Celebrating Christian Louboutin’s career of over 20 years, the exhibition showcases the most iconic, outlandish and innovative designs from his archives, from lethal-spiked stilettos to crystal-encrusted sneakers. It explores the guru, artist and craftsman behind the legendary red-soled shoe: his intimate insight into the female psyche and form, and unusual sources of inspiration that have shaped his designs to the construction process. The glamour and theatricality of the ‘Showgirl’ is of the essence, reflecting the huge influence of Parisian cabaret in his shoes.

The first floor of the museum is transformed into a glitzy Parisian nightclub, the main exhibition a playground of surreal indulgences divided into themes of Architecture, Transparency, Entertainment and Travel. The show-stopping epicentre is the shoe-shaped red catwalk, where his most extravagant creations are displayed. Many of these are inspired by the flamboyant costumes and elegance of showgirls he used to watch in nightclubs since the age of 14. Dancing effortlessly in towering heels, to him they were ‘Birds of Paradise’, which he keeps in mind when designing. At the top catwalk is an uncanny 3D-hologram of a shoe morphing into Dita Von Teese, who gives a racy burlesque performance.

The imaginative ways of displaying shoes is impressive: there’s a carousel with shoes on velvet swing seats, reflecting his exotic travels in Asia and the Middle East. A glass helter-skelter, a grand piano spinning top and topiary bush maze are also featured. Every detail, such as the magnifying glasses and shoe-stands with miniature Louboutin red-sole adjusting tabs has been carefully considered. However, this over-the-top theatricality in presentation takes attention away from the exquisite shoes themselves, which is where the focus and credit should be.

Visitors will learn some little-known facts about the designer from this exhibition. For example, he was a landscape gardener from the 1980s to 1990 – the lines and curves of classical architecture and gardens inspired his Pigalle pump, his first 5-inch heel which remains popular today. One of the most interesting things I noticed was his numerous comparisons to the anatomy of a woman’s foot. He likens high heels to architectural pedestals for women; the heel as a column transforming the vault (arch) of the foot. Many of his shoes are named after 1930, 50s and 60s screen idols such as Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe.  Again he uses the shoe to reveal his unique interpretation of two types of femininity, whereby the front of the shoe symbolises poise, power and allure (Marlene), while the back represents the gait; the seductive way a woman walks in heels (Marilyn).  

One must not miss the one-offs of the handcrafted collection, which prove his artistry beyond feathers and diamante. No material or embellishment is too crazy or complicated here, from shoes made of dried salmon and mackerel skins, cut sardine cans to thigh-high boots made of palm bark. Louboutin’s dedication to keeping traditional craftsmanship alive is commendable, collaborating with specialist artisans of embroidery, leather and metal to produce limited editions, in an age where the skilled hand is almost entirely replaced by rapid, industrial machinery.

With such attention to detail, I was most anticipating the Atelier section (a pop-up replica of his Paris studio), to witness exactly how these amazing shoes are made. Disappointingly, there was a distinct lack of detailed explanation of the construction stages, besides six small display boxes of unlabelled shoe components, lasts and tools. It seems the secret to Mr. Louboutin’s coveted heels remains a mystery.

In contrast, it’s no secret that Louboutins are the epitome of female sexuality – every element designed to ‘undress’ the foot. Happily admitting that comfort and practicality are not prerequisites, the separate Fetish room (a collaboration with photographer David Lynch in 2007) is the most extreme example of this. It includes shocking, un-wearable shoe ‘sculptures’ with a heavy S&M feel, juxtaposed to Lynch’s artistic photographs of nude dancers wearing them. From 12-inch ballerina heels, caged shoes with locks and chains, heel-less arched shoes with see-through mesh soles to Siamese heels, it’s every podiatrist’s worst nightmare. One questions whether Louboutin is celebrating the beauty of the female foot, arch and instep, or perpetuating the submissive sexual objectification of women (reminiscent of Chinese lotus-feet). It’s a poignant metaphor for women who willingly endure physical pain for the sake of sexual attractiveness. Nevertheless, the shoes are truly incredible to see.

Ultimately, this exhibition is a testament to the allure of Louboutins: a unique combination of craftsmanship, theatricality and statement of wealth, power and sexuality. My initial cynicism towards expensive, uncomfortable stilettos has not been completely overturned. Regardless, this is a sacred pilgrimage for shoe fans.  Even if you don’t fancy wearing them, you’ll appreciate his shoes as undeniable works of art.

Christian Louboutin, at Design MuseumChristina Lai reviews the Christian Louboutin shoe exhibition at the Design Museum.3