His red-soled stilettos have become must-haves for any self-respecting contemporary princess. Madonna is a fan, and so are Carla Bruni and Victoria Beckham — to name but three members of Christian Louboutin’s glittery fan base. Tomorrow, the unchallenged king of shoe design (Manolo who?) is opening his first UK retrospective at London’s Design Museum. There will be shoes, and plenty of them — pumps, boots, killer heels, sneakers, you name it — as well as objects that have accompanied the designer in his 20-year long career. The exhibition will also include an introduction to the other side of glamour: the craft of shoemaking, from drawing to factory. Germaine Greer would not approve, but the frenzy the show is likely to provoke might well have something of the Alexander-McQueen-at-the-Met phenomenon. A few days before the opening, Louboutin ducked out of the installation for a chat with ARTINFO UK.
How does it feel looking back at your 20 years of shoe design?
It’s my whole adventure – those 20 years represent the whole of what I’ve been doing. A lot of people are telling me that 20 years is a long time, but I feel exactly like when you are 20: everything feels open to the new reality. It’s like I’ve just started doing things; it’s a great beginning.
So there’s nothing nostalgic about the exhibition?
No, no, no, there’s no reason to be nostalgic! For 20 years, I’ve been collecting souvenirs, through travelling, people I met, etc. So [the show] is a way to share things. I also wanted to bring out the fact that shoes are very emotional for women — and for me, actually — and that there’s a whole process. When people come to my atelier in Paris, they are very surprised by how you actually make shoes, the whole engineering behind it, how something of quality is done in a specific way, and why it requires so much attention to arrive to a full shoe. So it’s also a sort-of behind the scenes.
You went to the Palace nightclub in Paris as a teenager, and later you spent some time working at the legendary music hall the Folies Bergères. Do you feel that this was a key moment in your formative period?
It was a key moment because the thing I wanted to do as a teenager was not necessarily shoes in general, but really shoes for singers, performers, dancers, etc. It’s something that’s stayed in my mind. I have learnt a lot there. There’s a famous quote by French music hall singer and dancer Mistinguett: L’ai-je-bien descendu? (Did I walk down the stairs well?). Everybody knows that sentence, but not so many know why it’s so important for a singer, and I’ve experienced it there. When you go down the stairs in a real life you look at your feet, but in the music hall the woman has to look in front of her, so basically when she goes down the stairs, she doesn’t see, so it takes a bit of practice. I’ve learnt so many things that look effortless but require a lot of work. The girls can’t be bothered to think about the shoes but they have to be quite comfortable so there’s a whole engineering behind them, which is important.
The idea of having very high heels and hiding a platform at the front is coming from the showgirls — and it’s something I have been using for more than 10 years. A lot of technical things are done so that when you look at the girl, you are not looking at the shoe, but at the beauty, the beauty of the legs, the body language. All the principle of the posture comes from the very high heel shoes, and I have seen it all with the showgirls. If you like high heels, no one is better than the shoes of the showgirls. The cleavage has to be fading in the leg so you see the maximum of the length. They really, really know about this.
You’ve once said that you would love to have the Queen among your customers. What do you think she should wear?
Well, it would not depend on me; it would depend on her. If you work for someone like her, you work according to her needs, and to what she asks for and tells you — not what you feel or what you think about her. I’m a man in the service of women, anyway. But in that particular case, it would have to come from her, that’s for sure.
We have started a collaboration with Walt Disney, and the little iconic character which is between the two of us is Cinderella. Who would be more dreamful for someone who loves shoes than Cinderella? Right now I have my hands tied and my mouth shut by Walt Disney, in a nice way. It’s for the re-launch of the movie but it’s a little bit more than that; it’s a shoe.
Is it going to be for grown-up princess?
It’s a whole thing, a whole surprise.
“Christian Louboutin,” May 1-July 9, Design Museum, London