That detail, the one detail that has been both the object of pure love and court battles, was happenstance.
On a trip to Boston this week, renowned shoe designer Christian Louboutin recalls the moment when the famous red sole of his extravagant designs was born. He was looking at prototypes of colorful stilettos he’d designed based on an Andy Warhol painting. But there was something about the shoe that was slightly off.
“When I looked under the shoe, there was this big black mass,” says Louboutin, dressed in a casual rust blazer before a shoe signing — yes, shoe signing — at Saks Fifth Avenue Tuesday. “I realized the problem was this big black mass.”
Sitting next to him was a woman using red nail polish. He borrowed the nail polish, started painting the soles, and a world-wide footwear icon was born. That was years ago, and in celebration of the 20th year of his Paris shop, the designer has been very busy.
It began earlier this year with a retrospective of his work at London’s Design Museum. He also produced a $150 coffee table book (with a forward by Cambridge resident John Malkovich), bound in pink faux leather. Of course, it would be difficult for any book to capture Louboutin’s prolific imagination. He estimates that over the past 20 years, he has designed more than 40,000 shoes.
“Obviously not all of them have been produced,” the French designer says before checking his math. “But it’s about 2,000 styles a year.”
Louboutin sketches designs, and leaves the technical aspects to shoe engineers. As a result, he isn’t necessarily thinking about the comfort of the shoe as he draws. He’s been able to make his shoes more dramatic over the years. He said when he started in 1992, there were complaints that a 3-inch heel was too high. Now 6-inch heels are routine in fashion circles.
“I don’t think about the comfort of the shoe when I’m designing,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about it, but it shouldn’t enter into the design process, otherwise you end up making Dr. Scholl’s kind of shoes. But I don’t want a person looking at my shoes and thinking ‘Oh, that looks so comfy.’ That’s not the kind of thing I would take as a compliment.”
But Louboutin is quick to point out that he’s not a fan of a procedure that’s been dubbed “Loub jobs,” where women inject botox in their feet so they don’t feel pain while wearing their heels (“I don’t like that they’re using my name,” he says). Nor does he condone a story he once heard from a woman who surgically removed her small toes to fit into her shoes. “They weren’t for my shoes,” he’s quick to point out.
Inspiration for his fanciful shoes — he recently designed a Cinderella shoe in collaboration with Disney — comes from a variety of places. But he says that growing up in a house with a strong mother and four sisters certainly gave him an idea of what women like.
“I’ve never seen a woman looking happy if she doesn’t think she looks good,” he says. “That’s the goal of my shoes, to make women look beautiful.”