Last weekend I visited the Christian Louboutin exhibition at the Design Museum in Shad Thames. It was a retrospective of the footwear designer’s twenty years in the fashion industry and an insight into his inspirations, work methods and the women who wear his shoes.
What immediately hit me was the theatrical display and dramatic shape, colour and designs of his pieces. As you enter the exhibition each shoe is lit so the sharp curve of the heel creates an exaggerated shadow of their form as a silhouette against the wall. It almost appears to be the footlights of a stage which is an homage to his love of performance, burlesque and the show girls of Paris. This tone of both playful and seductive performance runs throughout the exhibition and indeed his work.
There is a 3D hologram show of his muse and collaborator Dita Von Teese at the centre of the main room in a pair of his most sparkly shoes and matching showgirl ensemble, as well as a merry-go-round with various pairs of shoes and boots from his collections over the years displayed on velvet cushions twirling in the air. Everything is displayed with a sense of glamour, fun and decadence which reflects the luxurious and seductive undercurrent of all his work.
There is a section dedicated to Louboutin’s collaboration with film maker David Lynch entitled ‘Fetish’ where the shoes featured were pure fantasy accompanied by dark photographs depicting the pieces modeled by naked Parisian dancers. Each shoe seemed almost like a weapon, with allusions to bondage and sexual fetish. I did think for a moment that someone once said to me ‘Christian Louboutin hates women’ and if you misread the focus in this series of work I can see where that idea may arise. However I think the themes between this sexual fantasy, role play and creative expression are so strong in his work it cannot be applied to the real world – these pieces are for performance and theatre, much like the world of burlesque and the film work of Lynch. He is taking the extremes of his work and by subverting the primary, everyday function of a simple shoe by making it fundamentally unwearable and so taking on a new form, showing it’s power as a tool for creating a world of fantasy.
When you walk through the next section dedicated to his design process he says that he lets his mind completely wander when drawing new designs, maximising creative expression and then working out the logistics of each piece later. Louboutin openly admits he is devoted to creating shoes that are imbued with glamour and sexuality and in doing this has found a market for women who appreciate the beauty, craft and elegance of each piece. And although there is the extrovert, embellished and theatrical side to his work, his most popular shoe – the ‘Pigalle’ – is a simple stilletoe court shoe which showcases the designer’s ability to create a shoe that oozes sex and sophistication simply through the high arch of the sole, the delicate heel and sharp lines of the cut – it is simultaneously the ultimate in simplicity and luxury.
A client of mine once told me she had 3 pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes and when I asked which was her favourite to wear she replied “Oh no I don’t wear them, I just look at how beautiful they are!”. At the time I couldn’t imagine spending that kind of money on an item of clothing you wouldn’t even use, but what this exhibition so clearly showcases is the importance of the artistry and performance in his work. Every shoe is so beautifully crafted with such joy for all things feminine that sex appeal is imbued in every shoe and allows a little bit of naughty into your wardrobe. In the same way that some people collect works of art to make them feel good about themselves, Louboutin’s work can have this empowering effect on women by allowing that inner showgirl to emerge with a flurry of sparkle and silk…
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