March 13 - April 19, 2008
Christian Louboutin is one of the most creative and important designers working today. Until recently, his distinctive red-soled shoes were the secret treasure of an exclusive circle of Louboutin enthusiasts. But constant media attention has revealed Louboutin to the world and brought him unprecedented levels of popularity. Now it is not only fashion insiders who wear Louboutin, but also fashion- conscious celebrities and stylish women everywhere.
Sole Desire: The Shoes of Christian Louboutin traces the course of Louboutin's career and places him in context with other important designers. The exhibit also examines the major influences and themes that have informed his designs. His previous work as a landscape designer and his love for exotic destinations, such as Asia and North Africa, have found expression in the breathtaking colors and unexpected details of his shoes. The playfully seductive nod to fetishism and sex in his later work can be traced back to his fascination as a teenager with the Paris cabaret, Les Folies Bergère. And the image-conscious surge of celebrity influence on fashion has been serendipitous for Louboutin, providing him with an even wider audience.
"Mondriana" platform wedge sandal
Fall/Winter 2007, France
Lent by Christian Louboutin
Louboutin has drawn inspiration from the intersections of fashion, art, and history throughout his career. He considers himself to be outside the influence of current fashion and chooses instead to make innovative use of elements from historical styles. Perhaps the most conspicuous example of this is his use of red soles. Although this idea did not come directly from a historical source, he is not the first to notice the power of red on the bottom of shoes. In the late seventeenth century, Louis XIV famously wore red-heeled shoes to bring attention to his shapely calves and dancing skills. He dictated that red soles could be worn only by members of his court, thereby making them a sign of aristocratic privilege.
Louboutin is also influenced by the work of designers who incorporate artwork into their pieces, such as shoemaker André Perugia and couturier Yves Saint Laurent. But Louboutin doesn't simply "look back." Instead, he synthesizes the ideas of designers, artists, and historical trends to create shoes that are referential yet fully his own.
Louboutin also draws inspiration from the world around him - even from his own backyard. In the late 1980s, he left the world of freelance shoe design to pursue another passion: gardening and landscape design. Shoe design and gardening might not seem to have much in common, but both are crafts that involve creating something directly with one's hands. Louboutin's stint as a landscape designer was brief and, by 1992, he had returned to the world of fashion. But his experience helped shape the aesthetic of many of his designs. Whether it be a delicate floral print, or a heel that echoes the bark of a tree, Louboutin's appreciation for nature's beauty is never hard to find. He admits that he needs to control his passion for flora and fauna, so that it won't distract him from his design work: "I design the winter collection in winter, in my country house in France where it is cold and the garden is miserable so I don't go out into it."
Louboutin garners inspiration from not only the world's natural landscapes, but also its cultural ones. Many of Louboutin's shoes reflect a love of the ornate and singular characteristics of faraway locales, especially Asia and North Africa. The designer owns a house in Luxor, Egypt, and he loves to travel the world and glean ideas from the cultures of countries such as Iran and India. Embroidery inspired by matador costumes, exquisite Chinese silk patterns, and gilding reminiscent of the ancient Egyptians are some of the fanciful details that have found their way into Louboutin's shoes, channeling the splendor and intrigue that have long been associated with the exotic.
"Pansy" Mary Jane
Silk crepe, suede
France, circa 1994
The Museum at FIT, 99.30.8
Gift of Christian Louboutin
While there is an undeniable whimsy to many of Louboutin's designs, he adroitly produces other styles born of harder-edged subject matter. High heels have long been associated with fetishism, the intimate association of an object or material with sexual desire. Louboutin utilizes many of the elements of fetish shoes, including extremely high heels, leather, and bondage-related details. Intimations of power, pain, and pleasure appeal not only to the fetishist subculture, but also to "mainstream" men and women. Wearers and observers of these shoes embrace the overt sexuality of their revealing cuts, their exaggeration of female posture, and their bold suggestion of strength and domination.
Recently, a different kind of obsession has become connected with these shoes: the fetishism of conspicuous consumption. Many women who buy Louboutin's shoes covet a luxury lifestyle more than an erotic extreme. High-end spending has replaced sex as the gauge of female satisfaction, while demand has become equal to desire in creating the allure of the sexy shoe.
There is a conspicuous link between women's quasi-fetishistic desire to procure Louboutin shoes and the Hollywood celebrities who help propel the phenomenon of "It" accessories. Delicate crystals, rich satin ribbons, and flurries of marabou feathers are all evidence of Louboutin's appreciation for glamour and Old Hollywood style. The appreciation is reciprocal: for years, Louboutin's bewitching red soles have walked the red carpet, adorning the heels of such Hollywood royalty as Nicole Kidman and Madonna. Today, Hollywood and celebrity wield considerable influence over consumer tastes. Not by chance, Louboutin's success has coincided with the growth of star power.
"Ariella Clou" boot
Calf leather, metal studs
Fall/Winter 2007, France
Lent by Christian Louboutin
But it is the new generation of tabloid starlets who embody Young Hollywood that has shined an even brighter spotlight on Louboutin's whimsical footwear. The nonstop coverage of today's style icons, including Nicole Richie and Sienna Miller, has extended Louboutin's exposure beyond the circle of fashion insiders and brought it to young women seeking to emulate their favorite stars. The flash of a Louboutin red sole is a sign of status, and it creates the illusion that these young women's lifestyles - not just their sartorial tastes - mimic those of the rich and famous. Indeed, the desire to flash a red Louboutin sole has become so strong among the fashion-conscious that in January 2008, Louboutin's red sole was trademarked in order to discourage imitators.
Christian Louboutin translates form, color, and concept from historical and artistic sources into designs that integrate all his inspirations. His playfully sexy shoes inspire desire both for the women who wear them and for the lifestyle they represent. While his talent and love of his craft will continue to propel his designs to new heights, Louboutin's creativity and popularity have already left an indelible mark on the world of shoe design.
-Whitney A. Jones and Julie Ann Orsini