When it comes to shoe designers, it's hard to get much more iconic than Christian Louboutin. The French shoe mogul is regularly name-dropped in pop songs, and his signature red-soled heels are never absent from celebrity-studded red carpets. If his sky-high stilettos seem not-unusual in 2017, that's in part because Louboutin has been pushing the boundary of what "wearable height" means for decades.
On Wednesday night, Louboutin took to the stage of 92Y with Fern Mallis to discuss the colorful life that propelled him to become one of the best-known shoe designers of the 21st century. Louboutin used the conversation to share both much-repeated anecdotes — like the fact that the red soles on his shoes were born from Louboutin "stealing" a bottle of nail polish from a model and painting the soles on the spot — to little-known facts about his childhood. A rambunctious boy, Louboutin was expelled from school multiple times, developed a love for the cabaret before turning 13 and even moved out of his house and in with an older man when he was still a minor ("my mother was fine with it," he remarked slyly, "and anyway, we know now that I could still become a French president").
Read on for more highlights from Mallis and Louboutin's conversation, covering everything from meat cutlets as shoe cushions to making princesses pay for their own shoes.
On How a Childhood Lie Launched His Career
Louboutin claims he wasn't necessarily someone who knew what he wanted to do from a young age. "Adults don't realize that it's really a pain in the neck when you're a child and they say, 'What do you want to be when you're a big boy?' I don't know, give me a break. I can wait!" he laughed. "I had this friend at school who didn't want to lie when adults asked her what she wanted to be. Me, on the other hand, I had no problem lying. So I said, 'I want to design shoes.' But I never thought that it was a real job."
Having said it, though, Louboutin soon had friends and family members bringing him shoe-related literature and memorabilia. "I ended up collecting shoes, photographs, shoe things in general. I got into it," he said. It wasn't until later, when he was gifted a book on the designs of Roger Vivier, that he realized shoe design could be a real career. Later on, Louboutin ended up working for Vivier and was so impressed by the older man's talent that he quit working in shoes rather than work for anyone he saw as inferior to Vivier. As a result, Louboutin took up landscaping for a few years before launching his own label.
On Learning Everything From Showgirls — Including How to Cushion Shoes With Veal
Looking for excitement, Louboutin started sneaking into theaters when he was 12 or 13. He and a buddy would wait outside until intermission, then flood back into the seats with ticket holders who'd been outside taking a smoke break. It was there he first fell in love with showgirls, whose exuberance and exoticism excited him more than the "boring" realism that was prominent in French cinema at the time. When he left school at 16, his first job was working for Paris' infamous Folies-Bergère cabaret.
"It was a good way to know about shoes, because for showgirls, shoes are very important. They have very little costume, in general," he noted with a wink, "so they know how to express a lot with shoes." It was also from showgirls that he learned about the importance of proper cushioning in high heels, as he realized the veal cutlets they were always asking him to buy from the grocery store weren't meant for eating. Instead, the dancers were putting them inside their shoes to cushion each step. "It was always kosher!" he said. "No blood, that was important."
On Calling Up Top Designers as a Teen
Though he loved his time at the cabaret, he wasn't actually able to design new shoes there due to budget limitations — so at 18, he began looking for a new job. "I took the yellow pages and looked up the couture houses," he explained. "I'd call and say, 'Hello, I'd like to speak to the director of couture.'"
Amazingly, Louboutin's straightforward approach actually worked. After landing an interview over the phone with a representative at Charles Jourdan, he was invited to come show his designs in-person, then was promptly invited to come to the South of France where the shoes were actually being made. He ended up interning with the brand for a year. "Imagine [doing that] now! You wouldn't get very far," Louboutin laughed.
On Refusing to Gift His Shoes to Princesses and Celebrities
Louboutin landed his first American buyers as a result of a W Magazine article by a writer who just happened to come into his store at the same time as Princess Caroline of Monaco. The Princess, it turns out, found Louboutin's store the way anyone else would — by walking by it. "Princesses are like everybody," he claimed, tongue-in-cheek. "They walk, they don't fly; they pay for their own things; they leave."
This attitude — that people who want his products, regardless of societal status, should pay for those products — is one that Louboutin has continued to hold. He believes it so strongly that he refused to give free shoes to "Sex and the City" in its heyday, even when friends were pleading with him that it would be great publicity. The result? The costumer ended up buying the shoes for the show. The same attitude holds true for Louboutin today, even in the face of an increasing industry emphasis on influencer marketing.
"You're dying to have this thing or that thing? That's an important feeling that everybody should be able to have, regardless of how famous you are. So it's actually an act of charity that I'm doing [by not giving away the shoes for free]," he laughed. “That said, I give shoes to friends — so if you're a friend, celebrity or not, I give shoes. But I'm not saying all stars are good friends of mine."
On Why He Hates "Natural Beauty"
For a man in love with the glitz and glamour of the cabaret and known for pushing the height of the heel to ever more dramatic proportions, it's somehow fitting that the first product category that Louboutin launched outside of shoes was beauty. "I've never been very interested in 'being natural,'" he explained. "I think that 'natural' is just as much a pose as 'sophisticated.' What I like is that with the beauty industry, a woman is in charge of herself. Which basically is freedom."
It's this ability to channel and take charge of one's own perception of beauty that has been the undercurrent in all of Louboutin's creative endeavors — including those few years he spent as a landscaper. "I like landscape more than [untamed] nature. I like staged things; I like fabrication, because it's all coming from someone's head," he said. "And I much more believe in humans than I believe in God."