They came already shod in Christian Louboutin. At home, they have dozens, even 100 pairs of the French designer's shoes, some encased in special walls in their closets. They are connoisseurs of his style quirks -- the voluptuous hidden platform, the signature red sole, the vertiginous heel. Few of his devotees wear them at less than 4 or 5 inches.
But what really beckoned collectors of Louboutin to a special dinner for him last week at Marche Moderne in South Coast Plaza and then a shoe-signing at his store there the next day was the West Coast debut of his special-edition shoe: an open-toe platform high heel in satin, embroidered with colorful beads by the house of Jean-Francois Lesage, edged with a ruffling of chiffon and velvet.
Only 36 pairs have been made, with some special orders anticipated. It is called the Marie Antoinette, and the ankle strap is adorned with a porcelain doll face topped with a rendering of a profuse wig. For the record, the doll and its wig can be slipped off the strap.
"They're wildly comfortable," said one woman from New York modeling a pair on Monday night that she had bought in Paris.
The price: a breathtaking $6,295. Or, as shoppers ruefully noted, a little shy of $7,000 with tax. The shoe comes in a deep turquoise, a watery pale pink and yellow. Three pairs were made available for purchase at the South Coast Plaza store.
"To me it was an investment," said the New Yorker, speaking of the pair she had on. Apparently so. She confessed she had bought a second pair.
By the way, the ones at South Coast Plaza -- they're sold out.
At first Louboutin-beige blush it seems preposterous, even in bad taste, for a designer whose shoes routinely retail for $600 and up to introduce a shoe 10 times that price during a worldwide recession and dedicate it to Marie Antoinette, the legendary -- if misunderstood -- icon of excess. But in the end, it appears more like a clever business move. Not only has it been an opportunity to sell shoes, but a chance to further burnish the luxury brand.
Louboutin disavows either as a goal. He and his friend Lesage, who lives in India, conceived the idea of a collaborative line of shoes two years ago over lunch, the designer said.
"We were thinking we should have a collection of what I call the 'Cinderella syndrome' -- very, very few shoes in a very short moment. Just like Cinderella," Louboutin said during an interview last week in a sunny corner of Marche Moderne, just steps from his eponymous store, where hundreds of fans waited in line for his autograph-signing to start.
Louboutin and Lesage decided to do a collection based on queens. After a good laugh about what kind of queens -- "it could be a drag queen, a drama queen . . . we know so many drama queens" -- they chose the French queen, Marie, because her era was associated with "the decorative arts."
The fact that the collection was ready to present smack in the middle of a recession did not faze the designer. "It's not that I'm not sensitive to what happened," he said, his line-less face sober beneath a slouchy hat. "But it's not linked. When periods are hard, do you really want to add some extra black to people at that time? It's not my role in life. And it's not my job either."
His well-heeled fans agreed.
"Take away anything else from me in this bad economy," declared Yvonne Moyano, 38, clad in hot pink heels, one of her 40 to 50 pairs. "Take away my spa, my driver, but not my Louboutins."
The crowd included muscled spenders, inveterate shoppers and splurgers. One doting mother was buying her daughter a pair for her 21st birthday; another bought her daughter an $1,100 pair for high school prom.
"We're going to cut back on the dress," said Charisse Wilson, 40, chuckling.
Christina Ferguson sat on a cushioned bench in the store waiting for a return phone call. She coveted the pale pink Marie Antoinettes but wanted her husband's approval. "Anything over 3," she said, laughing when asked what the cut-off was for approval. (She meant $3,000.)
"People think I'm crazy for spending that much on a pair of shoes but I think it's a piece of art," said Ferguson, 39. "It's a statement piece."
Alexx Shaw, an independent art curator, literally saw them as art. She doesn't care what size her pink shoes are. (She is getting one of the special-order pairs.) "I'm not going to wear them. I'm going to collect them."
"Anything that expensive I'm going to wear, I would never just keep them somewhere," piped up Ferguson.
Shaw eyed her. "Can I ask you a question? What if you purchase art? You can't wear it."
Whatever the goals for their shoes, money was not a stumbling block.
"It's my dad's birthday gift to me," said Shaw, who turns 25 in April.
Ferguson and her husband, Don, live in Irvine and own a medical clinic. She got a call back. She described part of the conversation: " 'Honey, would you like to buy a piece of art?' 'What kind of art?' 'Shoes?' 'No.' "
But she was laughing as she said it, because he showed up at the store and gave his OK.
"Here's the deal," Don Ferguson said. "I have my hobbies as well. And they're not cheap." He looked at the shoes. "And she enjoys them so."
Later, as they nursed glasses of wine in a cafe after their huge purchase, he mused, "I will say, it's a bit stiff for shoes. But then we go to New York and so many things are expensive."
"I know people don't like this," added his wife, "but I'm helping the economy. If people don't spend, we'll really be in a depression."