When Christian Louboutin was nine years old, he would often walk by the Palais de Porte Dorée, an imposing art-deco structure in Paris's 12th arrondissement, the neighborhood where he grew up. He found it intimidating and scary, and never wanted to go inside.
"Thank god I was pushed by my older sister who said, 'You will love it because you are going to see beautiful fishes and crocodiles,'" Louboutin told a small group of press inside that very building nearly 50 years later. If she hadn't, Louboutin may not have had a career in footwear, and he certainly wouldn't be the star of a major exhibition behind those same doors.
"L'exhibition(iste)," which opened to the public Wednesday, is a full-circle moment not only because Louboutin was once a patron of the museum, but also because something in it inspired his interest in shoes. It was not a piece of art, but rather a sign banning a specific type of stiletto heel that people hadn't fully worn since the 1950s as the metal heels they were made with at the time would damage the building's mosaic floors. The sign provoked an interest in drawing, inspiring what is now one of Louboutin's most iconic shoe silhouettes, the Pigalle.
With that anecdote and an image of the sign in question begins an exhibition that delves into the imagination of the man behind those ubiquitous, status-symbol red soles. It is also why it was a no-brainer for Louboutin to hold the exhibit at the Palais de Porte Dorée, instead of a museum more typically associated with fashion. "It had to be legitimate for me — it had to speak about more than just shoes," he said.
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The exhibition begins with a room dedicated to Louboutin's early years, showcasing inspiration and sketches from as far back as his teens, as well as roughly 60 of the first 300 shoes he ever created, many of them from before he launched his namesake brand in 1991. Aesthetically, they're notably different from the sky-high stilettos he's known for today, though several styles from the '80s and '90s feel very relevant. Some also feature odd materials, including a pump made out of fish scales. Also notable: The room is surrounded by the commissioned work of another artistic entity, beautiful custom stained-glass "windows" by master glassmakers La Maison du Vitrail.
Another of Louboutin's priority was to showcase the work of artists and artisans other than himself. "I could not celebrate my work alone because there's so many people who've been important, so many people who have participated in the quality of my work," he tells me later at his atelier. One hall within the exhibition showcases only the works of other artists that have inspired Louboutin's storied career; another room features images from his fetish-inspired collaboration with David Lynch.
There's also a room displaying his "masterpieces": special, less commercial designs that likely would not have made it into, say, Nordstrom, a sponsor of the exhibition. An undeniable highlight is the room entitled "L'atelier," which showcases all the different steps of the construction of a Louboutin shoe, giving viewers a better idea of the work and the craftsmanship that goes into each and every pair.
Louboutin also interestingly chose to dedicate an entire room to his "nudes" collection, which he expanded in 2016 to encompass a more inclusive range of skin tones. Finally addressing the oft-ignored fact that nude is not just one shade, Louboutin became an unlikely leader in fashion's inclusivity movement. He later tells me he decided to so because of that collection's "sociological" significance and importance outside the fashion world. "It's caring [about] things which are important," he explains, "and fashion [people], they think they're really forward but they're just fashion forward. It's connected to a form of elite; you don't understand the rest of the world."
Thanks to his sexy designs, instantly recognizable red soles and many celebrity fans, Louboutin has enjoyed one of the most commercially successful careers in footwear. He's one of the biggest names in luxury both at home and abroad, confirmed by his presence in American rap lyrics. While he does dedicate one particularly fun room to his shoes' presence in pop culture, displaying paparazzi images and videos of performances by Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé — there's even one of Kristen Stewart famously taking off her Louboutins on the Cannes red carpet — the rest of the exhibit veers away from that.
When asked what he wants people to take away from the exhibit, he tells me, "that people understand that you can do things that are really popular with a high level of quality," and that just "because you work in a frivolous domain," it doesn't mean "that there is no depth." Shoes are just "the tip of the iceberg, but the iceberg is rooted and grounded in heavy foundations, and these are the foundations — my story."
After all, Louboutin feels, the secret to his longevity in an evolving industry is not just the red soles, but him, the person behind the brand. "When you're dedicated to your work and to what you like, what you love and what you are about, I think a lot of people are sensitive to that," especially, he says, "in a world that has been changing where most brands don't have a creative director with the same name."
"I think there is an attachment, sometimes, to the brand and to the person," he adds.
Pete Nordstrom, co-president of the retail chain of the same name for whom Christian Louboutin represents an important part of the business (hence their support of the exhibition), agrees. "The great thing about Christian Louboutin and his product is that there is an authenticity and direct connection between him and the customers," he writes me in an email. "That happens because of his unique vision and hands-on execution of his product. It's uniquely his creative vision, and the standards he has for craftsmanship and quality make the product special."
Whether it's on a sales floor, a celebrity's feet or in a museum, Louboutin's work is worth appreciating for many reasons — beyond the iconic silhouette and color palette. See inside the exhibit, now open until July 26, in the gallery below.
Disclosure: Nordstrom provided my travel and accommodations to attend and cover this exhibit.