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Comfort? Piffle!

Louboutin has built his luxury brand of shoes by emphasizing aesthetics, not utility.

January 11, 2002|BOOTH MOORE | lv-louboutin11 -- French shoe designer Christian Louboutin in L.A. w/art. BOOTH MOORE

With the rush to forecast fashion trends during these last 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 drive 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 that need no explanatory nouns. (The name alone suffices.)

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 on anyone willing to whip out an Amex card a la Gucci's Tom Ford, 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.

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. "L'ecole est fini" is a backless, open-toed denim mule inspired by the last day of school before summer vacation.

"That's when the kids cut the toes off their shoes and go to the beach!" says Louboutin, 37, who only recently was able to see his completed L.A. store because a Sept. 15 opening party had to be canceled.

Louboutin has been in the footwear business for nearly 20 years, first as an apprentice at Charles Jourdan, later as a freelance designer for Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent and now on his own. The son of a furniture maker, he has four sisters. He is closest to Farida Khelfa, 38, a former model whom he calls his "house muse."

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 desert 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, shrugging.

Louboutin learned to appreciate shoes as sculpture from his work with Roger Vivier, who is perhaps most famous for designing shoes for Christian Dior in the 1950s. In 1988, Louboutin helped the French master mount a retrospective at the Musee de la Mode et du Textiles. The experience gave him the confidence to start his own business.

The slight designer's English is peppered with "et ceteras," making him sound like Yul Brynner in "The King and I." He opened his first shop in Paris in 1991, choosing a spot next to an antiques store because he says he wanted to attract customers who would look at shoes as design objects, not just footwear. Stores in London and New York followed, and now he seems very at home sprawled out, diva-like, on a Moroccan bench in his Burton Way boutique.

"In France, it's not politically correct to like Los Angeles. You can like New York, but you dislike Los Angeles," says Louboutin, who is full of theories and likes it here, despite being a consummate Parisian.

Behind him, shoes are posed like dancers, each one with a spotlight trained on it. "I love that he's such an artisan," says Watnick. "Do you know why the soles of all of his shoes are red? Because to him, shoes had always looked unfinished."

Louboutin does not have a house in L.A., and he isn't actively looking for one. He already divides his time among Paris, New York and a houseboat in Luxor, Egypt. Still, he won't rule out the possibility. "If I find something I really like, I might have to get it."

His recent visit was a chance not only to see the completed store, but to deliver a pair of custom-made, non-leather shoes to animal lover Drew Barrymore. Louboutin "adores" Hollywood actors in the same way that he "adores" showgirls. As a boy, he was a regular at Paris revues, which inspired him to become a designer. "It was either feathers or shoes," he says, all charm.

Fans of his creations include socialites Catherine Deneuve, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Princess Marie Chantal of Greece, celebs Elizabeth Taylor, Sarah Jessica Parker and Cameron Diaz. But Louboutin won't be joining Jimmy Choo in the Academy Awards designer derby.

"I wouldn't like to have my shoes pushed and pushed and pushed," he says. "Besides, if you are too spoiled, you don't see the value of things."

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