With the rush to forecast fashion trends during these past few months, some have gone so far as to declare the demise of the stiletto and the rise of the sensible shoe.
But Christian Louboutin isn't having any of that. It's aesthetics, after all, not utility, that drives his shoe designs. "The last thing I would like is for people to point to my shoes and say, 'Oh, they look so comfortable!' " says the French designer whose styles have joined Manolos and Jimmy Choos in the realm of swoon-worthy fashion accessories.
In a decade of designing his own line, Louboutin has managed to inspire the kind of fashion fervor others merely dream of. But instead of pushing in-your-face glam, Louboutin has quietly built his luxury brand by carefully controlling distribution. His shoes are "one of the few real luxury items remaining because he doesn't feel his things need to be everywhere and on everyone," says Rita Watnick, who persuaded Louboutin to open his second U.S. store next to her vintage clothing shop in Beverly Hills, Calif.
In the boudoir-like Louboutin boutique, his pricey little darlings, $335 to $1,100, are treated like treasures. Each display shoe has its own alcove on the wall and, for those who inquire, a name. The "100 Meter" is a modified white leather track shoe with a pointy heel and toe. The "India Jane" is a Tarzan-meets-the-Raj pump that drapes the foot in red chiffon and fastens at the ankle with a clasp of cascading rhinestones.
"That's when the kids cut the toes off their shoes and go to the beach!" says Louboutin, 37.
Louboutin has been in the footwear business for nearly 20 years, first as an apprentice at Charles Jourdan, later as a free-lance designer for Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent and now on his own. The son of a furniture maker, he has four sisters.
Louboutin says he has never once wanted to design clothes, and he's not particularly interested in men's shoes either. (He wears nondescript brown boots.)
"A woman carries her clothing, but it's the shoe which carries a woman. It's a very specific, different item," he says, flourishing his left hand for emphasis. "A shoe for me is like a pedestal for a woman."
Because so many of his shoes have stories behind them, Louboutin says he often feels as if he is flipping through a scrapbook when he visits his stores. One of his most talked-about designs, the "trash mule" ($335), was born out of a conversation with a friend about the conflict between fashion and recycling, he says.
The shoe, which has cigarette butts, magazine clippings, feathers and other rubbish encased in a clear plastic toe, was so popular when it came out three years ago that there have been several versions of it in seasons since.
"It's the one everyone wants, and it's the hardest one to make," he says.
Booth Moore is a writer for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.