King of Sole: Christian Louboutin Celebrates 20 Years

For Christian Louboutin, shoes evoke a life. In anticipation of his 20th anniversary retrospective at Toronto's Design Exchange June 21, (it broke attendance records in its debut showing in London), Fiona Green pops by the Paris-based designer's memory-filled studio.

Christian Louboutin; Photo by Stephan Gladiee

Christian Louboutin; Photo by Stephan Gladieu

The man who made very high, very sexy heels as essential a work accessory as a cup of Starbucks has a surprisingly comfortable, homey office. It’s on the second floor of his Paris headquarters, which are housed in a large, grey, stone neoclassical building in the first arrondissement. He opened his first boutique here in 1991, in what was then a romantically dishevelled glass-roofed galerie of (mostly) antique stores. Now the galerie’s been restored and Christian Louboutin occupies several of the surrounding addresses. As with his shoes, there’s a Parisian magic to the courtyards and doorways, and the mysterious nooks in between.

The Pillage, From Fall/Winter 2004-2005; Photo by Mathieu Cesar

The Pillage, From Fall/Winter 2004-2005; Photo by Mathieu Cesar

The room is overflowing with books, and the all-cork wall behind his leather-covered campaign desk serves as an image-stuffed moodboard. In the studio downstairs a friendly, close-knit group buzzes around large tables and technical equipment, above which huge antique chandeliers and a ship model float from the vaulted glass roof. The PR director in Louboutin stilettos urges me to hold the railing as we climb up the steep winding stairway. As soon as you enter his physical arena you notice a warm, glowing natural light, and when I meet him he radiates the same warmth.

He has every reason to be world-weary, having left his bohemian home at 12, become a fixture of ’70s nightlife (mingling with Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol) and been an in-house mascot at the Folies Bergère before turning to shoe design. You also might expect him to be just plain weary: it’s Fall 2013 fashion month and he’s collaborating on eight runways, including Marchesa and Mary Katrantzou, on top of keeping up with the demand for his shoes, roughly 3,000 pairs of which sell each day. (“Who doesn’t love his footwear?” says Design Exchange president Shauna Levy about the reasoning for bringing his record-breaking London Design Museum retrospective to Canada this June. “We’ve already sold tickets and they [weren’t] even on sale yet!”)

Yet he’s exuberant and gracious. I’ve asked him to hone in on 10 of the shoes in the show that best tell his history, and although some were made over a decade ago, the memories are fresh. He struggled to choose between those significant for business reasons and the artistic leaps. He sees his career as an arc where time and space meet in a shoe—not to account for one would leave a gap in his life story. He repeatedly returned to the disjunction between his sketches and the final product, as though what keeps him motivated is chasing that distance between an actual 3-D shoe and the fantastic ideal in his artist’s mind.

Tickets to the Design Exchange Christian Louboutin Exhibit in Toronto are now on sale.