Louboutin: From Versailles to the White House

Americans have nicknamed him the “god of shoes,” although he prefers the term “footwear.” Over the last 30 years, Christian Louboutin has made red soles one of the icons of authentic French chic.
Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Louis XIV in Coronation Robes, 1701. © Musée du Louvre

Born into the modest of milieus in Paris during the 1960s, Christian Louboutin is a self-taught designer with a keen artistic streak. This footwear enthusiast created his first pair (made with mackerel skin!) in 1978. At the time he worked at the Folies Bergère cabaret and spent his nights at the Palace club, where he met shoe designer Charles Jourdan. The encounter would prove to be decisive. One year later, Louboutin revamped Chanel’s quilted ballet flats. But heels were his true calling, especially dizzyingly high pairs that perched women at four, five, and even six inches off the floor, to the point of changing the way they walked. These heels are “icons of erotic femininity,” says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT in New York, which has a major collection of shoes – no fewer than 4,000! – from across the ages.

In 1988, Louboutin became the assistant to another shoe designer, Roger Vivier. “He became my mentor, the incarnation of the elegant, distinguished Parisian, as courteous as a character in a Lubitsch movie,” he said. After a break spent designing gardens in Europe and New York, he finally returned to his first love, footwear. He opened a boudoir-style boutique on the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Paris in 1991. Friends would stop by for tea, enjoyed behind the door of his studio, and Louboutin would accept the most extravagant orders. Both independent and artisanal, the boutique put out some 300 limited-edition pairs that year.

An Obscure Object of Desire

While designing a new series of models, he had a brainwave. “Something was wrong,” he said to writer Eric Reinhardt in a book about him published by Rizzoli in 2011. “It took me a while to understand; it was because the sole was black. I snatched the shoe out of my assistant Sarah’s hand, took her nail polish, and colored the sole red. The color acted like a photo developing tank and the design reappeared in my mind.” But Louboutin’s anecdote ignores an ancient French tradition of red soles imposed by Louis XIV at the Court of Versailles.

It is said that the king went to dinner in the market district of Les Halles in Paris and returned with his heels soaked in cow’s blood. He made a fashion of it, and the nobility followed suit. Before the expression fell out of use, the French used to say that aristocrats, whether real or false (but always pretentious), were “very red heeled.” Since Versailles, the red sole revisited by Louboutin has become a symbol of the modern aristocracy of money and media. And of Melania Trump, who wears Louboutins for almost all official photos.

Melania Trump, in red-soled Louboutins, and Brigitte Macron. © Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Louboutin’s career really took off in the 1990s after his store was frequented by Caroline de Monaco and Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who published two articles about him. His production doubled the same year. Soon after, his heels were spotted on the feet of stars on the red carpet in Cannes and on the stage of the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris. Jennifer Lopez even sang “I’m throwing on my Louboutins” in her 2009 song “Louboutins.”

Heels Get Cult Status

Louboutin also designs footwear for men, but it was his creations for women that made him famous. Especially heels – although he also designs flats – and the red sole, which is to Christian Louboutin what the little black dress was to Coco Chanel: A signature. The timeless red sole is now inseparable from the name of its creator. So much so that Louboutin sued the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house for “unfair competition” when the brand also launched a line of shoes with red soles in the United States. The courts sided with Louboutin.

“Diamonds may no longer be the proverbial girl’s best friend: Her Jimmy Choos and her Christian Louboutins just may have become dearer to her heart,” wrote Joan DeJean in her book The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. Chick lit put the finishing touches to the heels’ popularity in the United States. It is the favorite footwear of Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker sported them in the television series Sex and the City, and Nicole Kidman wore a pair for a single splash of color at the funeral of Princess Diana.

Fifteen Boutiques in the U.S.

The first Louboutin store in the United States opened its doors in New York in 1994. Today, the brand has 15 boutiques across the country, including three in Las Vegas, three in New York, and others in Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, and San Francisco. It goes without saying that Louboutin is also present in Hollywood, where he owns two stores, and Beverly Hills.

In recognition of his achievements, the Couture Council of the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York gave him the Couture Council Award last September. This annual prize is awarded to a fashion designer as part of the opening of the New York Fashion Week. This is an exceptional success story in the history of French luxury. No other designer devoted exclusively to footwear has ever managed to forge such a remarkable reputation in such a short time. And no other red-soled shoes have become legendary since the reign of Louis XIV.

Article published in the September 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.