The designer celebrates his 20th anniversary with a new book, Christian Louboutin. He tells Isabel Wilkinson what he’s learned, what he finds sexy—and making shoes for the queen.
What is the highlight of your 20-year career?
The fact that I did it by myself. And I remain free. I’m really happy that after 20 years I’ve been keeping exactly the same enthusiasm as the beginning. I have the same excitement about my work. When I started my company, investors had proposed to come in my company. Since the first day, it has been, “Should I do it, or should I not do it?” But very quickly, I thought I have to do things the way I want. Freedom has a price—and it’s the price I have to pay.
How do you think you’ve changed as a designer since the very beginning?
At the beginning, most of my shoes were super-dressy. In those 20 years, I went from very dressy to very un-dressy. It is a thing I still love—over-the-top, dressy shoes—but sometimes it is about the posture, and a shoe should be able to disappear completely and fade on the silhouette.
Is there a lesson you wish you knew at the beginning that you know now?
Remain free as long as you can. It’s the best way to learn. You learn through yourself and from yourself. I was not that conscious of how much freedom is part of your creative process—it came naturally to me. But I did not realize I would be so unhappy if I was actually not free, or if I had to report to people all the time. In the creative process, it’s very degrading.
You’ve said the 9/11 attacks were a turning point for you. Why?
For two reasons. First, 9/11 was a turning point from a historical point of view—we’re living under the spell of 9/11 still now. But also it’s because it’s a very specific period that I just did my first factory in Italy. It’s another part of the business that I never thought would interest me. It was a weird thing to work on the industrial process at the moment when the world was collapsing.
In your 20-year career, you’ve weathered recessions, even though your shoes are very expensive. How does Christian Louboutin survive a tough economy?
I’m not trying to follow any type of trend. I think when you are faithful to who you are and what you like, people do see that and it makes a huge difference. People may like or dislike what you do. There’s always, in a way, a place for people who are true to themselves.
You just lost the primary injunction in the court battle to prevent other designers from using red soles on their shoes. What is this lawsuit about for you?
In a David and Goliath story—it is, of course, Goliath who is stronger. But there is some room for David. I think it is important that I stand for myself, and what I have been starting to achieve. I don’t like conflict, so I’m really bad at these things. I wish that the whole thing comes back to an agreement because it’s really not about money. I don’t want any money. I want my freedom to retain my freedom. I have a trademark and it needs to be respected, period. I’m just asking respect for myself.
Do you have a favorite shoe that you’ve ever designed?
It changes all the time. It’s difficult for me to say one. A shoe for me is like a best friend. They are also souvenirs you have in designing; it’s the moment that it represents. They represent someone, a specific moment, a period of my life, a landscape—even a table where I was happy designing.
Why do you choose to collaborate with younger designers when you could collaborate with anyone?
It’s an expensive process to do shoes, and sometimes when you start and you don’t have the money—but you could kill a part of your design with bad shoes. I think when you receive you have to give back. If I can help people who have talent and enthusiasm, I am super happy to do it.
Who are you collaborating with next season?
Four British designers: Mary Katrantzou, Mark Fast, Todd Lynn, and Jonathan Saunders.
What do you think about surgeries women have where they inject collagen into the balls of their feet to make walking in heels less painful?
As long as it doesn’t move the gravity center and your balance, it’s OK. I don’t have an opinion because I don’t really know what it is, but I’d be really careful with that all the same. I totally believe in reflexology and how good it is, but I’d be very, very careful.
“I think when you receive you have to give back. If I can help people who have talent and enthusiasm, I am super happy to do it.”
This year, androgyny was an important force in fashion. You’ve designed several shoes for women inspired by menswear. Is this something you’re going to continue?
This is definitely something I’m thinking to continue. Next to me, I have people who are quite androgynous and who look good the way they are. There was a moment when femininity was only attached to a very curvy body. Now, femininity can express itself in a lot of ways. You can be very feminine-looking and almost like a boy. One doesn’t go against the other.
How do you feel about men who wear your ladies’ shoes?
I’m in the business where I’m doing the things that I like. When people buy it, they can do anything they want with it. I’m really not a fascist on that side. I would never say to a woman, “You should wear that shoe with that outfit.” I’ve been traveling a lot, and one thing you learn is that there is more than one truth. It doesn’t need to be according to what you think is good or what looks good. I really love what people are inventing, and never thought it would take that direction—I love that surprise.
What is the most terrible thing women can wear on their feet?
Clogs. The sound of clogs is so ugly. In movies, the sound of shoes is so important. I can recognize a shoe by its sound—I can tell you if it’s a high heel, or a flat shoe, if it’s a boot, if it’s a slider. And I can recognize the sound of clogs—it’s one of the ugliest sounds in the world.
If there was one person you could put in your shoes, who would it be?
One person: the queen of England. I would really be curious which one she would pick out. I would design one for her at this point. I would not put her in a six-inch heel. It would be a lower heel.
Would you design a heel for Kate Middleton?
No. She’s a beautiful woman, but she’s not the icon like the queen. For the queen, I would have to design according to her specificity about color. Kate Middleton is a beautiful, alive woman.
Which designer or artist would you most like to collaborate with?
Kar Wai Wong—a Hong Kong movie director who did In the Mood for Love. He makes people who I call the aesthete—who have a very specific aesthetic point of view. And also, he loves shoes. There are always shots of women walking. So I’d definitely love to collaborate with him.
What is the sexiest thing on earth?
Voices. The voice expresses a lot of things. Sexuality and sensuality go through voices.
Who are you most proud to count as a client?
My closest sister. Because she’s difficult and she is not someone who would wear something she didn’t like just to please me. She would pretty much do the opposite just to annoy me. Even if she wants to be the most nagging person on the planet, it doesn’t stop her from wearing the shoes. And that’s the biggest compliment.