More than two decades after the birth of Christian Louboutin's namesake shoe brand, the story of how it took off still sounds like an urban legend: One day, the charismatic Parisian, who almost chose horticulture over footwear as a career, decided to brush some glossy red nail lacquer on the bottom of a pair of Mary Janes adorned with a Pop Art-style flower, thereby creating the signature red soles that have come to define one of the most successful shoe labels ever.
Today, the designer whose name is shorthand for high-end heels leads a life befitting his name recognition, one that includes high-profile pals and shoe signings (yes, shoe signings) around the world; soon after Rizzoli published a chic 2011 art book on his work, he marked his 20th anniversary in the business last year with a retrospective at London's Design Museum.
Before touching down this week in Toronto, where the exhibition kicked off at the Design Exchange yesterday, Louboutin spoke with Globe Style, candidly and passionately, about a wide range of topics, from his new status as an Instagram star (the brand has upward of 1.3 million followers) to the partially successful court battle he waged against Yves Saint Laurent to have those red soles declared a protected trademark.
Let's start with Instagram: Through your account, you now have a new window into the life of your shoes once they leave the store.
It's very funny to see how people are interacting with their shoes. For women, they're not only an accessory – shoes become part of their body and [of] their body language. But also, there's the object that's detached from the person; it's almost playing the role of a pet or something. People are posing with their shoes like they are friends.
I have also seen pictures of people posing with a shoe as if it's a phone.
Yeah, in that way, it's like a signal. I think it's because of Instagram that people are also calling the shoes their "Loubies." There's now a vocabulary. When you purchase a shoe, you appropriate it. I think the extension of the life of a design is when people really love the design enough to make it theirs. And then it doesn't need to be mine anymore. I just like to follow it through its second life. A shoe is not reincarnated until it belongs to someone else.
On the flip side, how does it feel to see your shoes in a museum?
It's like a big family reunion; I [can] see the elements all together and see the common DNA between everything and how they come from the same family, the same blood. Of course, it's quite moving because you recognize all of it. It becomes a mixture between [nostalgia] and evolution.
I have been noticing more and more of your shoes on the runways, particularly at London Fashion Week. Why do you choose to work with designers who are often less known, such as Canadians Todd Lynn and Mark Fast?
With ready-to-wear, young designers often have talents, but some [runway choices] can be killers, like bad accessories or bad makeup. They can really overshadow the quality of [their] work. So I think ... it's normal to want to help them and give back. I was helped when I first started my company. It's very encouraging to have people help them – and it's expensive [for them] to do shoes. But also, a woman with a nice outfit and bad shoes looks much cheaper than a woman in a very simple outfit and great shoes. So definitely, it's a way to lift a collection.
Your company is independently owned. What has been the upside to that?
A lot of my enthusiasm comes from the fact that I'm free. When you're designing, your spirit runs though the design. And if you're a free spirit, it's different than being a 9-to-5 spirit. To me, it's always been important to remain independent. It's not so easy nowadays with multinationals, advertisers, etc. But I just think it's worth it. I didn't regret it for the first 20 years and I don't regret it today.
Your men's range, launched in 2010, includes loafers and sneakers patterned with animal prints or blanketed in spikes. Would men have been confident enough to wear these styles 20 years ago?
I don't think so. I think [my men's line] arrived at the correct moment. Men were ready for that. I was looking the other day at actors and singers on the red carpet in the eighties and nineties; it was funny to see how the accent would be on hair and there was some flashy element on the bowtie. If you look now, the focus has moved down. The bow has literally vanished. The shoe has become the funky element.
The trademark trial against Yves Saint Laurent was dismissed in September [when a New York federal appeals court acknowledged Louboutin's proprietary rights to the red sole but allowed YSL to continue offering a monochrome scarlet pump]. Looking back, what did you learn?
I had no choice [but to pursue the lawsuit]. It was ... very disagreeable and very time-consuming. But a lot of people I didn't even know were supportive. When the trial arrived, I knew I not only had to stand up for me but for the people working for me and for everyone who believes that nice things are possible if you do them with your heart. If I represent this freedom for a few people, I also stand up against something that is just… trying to make money off other people's ideas. I couldn't just forget about it.
You had helped put together Roger Vivier's archive back in the day. Did that make you realize the value of keeping your own?
Yes. Saying that, I did not realize it was important for a few years. So for the first five years, there's almost nothing except the very, very important shoes – one or two pairs a year. I owe a lot to the girl who is taking care of my shoes now; her name is Nazak. She was the first one to scream at me and said I didn't keep anything in order.
Does your actual signature look like your brand signature?
No, no, no. When I first started, one of my very closest friends was drawing. He is no longer alive. I asked him for a signature" because, actually, my signature is really ugly; it is very childish and not graphic at all. I wanted something ... almost like the Walt Disney or Warner Bros. logo – something cartoony, but not comic. Then he started to have problems before he could finish and I didn't want anyone else to do it. So I just wrote "Christian" in a very regular way.
Do you ever consider what your life would have been like if you had stuck with gardening?
I am living with a gardener and I am very happy with my life. When I started to design gardens, I realized that I was quite impatient and [gardening] requires a lot of patience. It is almost like a religion. It was not completely in my nature at the time, but it's nice to be near someone who has enough patience. I think, for later in my life, this will make me very happy.
Christian Louboutin, curated by the Design Museum London with the designer, runs at the Design Exchange in Toronto until Sept. 15.
This interview has been edited and condensed.