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Nailing Louboutin: Q&A With the Sole Man

The designer sounds off on the beauty biz and emerging markets.

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Fall ’14 styles

Photo By Scott Witter

Louboutin in Los Angeles.

Photo By Scott Witter

It’s a quiet summer afternoon in Manhattan’s charming West Village neighborhood, and the camera is rolling inside Christian Louboutin’s women’s boutique on Horatio Street.

The designer, dressed in a denim shirt, black pants and Yacht Spikes loafers from his men’s collection, sits on a tufted ottoman in the center of the store. He reads lines off cue cards for a video greeting that will be distributed to employees at Sephora, one of the key retailers launching his nail polish collection. After almost a dozen takes, the Frenchman and a small team of loyal employees on-set are finally satisfied with his delivery.

“I cannot imagine anything worse than being an actor,” Louboutin proclaimed.

Nevertheless, it’s clear the designer relishes the spotlight. He’s taking center stage this summer with the highly anticipated debut of Christian Louboutin Beauté, a project he’s been working on for two years.

“Beauty is a different way of thinking, but I was ready for that,” Louboutin said of the move into the category, unprecedented for an independent footwear designer. “It was a long process and a challenge, but an exciting one.”

The new piece of business is adding to the designer’s already substantial workload. While he’s based in Paris, Louboutin’s travel schedule is more frenetic than ever.

In May, for instance, he made two trips to New York, where the new venture is based. In between, the designer hit Mexico City for an appearance at the Financial Times’ Business of Luxury Summit and squeezed in a short rest in Los Angeles, where he was photographed for Footwear News.

After that stateside visit, Louboutin returned to the City of Light before venturing to Italy, Austria, the U.K. and Portugal — where he’s putting the finishing touches on a house — among other locales.

Then it was back to the Big Apple in late July for the official launch of the “Rouge” nail polish at the designer’s own boutiques and at Saks Fifth Avenue’s New York flagship. The department store is making a major splash with five windows dedicated to “Loubiville,” the city imagined by the architecture-obsessed designer; the displays are also front and center in Louboutin’s shop-in-shop on the 10022-Shoe floor.

“Christian has taken his rightful position on the prestigious list of fashion designers who have their own beauty lines,” said Saks President Marigay McKee, who has extensive experience in the sector. “Launching into this category only accentuates his hyper-luxury position in the fashion realm. Consumers will easily adapt to thinking about the brand multidimensionally.” Overall, Louboutin’s growth potential at Saks is “limitless,” McKee added.

The rest of Saks’ doors, as well as Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and select Sephora stores, unveiled the $50 red nail polish last week. Thirty additional shades in three color families — Pop, Nude and Noir — will roll out across the U.S. on Aug. 31.

The product is launching globally on a gradual basis as well.

In Hong Kong, demand has already been higher than expected, according to Peter Harris. He is the president of Pedder Group, which operates the shoe departments at Lane Crawford and partners with Louboutin on namesake boutiques in the region.

“Four hundred people attended the [Lane Crawford] launch, with sales in the first three days exceeding our plan set for the first three weeks,” Harris said. “We’ve also seen a remarkable response online, with a lot of comments on social media networks, which is fueling interest in China, where the product is not yet available.”

For Louboutin, getting the beauty business off the ground has been an intense process, but that hasn’t stopped the designer from forging ahead on expansion initiatives across the company.

Overall, sales continue to grow in the high double digits, and the company now produces about a million shoes per year, according to Alexis Mourot, Louboutin’s group COO and GM.

The executive said that men’s, which accounts for 20 percent of overall sales three years after launching as a standalone business, remains a hot opportunity.

“It’s been growing quickly, but we didn’t open a lot of distribution in the U.S. on purpose, and we plan to keep it quite limited [to maintain the exclusive feel],” he said.

On the retail front, Louboutin, who counts 92 locations between freestanding stores and concessions, will bow 17 stores over the next 12 months. On the agenda: U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Houston and Chicago, and global destinations like Shanghai, Beijing and Hakata-ku in Fukuoka, Japan.

The firm also planted roots in San Francisco earlier this year and plans to reopen its Madison Avenue store in a larger space. Next year, Louboutin will make a powerful statement with a new store in Miami’s trendy Design District.

While the designer is eager to talk about store plans, he is reluctant to discuss his next steps for the beauty business. But he is clearly bullish on the category.

“Don’t worry, it’s just the beginning,” he said.

Here, the designer sounds off on global challenges and the fashion athletic craze.

As an avid traveler, what is your view of the unrest plaguing many parts of the world?
CL:
We are in a bit of turmoil right now. If you live in Europe, you [have to be] affected by what is going on in the Middle East. It’s sad but it’s not new. It’s always been there. When I was a kid, [the sentiment] was that there was no hope for parts of Africa. Now, you are starting to see a lot of places in Africa emerge. It’s interesting to see how people in different parts of the world perceive certain countries. In Europe, for example, some people are afraid to go to Egypt and some aren’t. It’s really divided. Here in America, the perception is different. Everybody is scared of Egypt.

Which international stores are you most excited about?
CL:
Bandra in Mumbai. I’m excited because it’s Bollywood, and I love Bollywood. It’s a huge industry. The actors and actresses are not only doing movies, but they perform all the time on TV. They are more like Broadway people than Hollywood actors; it’s very much about the dancing. I was on a set last time I was there, and it was so good. We are probably going to do something for a Bollywood production, one where shoes are an important part of the film.

Has the beauty push encouraged you to expand into other segments?
CL:
I’d rather do things well than [split] myself into too many categories. I work a lot and I love it, but I still need to have time for me, for my friends and family. I feel sad when people drown themselves in their work. It sucks a lot of energy out of you. To get some of it back, you have to nourish yourself. It’s important to keep some time for pleasure.

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