Christian Louboutin is a long way from veal cutlets.
At the downtown Seattle Nordstrom store Monday, celebrating the upcoming 25th anniversary of his trademark red-soled, luxury shoe brand, the French designer remembered a lesson learned from an early job, as a teenage apprentice at the famed Paris music hall the Folies-Bergère. The showgirls, he said, were always asking him to buy veal cutlets.
“I thought, my god, everyone’s been eating so many veal cutlets — it’s so bizarre!” he recalled. But as it turned out, the performers weren’t consuming the meat but placing it in their high-heeled shoes as a cushioning pad. It needed to be white meat, not red, he said, “so when you were dancing on the cushion, there’s no blood coming out.”
The young Louboutin watched and learned. “I ended up not putting any veal in my shoes,” he said, “but some techniques are actually important when you work on high heels.”
Since 1991, Louboutin has gone from a single Paris storefront with a small initial collection (the first shoes he sketched for his line, he said, was a pair of women’s flats with “Love” inscribed on them) to a worldwide success, with more than 100 boutiques selling women’s and men’s shoes, leather goods and beauty products. (The latter, begun in 2014, was an obvious direction for him: His shoes’ famous red soles, the story goes, were inspired in 1992 by the sight of his assistant painting her nails at her desk.)
And he’s watched, over the years, as heel heights have climbed. “It’s funny, because the idea of high heels was very different in the ’90s,” he said. “When I was doing 9 centimeters [about 3.5 inches], people were like, ‘That’s so high!’ And now, it’s literally a mid-heel.” His heels now might go as high as 5 inches — or more if the shoe has a platform. They are, he says, as comfortable as possible (cutlet-like cushioning is placed where possible) — but design is paramount. “Comfortable is not my favorite word.”
Louboutin’s shoes are expensive (a simple pump might be near $700) because of the elaborate handwork required to create them; each shoe requires “almost 100 types of manipulation” after the drawing stage.
The cost, he said, is like that of fine wine. “You can have a bottle of wine that costs you $5, and then a bottle of wine that costs you $150. The difference is not in the shape of the bottle, it’s not in the color of what’s in the bottle but in the attention to the wine.”
Over the years, he’s crafted footwear ranging from those classic pumps to elaborate fantasy shoes: a delicate lace-and-crystal Cinderella pair, complete with sparkling butterflies; a “Maleficent” shoe worn by Angelina Jolie while promoting the movie, with heels that curve like smoke; a ravishing black leather bootie in his current collection with fanciful wings attached, as if its wearer might fly away.
Does he have a favorite pair, after all this time? “I always say,” he said, “it’s the one that I haven’t been yet doing.”