On a warm fall afternoon, Christian Louboutin is soaking up the scene at The Carlyle, his favorite Manhattan hotel.
The designer, just off a plane from Paris, carefully studies the guests that parade through the elegant tea room of the uptown institution. He immediately spots a chic mother and daughter, admiring the young girl's very adult gold caged sandals.
"Those look like Vivier. I love them!" proclaims the ever-curious Frenchman. Minutes later, as if on cue, another well-heeled woman walks by carrying a Louboutin shopping bag — the Madison Avenue boutique is a block away — unaware that the designer himself is in the house.
Louboutin cracks a smile, but he's happy to remain anonymous, a difficult feat for someone whose schedule resembles a pop star's on tour.
The next day, after a photo shoot at his flashy new men's store downtown, the designer will take center stage at The New Yorker Festival, to sound off on topics ranging from his obsession with showgirls at Paris' famed cabaret club Folies Bergère to this year's high-drama court battle with Yves Saint Laurent over his coveted red sole.
After this brief visit, it's back home to Paris for a few days, before Louboutin returns stateside for personal appearances at Saks Fifth Avenue stores in Boston, Houston and New Orleans. "I don't do [store visits] very often because they take a lot of energy, but it's the biggest compliment to see people who wear you and like what you do," he said. "It's also important to really listen to your customers and hear their stories. It reminds me of when I first started and was selling in my own store."
Lately, the designer has been reflecting on those early days and the incredible path that brought him to this major moment, one he calls a "rebirth" of sorts.
"My anniversary obliged me to stop and take a step back about what's happened and how it all went. You end up questioning yourself," he said. "Twenty years is two decades, and a lot of people would look at it as quite a long time. But for me, it's still a young adventure."
Indeed, Louboutin has used the milestone to launch an aggressive growth push. By the end of this month, his label will count 65 stores, including two new high-profile locations in the U.S. — a much-anticipated Chicago store in the historic Esquire Theater and a Los Angeles men's boutique, both of which will open in time for the holiday season.
The rapid expansion of the men's business has been particularly exciting for the designer, who has happily observed a shift in the way many men view fashion."Their mentalities have changed," he said. "They love fashion for fashion and they're much more impulsive about buying shoes."
Louboutin's keen eye and innate sense of what sells is also giving him the confidence to venture beyond the accessories world for the first time. His beauty line launches next year, and while he's mum on the details, Louboutin clearly sees big potential for the business.
"I can't say this is my idea, but it was on everyone's mind, and my antennas just captured something," he said.
While he's clearly fired up about the future, Louboutin is much more hesitant to discuss his astounding success to this point. (Annual sales have surpassed $300 million and continue to grow in the double digits.)
He's refreshingly humble and admittedly a little superstitious about his rise to the top of the luxury market.
"Sometimes, when things are working in a certain way, it's magical, almost chemical, something you can't understand," the designer said.
Luxury retailers, however, understand exactly what drives the Louboutin story.
"He anticipates what women want and they are obsessed with what he creates," said Neiman Marcus SVP and Fashion Director Ken Downing. "With fashion as fickle as it is, he continues to excite and entice our consumers by continually reinventing himself and his shoes."
Saks Fifth Avenue's president and chief merchandising officer, Ron Frasch, said the designer's star continues to rise, as evidenced by consumers' excitement during his recent PA tour with the department store.
"I don't know any designer today who can draw that kind of crowd. It's so rare to see this," said Frasch, who noted that some shoppers lined up for three to four hours to meet the designer. "He's so charming and generous with his time, like a great politician in many ways."
With that kind of loyal backing, Louboutin is eager to begin the next chapter of his storied career. The designer's frenetic schedule is sure to get even more demanding as he plots the next growth phase, but he is clearly up for the challenge: "I'm not in the type of work where you should rest."
Did you always envision having a large global brand?
CL: I never had a plan. I have to say, I'm very shocked when people start a company and say, "In five years I want to launch a perfume, or in 10 years I want to have this." How can you know? Everything was a surprise to me and that allowed me to enjoy every aspect of what I was doing. Of course, there is some plan now, but that's new for me and the company. And every plan can change.
As you become more successful, do you feel increasing levels of pressure?
CL: Yes and no. I felt more just before [group COO and GM] Alexis Mourot joined about five years ago. There were a lot of things I had to do myself, which I didn't really understand, but they had to be done. It wasn't my thing, and that was a lot of pressure. I remember shouting and doing things that just weren't in my nature. I was really nervous and irritable. That had to stop.
Is there any aspect of the business side you enjoy?
CL: I enjoy parts of it. The whole team, including Alexis, who is managing everything, is really on the same page. The business point of view is always linked to the creative point of view.
You're known for having a tight-knit company culture. Has it been challenging to maintain that?
CL: The DNA of the company isn't corporate. And I'm quite superstitious. For example, I started on [Rue] Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Paris, [where I have my stores and offices]. We probably need a bigger space, but I've always said no. There is no possible way I'm going to move. Businesswise, maybe that's not the best thing to do. But it's a respect for the people. It has to stay that way.
Your men's line has become a major focus. What is driving male shoppers' excitement about fashion?
CL: There is a group of men that is thinking a little bit more like women. They're super-excited to buy the "new thing." I've noticed on blogs, for example, that men are very serious about their shoes now. They treat shoes very much as objects, as collectors' items. ... Of course, there is still a group that is more conservative in their tastes. They like to pass their shoes down to their son or say they have had a pair for 25 years. There is not one woman who would be proud to say that.
Do you only design men's shoes you would wear?
CL: No, because I'm more classic. I sort of work with three pairs all the time. I don't wear boots. I love espadrilles for men, but I would never wear them. I have very high arches, so I never feel comfortable in them. Also, I don't like the way they look on me. You need a thicker ankle. I prefer espadrilles on men who are bulkier. It's a matter of proportions.
You have opened men's stores in Paris, New York and London. Los Angeles is up next. Why did you decide to house men's separate from the women's collection?
CL: I started men's in a real way last year. I recognized quite quickly that it was [strange] to have men's in a women's store. The proportion is different, it's wrong. Even the colors are different. For my first men's store in Paris, my idea was to create an "apartment" for a man — maybe a journalist, traveling around the world — a place for all the shoes he collects.
On a warm fall afternoon, Christian Louboutin is soaking up the scene at The Carlyle, his favorite Manhattan hotel.
How much growth potential is there for men's?
CL: It has become very large already. The first afternoon we opened here [in New York], we sold 240 pairs of shoes in three hours. It was almost like a riot.
What drove your decision to launch beauty?
CL: It was so organic and became quite obvious. So many people were referencing Louboutin manicures [where the underside of the nails are painted red]. There were fake products being made. When I first started to speak to Alexis about it, he said, "I don't exactly see it," and I said, "Neither do I!" I can't say this is my idea, but it was on everyone's mind, and my antennas just captured something.
Can you give us any hints about the collection?
CL: Nothing! But there is a lot of concentration on it. In 20 years, I haven't touched any other category besides handbags and men's shoes.
Are there other product extensions you want to explore?
CL: For the last 10 years, I've gotten proposals to do everything, from cars and glasses to swimwear and ready-to-wear — everything. But it never seemed right to me. I'm just not interested in having my name everywhere. I don't want it becoming a name you can license.
You've devoted a lot of time and energy to your trademark lawsuit against Yves Saint Laurent, which in effect was settled last month. Why was it so important for you to defend your signature in court?
CL: I'm not someone who likes to fight, but I had to do it. I'm very happy with what happened, that the American [courts] recognized it was a valid trademark. It is a trademark, period. I felt a bit weird and quite betrayed and offended by the behavior of a group that has a lot of luxury brands. They should know what is luxury and actually protect that because they live out of luxury. Because it was a big group they were thinking I would not stand up for my identity and trademark, which proved they didn't know me that well. It was weird for me that they wouldn't see it as a double standard. I own a color in a very specific place on a very special object. With Gucci, they own the red-and-green stripe. How can they own that trademark and tell someone they can't own a color? A lot of people were very supportive. They related to me. I was fighting for myself, but also my customers, for whom my design and identity is so important.
Has your design aesthetic changed over the years?
CL: The biggest difference is heel height. What was considered a high heel when I first started out is considered a kitten heel now. I remember designing a 90-millimeter mule and people went, "Oh, my god, that is much too high." Now people who say they won't walk on heels are talking about 4 or 5 inches. In the history of shoes, there have never been such high heels. My drawings are very high, and I want to remain as true as possible to my drawings.
Have you saved most of your sketches?
CL: Now I do. After the first seven or eight years, I didn't have anything. One day this girl I worked with started screaming at me that I would end up regretting [not saving them]. I said OK, so take care of it, and she started to keep the drawings. When you start, you don't think about your legacy or history. You just want to keep on producing.
Seeing women wear his shoes in unexpected ways:
"I don't feel that a woman belongs to me. I don't want to do a uniform. Even when someone wears it in a way I think is really awful, I don't really dislike it. It might be hard to imagine, but I like to be surprised."
His dream celebrity client:
"I always say I would love to dress the Queen of England, but she's more of a symbol. ... [pauses] I would love to dress the pope!"
Another footwear designer he admires:
"I loved the relationship Salvatore Ferragamo had with people from all different industries. All the work he did in Hollywood was very inspiring, especially the shoes he did for Elizabeth Taylor."
His alternate career plan:
"I would have been a director or screenwriter. I started writing a script with a friend of mine ... but the best time to do a movie is in your 20s, when you don't care what people have to say."
An inspirational locale:
"Bhutan is a very serene country with an incredible history. It has an incredible group of great artisans."
His favorite stateside destination:
"Los Angeles. I can concentrate more there [than in New York] because it's a nine-hour time difference with Paris. I can speak to my office when I wake up in the morning and then again when I go to bed. New York is more exhausting. I also have very good friends in Los Angeles. I'm always happy there."
His favorite part of the 20th anniversary celebrations:
"There have been a lot of key moments. My exhibition at the Design Museum in London is one. It also was interesting to do my book. It gave me a moment to look at my drawings and family pictures, to stop and step back."