Christian Louboutin has taken designer shoes to dizzy heights, writes Harriet Walker.
You can immediately tell when a woman is wearing a pair of Louboutins: her posture is perfect and she doesn't walk anywhere. Whether covered in sequins and frills of ribbon, or simply in highly polished patent black, the French designer's shoes are known for their lengthening, tautening and perkifying effects. And a recent addition to that list is their orgasmic potential.
"What is sexual in a high heel is the arch of the foot," Christian Louboutin said in an interview last week, "because it is exactly the position of a woman's foot when she orgasms. So, putting your foot in a heel, you are putting yourself in a possibly orgasmic situation."
One might think this had already been scientifically proven, given the regular marriage proposals within his boutiques, the label's cult status and the adoration for Louboutin's shoes. Having started the business in 1991 with just one employee (himself), Louboutin now heads up 420 people across 35 stores in 16 countries.
His headquarters on Paris' Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau started off as one building and have spread the length of the street.
But although his name is more usually under people's feet than on their lips, Christian Louboutin is being more and more widely talked about. He marks the forthcoming 20th anniversary of his eponymous label not only with the publication of a veritable breezeblock of a book but also with an infamous court case that has dragged on since April and could mean an industry-wide reappraisal of creative intellectual property rights, patents and trademarks.
Last week, jewellery brand Tiffany weighed into the courtroom debate with an amicus curiae to support Louboutin, 47, who is suing French house Yves Saint Laurent for embellishing one of its shoes with a red sole, and was denied an injunction against the label in August. The scarlet underside (supposedly Pantone 18, Chinese Red) has long been a defining feature of Louboutin's footwear, and was patented as such by the designer in 2007.
"I selected the colour because it is engaging, flirtatious, memorable and the colour of passion," he said then in a petition to the court.
Since then, that flash of red has become a regular sight on red carpets, catwalks and celebrity interviews. Pop star Jennifer Lopez, whose Louboutin collection allegedly runs into the hundreds, recently penned an entire song about the phenomenon: "Throwing on my Louboutins / Watch these red bottoms / and the back of my jeans / watch me go, bye baby."
The red sole was born, so the legend goes, when Louboutin was inspecting prototypes for a collection in 1993. Dissatisfied with the impression a black sole made with the design of the upper, he grabbed an assistant's nail varnish and began to lacquer the shoe's underside.
"Louboutin's design is very optimistic," says Harriet Quick, fashion features director at Vogue. "It's that quality that French designers do so well - a certain joie de vivre. Animal skin, lace, exotic prints: he uses all the signatures of French couture, but in a shoe. And it goes without saying that there's a rigour of cut and line that makes you walk in a certain way and sashay."
This summer he opened his first men's shop, where he offers a bespoke service that will re-create a customer's tattoos as an embroidered element on a pair of brogues or loafers.
His womenswear collections are similarly expansive: furs sprout from vertiginous pencil-thin heels; googly eyes adorn a chunky platform slingback, and a lion's paw is rendered in gold thread on mustard-coloured suede, the spindle heel encrusted with citrine stones.
He has sold more than 600,000 pairs of shoes already this year even though they retail at about £600 ($1206), and upwards, his name uttered with reverence on shows such as Sex and the City, and his image bolstered by countless sightings on the feet of Victoria Beckham.
Louboutin is an almost blanket presence at the international collections as well, having collaborated with Victoria Beckham, Jonathan Saunders and Marchesa for their catwalk shows, providing startling and spectacular pieces that help to ensure his name remains firmly on the fashion map. And so it should, given the overhaul that Louboutin has brought about. His most familiar styles, Very Prive and Madame Gres, both feature the concealed platform that made his name and changed the silhouette of footwear during the 1990s.
"A shoe has so much more to offer than just to walk," he told the New Yorker in March, and this is borne out in some of his more far-fetched pieces: shoes with heels of different sizes; ballet pumps embellished with a heel that runs the entire length of the soulier, created for the English National Ballet and resembling nothing so much as a cat curling up on itself to sleep. In 2007, he collaborated with film-maker David Lynch on a series of portraits of naked women in constrictive, painful-looking shoes. "You really need to be a criminal or a pervert to shock me," he has said in the past.
Born to a cabinetmaker and a housewife, Louboutin grew up in Paris' 12th arrondissement and enjoyed an unorthodox childhood. His indulgent mother often let him miss school and he moved out to live at a friend's house at the age of 12. His first job was at the Folies Bergeres, where he assisted the entertainers backstage. He was also a fixture on the city's party scene, clubbing his nights away alongside Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol.
He then worked for Charles Jourdan, one of the first licensees for Dior in the 1950s, and with Roger Vivier, who made the Queen's shoes for her coronation, both of whom contributed to his sense of fashion and visual flair. In the late 1980s, he gave up the industry to become a landscape gardener (the profession of his 14-year partner Louis Benech) and to contribute to Vogue, but missed working with shoes and set up his company in 1991.
Louboutin's work ethic means he does not enjoy a lot of downtime, but he schedules it around his glamorously itinerant lifestyle. "I have this disease that if I feel good somewhere I... buy a house," he has said. Consequently, he owns a house and boat in Egypt, a fisherman's cottage in Portugal and a palace in Aleppo, as well as sharing a 13th-century castle in the Vendee with his business partner Bruno Chamberlain. He works between each of these, preferring to design summer collections in hot climates and autumn ones somewhere cooler.
Of all Louboutin's many optical illusions, it is the contested sole for which he has become best known. There have been plenty of copies, plenty of high-street imitators warned off - even a 15-year-old girl from County Kildare who began manufacturing red plastic slivers that could be applied to one's extant shoe collection. "What are we supposed to do?" one employee reportedly asked. "Call her parents?"
This latest thunder rolling around his throne threatens the signature. In the court papers, Yves Saint Laurent cited "the red shoes worn by King Louis XIV in the 1600s and the ruby red slippers that carried Dorothy home in The Wizard of Oz".
Saint Laurent has been making red-soled shoes for more than 40 years, and the judge compared the tussle to Picasso's attempted suing of Monet for having used similar indigo tones in a depiction of his water lilies. "Louboutin's claim would cast a red cloud over the whole industry, cramping what other designers do, while allowing Louboutin to paint with a full palette," he said.
That Tiffany, which took out a patent on its signature duck-egg-meets-turquoise shade in 1998, should feel the need to become involved speaks volumes about the importance of brand integrity in today's luxury markets. But given the success that Christian Louboutin enjoys, this trial seems less a paranoid policing of the perimeter fence and more a matter of principle.