finished [pending] work, but I could not.”

Coming full circle

Louboutin helped restore a childhood hangout, which opened earlier this year. “It is more than 25 years since I started the company. Now I can allow myself to do the things I want.” When he was a boy, the Art Deco building, Palais de la Porte Doree, was a museum of the indigenous arts of Africa and Asia. “Everything that seemed exotic to me was extremely attractive. I always loved that museum because it pretty much made me dream,” says Louboutin, who shared its connect with his work. “It was because of this place that I began to draw shoes. There was a poster at the entrance, of a stiletto pump crossed by a red bar: spiky, metal heels not allowed (because of the wooden flooring). Obviously, I began drawing what was forbidden.”

The #CLxSabyasachi collection will be in stores in June, 2019.


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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 7:56:22 PM |

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