When meeting someone who’s basically the shoe god of the world, the least you expect is for him to judge your shoes. But seeing Christian Louboutin sun himself at a Delhi hotel poolside, dressed in a white Lacoste T-shirt and striped trousers, you wouldn’t take him to be the judgmental type. Or maybe he’s used to discreetly decoding your personality through your shoes, like some genius shoe doctor. "When you try on a pair of shoes you like, you gain greater control," he says, peering from behind his round Lennonesque glasses which he changes into from his aviators for the interview. "You stand up straighter, your behind protrudes and the shoe essentially gives you a certain type of body."
But his extensive body of glittering, studded, velvety and toe-cleavage enhancing shoes were alien to most Indians until they saw Carrie Bradshaw obsessing over her Manolos, Choos and of course, Louboutins in the Sex and The City series. Outselling the other two (Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo) in both numbers and popularity, Louboutins quickly became ‘Loubs’ for us (now available here at his first ever store in Delhi), flashing dangerously sexy red soles, super high heels and whimsical touches. Like the minimalist black patent leather Pigalle pumps, or the red and green suede Pesce where you slip your toes into an open fish mouth.
"India has quietly been into luxury, be it in terms of leisure, incredible jewellery or food. But earlier, the disconnect was higher as many people couldn’t afford them (sic)," remembers Christian of his time in Delhi when there were almost no cars on the roads and only a handful of newspapers. "Indian-made products are not considered cheap any more and are being appreciated all over."
Although that appreciation has turned into Kerala-inspired fragrances and saris (Hermès); ostentatiously blingy, Hindu God motif clutches (Judith Leiber); a pre-fall collection made of silks, dreadlocks, and polki jewellery (Chanel) and Taj Mahal-based watches (Cartier); India has at best been portrayed at its clichéd best. Something that broke Christian Louboutin’s heels too, with his ‘Bollywoody’ shoe priced at `1,36,500. Designed with kitschy Rajasthani embroidery inspired by bridal makeup, it hasn’t garnered the critically orgasmic ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ here that his shoes are used to. And he knows that. "There is a difference between India and Bollywood. Bollywood is about the stage, it’s immediately flashy and eye-catching. In America people love that shoe, because it is like a poster for India."
The poster in Louboutin’s mind, however, isn’t all about flashy and gaudy bits. "In Jodhpur, I saw women wear beautiful gold bangles that also had tiny diamonds decorating the insides. It was the opposite of showing off. Only the person who wore it could see it," he says, comparing it to his Clovis shoe which has a see-through transparent sole instead of his trademark red sole. Interestingly, the patent for the red sole has him embroiled in a bitter battle with YSL, whose negative outcome could leave his carefully constructed brand identity open to use by anyone who wants to. Not that it would be anything new for millions of YouTube fashionistas, high-street retailers and low-cost shoe manufacturers, who’ve been copying the red sole for decades. Louboutin did launch a website called stopfakelouboutin.com in 2010, which features a video of a bulldozer flattening thousands of fake high heels.
But it wasn’t until YSL decided to launch their version of the red sole, or technically a Pantone 18, Chinese Red sole, that he finally saw red. “It’s flattering to know that you are inspiring enough to be copied. But when you work from scratch, build your own dream and stand for yourself, then I think a group has to understand that they can’t kill individuality. They can’t think they can do whatever they want just because they are a big house. It’s disgusting,” he says of the PPR group which officially owns the YSL brand.
Not all is disgusting, however, with 2012 marking the 20th anniversary of the brand and the Design Museum at London making him the subject of a retrospective this year. “There is nothing more boring than an exhibition around fashion. But the evolution of shoes reflects the evolution in culture,” he says, commenting on the changing sociological perception of shoes. “Earlier super high heels were a symbol of fetish and were only worn by prostitutes. That’s not true any more and I want to show how shoe designs can change pre-conceived ideas.” And he adds, “Shoes are about emotions, they’re meant to evoke something else. They are not always meant to walk in.”
The shoe that started it all. Inspired by the pop colours of Andy Warhol, the black base of the original shoe didn’t go with the drawing Louboutin had in mind. And in a moment that made history, he spotted his assistant painting her nails with a bright red lacquer, grabbed it from her hands and painted it on the sole. “It was exactly like the drawing that I had made,” says Christian.
Despite being slammed by critics, the shoe still has its fans both in India and globally. It stands tall at a height of five and a half inches. Christian differentiates between India and Bollywood and says that the latter is flashier, and so is the shoe.
It’s a garden all over the sidewalk. At least with the shoe, made in resin and hand-dried after being hand-picked from Louboutin’s own garden, it ensures you are never far from summer. One of his more theatrical designs, Clovis isn’t a typical super high heel but an easy pick for the edgy.
From HT Brunch, April 8
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