Christian Louboutin explains himself

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Christian Louboutin explains himself
French shoe designer Christian Louboutin poses with one of his creations during a photo session at the Palais de la Porte Doree in Paris a few days before the opening of his exhibition "L'Exhibition-iste (The Exhibition-ist). "L'Exhibition-iste (The Exhibition-ist) exhibition runs from February 26 to July 26, 2020. Tonje THORESEN / AFP.

by Vanessa Friedman

PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A sprawling new exhibition devoted to — and imagined by — Christian Louboutin, the shoe designer, opened this week at the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris.

Less a retrospective of his career than a tour through his creative mind, the show, “Christian Louboutin, Exhibition[niste],” was constructed in halves.

First, an opening series of rooms form an ode to Louboutin’s signature themes and collaborators, from Bhutanese craftspeople to film director David Lynch; second, a cavernous space filled with treasures illuminates the sometimes obscure connections between what is seen and what is imagined. The exhibition will run through July 26.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Why the Palais de la Porte Dorée? This isn’t exactly Fashion Central.

A: It was very close to where I was living when I was a kid. Then it was called the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. It had the biggest aquarium in Paris and these collections concerning different countries, different cultures.

I was born in Paris. My family’s French, from Brittany. My childhood was very French-French. Everything which was sort of making me coming out of my little Parisian routine provoked in me a lot of excitement. I have always loved to look at different civilizations through their objects, through their music, through their cinema, which tells you stories about something you’ve never experienced.

Also, the first time that I saw the sketch of a shoe was in this place.

Q: What was so interesting about that sketch?

A: When you entered the museum, there was a sketch representing a shoe in profile. This sketch was a woman’s shoe, but I had never seen such a shoe. It really influenced me to understand that literally everything you look at has been thought by someone’s brain, has been drawn, has been designed in order to become reality. That sketch really shaped my imagination around shoes. Every shoe to me has a personality. Every shoe has a connotation to me.

Q: Do you name your shoes?

A: I probably almost name all my shoes by characters or by attitudes or by just anecdotes, which are coming in my head. There is one called Lola Montès. It’s actually not a shoe. It’s a high boot. It has a name of a semi-fictional character, called Lola Montès, who became a courtesan and ended up in a circus.

It is in the room called the Bhutanese Theatre, which is a big room with a stage carved, painted and shipped from Bhutan all the way to here. It is dedicated to entertainment and a lot of shoes that have been designed thinking of entertainers: Prince, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Dita Von Teese, Kobe Bryant. Dolly Parton.

Q: Why is Bhutan so important to you?

A: Bhutan has become an important part of my imagination. It’s all the way up in the Himalayas. I went for the first time probably nine or 10 years ago. Bhutanese people have been able to really take the best of what modern world is giving us, removing what seems a bit toxic, and at the same time keep tradition alive.

Once I asked about embroidery colors, and they showed me a range of silk scarves and said “We have all these colors.” And I say, “OK. Are you sure you have all these colors?” They say, “Yes, of course.” So I pick some different colors. And what they did is they took those silk scarves and with a little knife cut the scarves back to the original thread.

If I look at a scarf, to me it’s a scarf. In Bhutan, if they look at something like a scarf, it is also a piece of silk thread.

Q: So all the exhibition rooms have sort of coded messages? What is another one?

A: The Molinier room. It has also another name: Suggestion and Projections. When you’re designing, basically your work is proposing. And then it’s up to people to think about what they see and if they like it, why they like it.

With the room, you have the feeling that you are at some granny’s, maybe in the ’60s, ’70s in the Midlands in England. It’s a lot of chintz. And a lot of shoes. They seem a little bit kinky. If you look closer, everything which is made out of a print you are going to see that these flowers are not flowers. It’s more, let’s say, sexual.

So, what I’m trying to say in that room is that sometimes you think you have a pretty good idea of what you see, and then it could be something else.

Q: Do you feel that people feel that about your work, too?

A: Sometimes I have the feeling that people have a very specific idea of my work. And some people may be right and some people may be wrong.

I remember Helmut Newton, the photographer, telling me one day — he had looked at some of my shoes — “I’m going to give you the best address for dominatrixes in New York.” And I said, “Helmut, I’m just not interested in that.” He was surprised. This is a suggestion from my work to a projection of his own mind. Me, when I think leather and spikes, I’m thinking Haute Époque, 17th century.

Q: What objects are most significant in the second section?

A: A bench designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect, where you see exactly the essence of his work: his love of curves. When I met Oscar Niemeyer the first time, I told him that we were sharing a passion: the love of curves. Also kachina dolls, Hopi masks, a Gandhara bust from my own collection.

For me, it’s very important to understand, to look and to be nourished by different cultures because it gives birth to other things. It’s important to be able to be open to other people, to be open to other points of view. And there is nothing bad in being inspired by things which are not coming from your own culture. Very much the opposite.

Q: A giant exhibition like this can feel like the end of something. But that’s not the message, right?

A: Another room is La Salle du Trésor, the treasury room. It’s a round room. It’s called the treasury room because it shows individual pieces which are important in my work for various reasons. At the center of that room, you have this palanquin in silver, which was made in Seville, Spain. And under that pavilion, you have this huge unfinished shoe made of crystal.

It speaks about the fact that there are some iconic shoes that almost everyone knows about, such as Cinderella’s shoe, but it’s also the unfinished shoe, because when you’re designing shoes, the one you favor the most is the one you have in your head.

I still have a lot of things in my head that I want to keep on showing, designing, and sharing.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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