Christian Louboutin reveals what makes a good heel, his red sole inspirations, and how footwear is changing. Lisa Haynes speaks to the iconic shoe designer.
You might not know much about Christian Louboutin the man, but his shoes are world-famous.
Protected even, like a rare exhibit. Around the time I meet the Parisian heel designer, he's fighting a court case against a major high street brand which has 'imitated' his trademark red sole design.
That Louboutin look started out 20 years ago as an experiment when he painted a sole with red nail polish, but it's gone on to become the brand's iconic stamp.
"It immediately became a sort of sign of recognition, a signature, and women would come to me and say, 'It's like a vacuum for guys!'", Louboutin tells me.
Despite the legal wranglings, he's far from seeing red when we meet. Me, clad in one of my favourite Louboutin perspex heel boots; him, wearing flat studded loafers flashing those scarlet soles as he crosses his legs after warmly shaking my hand and offering me a chocolate biscuit.
Louboutin, 49, is walking on cloud nine right now: there's a range of cosmetics in the pipeline for next year (Louboutin Red lips, anyone?), he's the top judge for Martini's Royale Casting (the new face of the brand will bag 12 pairs of Louboutins), and a retrospective exhibition at London's Design Museum is currently celebrating his two decades of shoe wizardry.
From towering heels to studded sneakers and bejewelled pumps, it's like the best shoe shop in the world, only with 'Don't Touch' signs at every stiletto turn and security guards positioned near the wall of thigh-high boots.
"It was hard to choose two hundred!" Louboutin exclaims when I ask him to pick out his favourite pair featured in the exhibition.
"I mean some shoes, like the Guinness shoes (with heels constructed from actual cans) we no longer have - not one pair."
He goes on to reel off the names of shoes as if they were his children, struggling to single out 'the' style deemed most iconic by Louboutin aficionados.
"I mean lately the Pigalle..." he says, before hesitating, "probably. Between the Pigalle and the Lady Lynch - or the Fifi, which has a really high heel with a round toe."
So what it is about Louboutin's vision that ensures his shoes are red carpet regulars, fashion industry favourites and capable of commanding upwards of £395 for a classic pair?
"Balance. Proportion. And the cleavage," Louboutin replies succinctly, using shoe designer speak for the amount of toes flaunted.
"Shoes can do a lot for a woman. They can give this extra sense of femininity and empowerment."
Louboutin's fascination with shoes dates back to when he was just 11 or 12 years old. He recalls discovering a drawing at an African art museum near his parents' apartment that displayed a woman's high heel vividly crossed out in red. "I sort of discovered creativity through that drawing," he says.
His now inspirational image of the Fifties-style stiletto, which was intended to safeguard the parquet floor, was a sharp contrast to the Seventies trend for flat or chunky-heeled shoes.
Louboutin's love of performance, cabaret and the showgirl later fuelled his glamorous vision.
Although he doesn't name one specific muse, he regularly links up with burlesque performer Dita Von Teese at events. "Nobody wears shoes like a dancer on stage," he says.
He cites art, architecture, landscape, travel and artefacts as areas from which he draws inspiration.
Louboutin packs his suitcase and seeks out a hot climate to design his summer collection and, similarly, a cold bolt-hole to find focus for autumn/winter inspiration.
The designer goes to extremes to achieve the right working environment. "I have a house in the country in France and it's often cold but if it's not cold enough I just turn the heat off then I'm sure to be frozen.
"I'm quite influenced by the light and by the heat, so it's easier to imagine a super-light sandal when it's boiling outside than furry boots and vice-versa."
Just as Louboutin's shoes range from flats to six-inch heels, his personality is full of light and shade, humour and sincerity.
Discussing how foot sizes have become bigger during his career, he remarks: "I was just going up to a size 41 (UK 8), but now I have to go all the way to 43 - and then there's the trannies, which make me go all the way to a 47!"
Although Louboutin creates flat shoes for men and women, it's the towering stilettos that have brought him worldwide fame.
The higher the heel, the more prominent that revered red sole. "People say I am the king of painful shoes," he says. "I don't want to create painful shoes, but it is not my job to create something comfortable.
"I try to make high heels as comfortable as they can be, but my priority is design, beauty and sexiness."
Louboutin low-down :: Christian Louboutin was born in Paris in 1963. He was brought up by his mother and three sisters and credits his feminine environment as a key inspiration.
:: In 1982, he trained with shoe designer Charles Jourdan, who created footwear for Christian Dior, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
:: Louboutin gave up his vocation in shoes in the late Eighties for a short time to pursue his other passion as a landscape gardener.
:: His first shoe boutique opened in 1992 in a Parisian arcade close to the Louvre. The small street is now nicknamed 'Passage Louboutin'.
:: Four months after the boutique opened, an American journalist from W Magazine stumbled upon two women in an animated conversation about the beauty of Louboutin's shoes. An article was published and the business took off worldwide.
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:: Christian Louboutin is the international judge of the Martini Royale Casting. For your chance to star in a campaign and win 12 pairs of Louboutins, visit www.facebook.com/Martini :: Christian Louboutin's exhibition at London's Design Museum ends on July 9 (www.designmuseum.org)