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The Frenchman who keeps women on their toes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

The French shoe designer Christian Louboutin recently made his first trip to Washington to greet his fans at Neiman Marcus in Tysons Galleria, where he signed the distinctive red soles of his famously artful slingbacks and sandals. Louboutin's heels are favorites among fashion's usual suspects: starlets, editors, stylists. But they are also worn by professional women -- from social secretaries to lawyers -- who believe the right shoes can elevate an ensemble and who do not get nosebleeds when they are boosted to rarefied heights.

Louboutin has been creating his signature shoes with their stupendously high heels since 1992 and regularly makes public appearances during which he has even been asked to sign a customer's derriere. But he had never been to Washington, he says, despite having been implored to come many times.

"For eight years I was invited, but I never wanted to come before. I never wanted to come with Bush," he says, and he does not appear to be kidding. "I'm looking forward to coming back -- at least for four years."

Louboutin is not a man who bites his tongue, nor is he one to edit his own creativity. He is precisely the sort of fashion insider with whom one would want to chat over a glass of champagne because, before his flute is even half empty, he has bluntly proffered the kind of commentary that would lead many a publicist to reach for something far more potent than the bubbly. Washington, apparently, is a town that makes everyone turn political -- even about shoes.

Louboutin, a 40-something gentleman with hooded eyes, a buzz-cut pate and a devilish demeanor, arrived in Washington by train from New York -- although he lives in Paris. He made a modest tour of the city before settling into the Hay-Adams Hotel, where he pronounced the landscape of the District enchanting, with its broad avenues and low-rise buildings that give the eyes access to so much of the sky. Cocktails followed by a night's sleep prepared Louboutin for the mini-mob of women who always turn out at his appearances, gripping their footwear and asking him to autograph it or draw on it, thus transforming their $600 (minimum) shoes into invaluable, signed works of art -- at least to them.

His friends in Europe don't quite understand the concept of a fashion "P.A." -- or public appearance. Europeans tend to look at him with baffled curiosity and ask, "What do you mean people are in line waiting for you to sign a shoe?"

That kind of fashion fan mania is a particularly American phenomenon and Louboutin suspects that he benefits from the glamour associated with French design and its long history -- something that the French themselves tend to take for granted. It also helps that his is one of the rare, well-known French brands in which the name on the label actually belongs to the fellow working at the design table. "It's my name; it's me. At Balmain, it's not Balmain," he says. "The French have been spoiled on the fashion side for over 100 years."

Over his career, Louboutin has created runway shoes for designers such as Diane von Furstenberg, as well as Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the sisters responsible for the darkly imaginative Rodarte brand. But whether he is crafting shoes for others or for his own line, they are distinctive for their sex appeal and whimsy. And their high, high heels.

Louboutin has sat for no small number of interviews and from all of those conversations has emerged an often repeated nugget that regularly induces outrage -- mostly from women who would never buy his shoes anyway: The Frenchman doesn't care about comfort.

While his sleek shoes will never be the equivalent of Barcaloungers for the feet, and while they are generally not as well-engineered and thus as comfortable as those made by his shoe department competitor Manolo Blahnik, they are not devices of torture.

"I would hate for someone to look at my shoe and say, 'Oh my God! That looks so comfortable!' That's not what I want to project. But I'm not a sadist," he says. "I don't believe suffering makes you beautiful. But comfort is not part of my creative process."

Louboutin explains that he is not a technician, although he most definitely understands the unyielding fundamentals of geometry, heel circumference and the heel height at which a woman will simply topple over. But finding the sweet spot for the placement of a four-inch spike heel so that it is perfectly balanced under the foot is not his forte.

"I've been making a point to be a good technician, but I'd rather concentrate on my job and have people help me on the weak points," he says.

Louboutin's creative strength has been especially visible over the last five years or so thanks to the enduring popularity -- among a certain fashion-driven, height-seeking group of women -- of his hidden-platform stilettos in their many variations, including a peep-toe pump, a slingback and an anklestrap. The foot rests on a platform that is about a half-inch thick and the heel soars to nearly 5 inches. When made up in black leather, the red sole and lining of the heel stands in stark contrast to sobriety. It is a shoe that manages to combine power, sex and flirtatiousness. Is it any wonder that the style has been part of his line for so long?

The style is called the Numero Prive, a name taken from his vision of a woman crossing her legs and performing a kind of "private dance" for her own pleasure. The idea for the platform, however, dates back to when the designer was a 17-year-old interning at the Folies Bergère in Paris. He was surrounded by dancers who wanted high heels that would create the illusion of their having longer legs. But shoes with an exterior platform would have rooted their costumes in the 1940s, something that they didn't want. The answer was an inner platform that invisibly added both height and, a byproduct, stability. The solution was "not about the shoe; it was about the line." For Louboutin, from the very beginning, shoes were about aesthetics, as well as entertainment, bravado and sex appeal.

Those seeking comfort above all should shop elsewhere. Or try to take advantage of the next four years to plead their case to the designer himself.

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