Ancient Gandhara art; global warming and commercial overproduction; French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. When I settle in for a chat with the charming and supremely hospitable Christian Louboutin at his crow’s-nest home nestled just above the heart of the 1st arrondissement in Paris, I hadn’t envisaged our conversation would span quite such a range of varied subjects.
But within five minutes of being in Louboutin’s company, it’s clear that his creative process is anything but linear. His design vernacular is influenced by a vast library of references across different historical periods, and a plethora of industries and cultures. Our tête-a-tête quickly becomes an exercise in subject hopping as we talk collaborative partnerships, the importance of cross-pollination in ideas and how to build an empire.
But before I even get to sink into a sofa with the Frenchman who made red soles famous – his previous appointment had run a little late and you don’t rush a designer who’s invited you into his home, after all – it is an unexpected and humbling treat to get a glimpse of his most recent limited-edition collection with acclaimed Indian craftsman Sabyasachi, in a private presentation (arranged for someone far more important than me) showcased – where else? – but in the eaves of his own strikingly furnished residence.
What a sensational showcase of your work with Sabyasachi. You first worked together in 2015, how did that come about?
It’s a bit of a happy accident – a total happy accident. I was in Mumbai, three years ago, and I was on my way to my store and there was the shop of Sabyasachi. I knew his work; I always loved his work. So I ended up being in the store, and by accident – because he is living in Calcutta – he was there. We spoke of cinema and food. Not clothes, no shoes. He said to me, ‘Listen, if you ever want to come to Calcutta, let me know ahead, this is my email.’ So, afterwards we started to exchange mail because I wanted to go to Calcutta, because I had never been. Well, I had been once when I was 20 and probably smoking so much pot I couldn’t even remember, so it was like I never went to Calcutta in the end. So, we started completely with a non-professional approach.
Do you think this sort of organic start to a collaboration helps?
For me, yes. Absolutely. It’s very simple, for me a real collaboration can only be a human collaboration. Otherwise it’s called co-branding. It’s a different thing. I need to have a relationship with the person. Otherwise you know, there are so many projects … I concentrate on doing projects – big or small – which give me pleasure. You can’t have pleasure doing projects with people you don’t like.
When it came to this partnership, did you find it a challenge not to dilute your own, singular vision?
In the collaboration, there are two separate parts. One part where I am doing the shoes for his show, that part, he decides. I listen, I propose, but he decides. This collaboration, I decide. It’s a different thing. It’s a take on the work of a great Indian designer with all the love that I have for India. He has huge archives and I said instead of having your people doing new embroideries I want to really work on the archive, because they’re super beautiful. For me, the only way I can actually help the planet or not go against the planet, is sometimes using – when it makes sense – the art of recycling, in a way. Sometimes over producing is not necessary.
Is the balance between heritage and innovation something you consider?
It’s important to have a good balance between heritage and innovation. The mix of the two …that’s the way it works. It’s always been important to me because even if I can consider myself a citizen of the world I have definitely a French heritage. But what is nice is to be able to mix it with different things: different heritage, different techniques. I always function like that. I have always been someone who has been interested by things that were already mixed. For instance, I adore Gandhara sculptures. I realised as a young teenager that I loved Gandhara sculpture, and I didn’t even know what it was. But I could see that there was something, there was a marriage somewhere. That it was mysterious because there was something completely accidental but I didn’t really even know where it had come from. It’s fascinating and it’s so beautiful.
What other things influence and inspire you?
Everything that you have around you, everything that you hear, is going to have an impact on what you do. Everybody is like that. The only thing is that the way you are ingesting things and redoing things makes a difference. Let’s say that many people are going to see the same exhibition, not everyone is going to digest it the same way. The influence can be for everyone but it’s the way it can be filtered into your memory and digested and redone, that makes a difference. But everything is involving, everything you see, everything you hear, everything you smell…
Christian Louboutin has become an empire. How do you maintain the quality for which your label is known?
I think it has to do with the fact that I am taking my time. After a certain amount of years when you are successful in your company, people are asking you to do multiple things. The thing is to keep on being concentrated on what you like and to not branch out for what I would say “bad reasons”. Everyone is different, if you want to sell your name to a million people, to a million projects, then why not – it’s up to you. I’m not saying it’s bad, but for me, it doesn’t make any sense. But the fact is, if I do something, I like to do it properly so for that reason I would not engage myself on multiple projects. Because you can’t do things properly if you don’t take the time. Everything takes time.
Like the addition of beauty in 2014. Tell us about that.
I remember people saying to me, “I’m working in beauty,” and I was always thinking how much people say an impactful word, beauty – which means beautiful, basically – and it’s so funny that in the domain of beauty everything is so not beautiful! It always amused me to hear people talking of beauty and you look at a thing and see nothing: no object, just random packaging. I really thought, now the planet is getting smaller and smaller, if you do things they should be with a little bit of meaning. Just be a little bit careful that it’s not an ugly thing, useless, just for consuming and then it goes in the bin. In beauty, it’s important everything is beautiful, not just an empty word.
Back to shoes. Louboutin is not usually described as minimalist or discreet. To seduce a new client do you feel you need to tap into this?
You know, there is a double part in the footwear collection. There’s a part that’s destined to be looked at, but there’s also an important part of the collection that is actually quite discreet. For instance, all the nude colours are definitely discreet. When you wear the shoe of your skin tone, from afar, you won’t even see the shoe. If you just look at the girl the shoe will fade into the silhouette. So, I have a part of the collection that is destined to enhance the character of the woman, but it’s not about the shoe, it’s about the figure. And some other shoes are more showpieces, less minimalist. But I work on both sides, always. There’s a balance. I have an atelier and here we have the bespoke shoes but we also have things for shows or for specific clients and so it’s also a laboratory. But I still allow myself, remind myself, to do things one of a kind, one time only. One always nourishes the other one.
Is that what luxury is to you?
Yes. That’s exactly what luxury is to me. I always try to be as close as possible to the desire of women. I think that the ultimate luxury is actually giving that possibility to the person to really have exactly what she’s been dreaming of.