A stylish woman with a gorgeous head of hair, perfectly tailored clothes, and impeccable jewelry strides by. You glance a peek of red on her heels. Before you are even conscious of the thought, the name “Louboutin” flashes through your mind – that’s how iconic French footwear designer Christian Louboutin’s shoes are, with their declarative crimson soles known and coveted the world over.
Louboutin is a delightful “forever young” figure, who ironically belabored the end of his life at the age of 27 when he launched his own company, figuring at the time that being over 25 was as good as being over the hill. He had no idea how much life stretched out ahead of him or how much success would find him. Now, at the age of 53, Louboutin is at the helm of a multi-million dollar empire that exists for the purpose of making women feel beautiful. Having grown up around and admired women his entire life, Louboutin’s calling as a feminist seems practically preordained.
In this exclusive interview, Louboutin reveals his innermost thoughts about feminism, gender equality, identity, and more to our Founding Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Haleh Nia.
Christian, how is it that someone who was expelled from school ends up being as hard-working, motivated, and focused as you?
Funnily enough, I was quite mature when I was a kid, but the school system was not really functioning for me. I didn’t feel bad about [being expelled] because I had friends outside of my school. I feel like when you are a kid and don’t have friends outside of school, and it’s all about your family and school, you get very scared of losing at that point – because if you lose this, you sort of lose everything.
I had friends, and I felt like the world was bigger than just school. It wasn’t really my focus point. When I was expelled, I was like, ‘Okay, fine. Whatever.’ It didn’t traumatize me at all. I had very, very nice parents – especially my mother – who was like, ‘Oh my God, child, it is not the end of the world.’
And it was a girls’ school, am I right? So you were one of a few men?
In my class, there were only three men. One is dead, and the other? I have no idea what happened to him, but they were really going to do fashion, so they were on the right path. I was absolutely not on the right path. The school had sewing, cooking, and hairdressing classes.
There was a butchery school across the street that was, of course, a male school. When we would be going out at lunchtime, there were guys from the butchery school trying to pick up girls. It was a bit scary for the couture boys. We had one common place to do gymnastics as we were only three guys. So, we would arrive as the three couture guys, and the teacher would tell us to change in the room and when we went to the room, they mixed us with the butchers.
When I was expelled, I was like, ‘Okay, fine. Whatever.’ It didn’t traumatize me at all.
They were all sitting there in their underwear with a bottle of red wine, and that was our first engagement with that school. We went to our teacher and said, ‘You’re crazy for mixing us with them, we are going to be shredded – this is insane! We’re going to be killed!’ We ended up never doing gym after that. [Laughs] When I was expelled from the school, I said, ‘I was never there anyway.’ But my friends pressured me to continue school.
So you were surrounded by women from a very young age. Which of them shaped you as a person and a designer?
I wouldn’t say that it was any one person. For instance, my sisters never influenced me with fashion. I can barely remember how they dressed. I sort of remember the shapes, but that’s about it. I remember them looking at themselves and not being happy. We got another sister when I was 16 – she escaped her family and came to Paris into ours. I met her at a club, and she basically stayed with my family. We were almost the same age, so I considered her my sister. She was the first person I would consider as having style. We would go to the flea market together and I would buy her things.
Was she formally adopted by your family?
No, she wasn’t formally adopted. She was 15 when she arrived, but she looked like a woman. She stayed with my family, and they loved her. No one ever thought she had to be adopted – we didn’t realize she was under 18. She’s one of the people who was really important. I always loved people who mature pretty young and who are, more or less, survivors. Farida was one of them.
Funnily enough, I have a goddaughter who is Egyptian named Elisa [Sednaoui], who I met when she was a kid… but she was already quite a woman when she turned 11 or 12. As a kid, I always loved being a kid, but Elisa felt like she needed to become a woman to feel accomplished in a way. I was the same way, and a lot of the people around me were also like that. I have someone who I considered a bit like a godmother – she is a fashion designer [Diane von Furstenberg], and she hated her childhood and wanted to be a woman. I sort of find that in a lot of people who are close to me.
What does that say about the pressures of society, when young women want to be old and grown up before their time?
It’s interesting because all these women I’m talking about, besides Farida, had great families. Elisa loves her parents and adored her father. So did Diane. It just means that some people mature early and need to be in charge. You know, as a kid, you’re not in charge when you’re with your family because you’re depending on them. With some people, the concept of freedom arrives early, and they need to be free and feel free. They need to be empowered by themselves. I understand this because I created my own company not really understanding that I would be free.
Some young girls know naturally that they need to be in control of themselves, their lives, and everything. Again, I think one thing I always love about women who I know quite well is that they’re survivors and, while most of them may have liked their childhood, they wanted to be women. That’s also why I never design for girls – I always have a woman in mind.
Do you think that in modern times, there is equal or less pressure on women to be everything to everyone?
I think there is less pressure, but the pressure is different. I feel like, in the last 30 years, there has been a huge change. When I was a teenager, a woman who would be in charge was considered a tough woman. You couldn’t be a woman with some form of ambition or skills to work without being castrated – that was a common idea.
You couldn’t be a woman with some form of ambition or skills to work without being castrated – that was a common idea.
I remember this woman from photographs (I was probably 16 or 17) named Nathalie Hocq. Natalie looked like Bianca Jagger, and she was the head of Cartier. I found her very beautiful, yet people were saying she was a horror because she was managing Cartier – you couldn’t be the female head of a company without people being scared of you.
A man in that position probably wouldn’t have had the same criticism.
Exactly. People also wondered that if you’re a woman and you’re driving a company, is it because you’re tough? I don’t understand why. I had the same thing with femininity. If you were putting makeup on, or if you were well dressed, you were considered a kept woman, stupid, useless. Why? Why is there any type of association with femininity? That was really the 70s in Europe. If you were groomed, you were stupid. Coming from a world of women, I just didn’t understand that.
I remember, as a joke, I was called a feminist at school because I would say that I don’t understand why a woman who puts on makeup is considered stupid. People said, ‘That’s just the way it is’. I would reply that we’re not in a world where we can say that just because we were students. I said, ‘Don’t tell me that is the way it is.’
Why do you think your thinking was so progressive? What shaped you to be so avant-garde in the 70s, when everyone equated wearing makeup with being stupid?
First of all, the iconic people for me were women who were wearing makeup, and I did not see the problem. Second of all, I loved dancers and artists, so I had a lot of examples of women driving their own lives without having to look exactly like the fantasy of the 70s – scruffy, no makeup, looking like a man.
My sisters were older, so I could definitely see that women were different according to different moments. For example, when my father was there, they would speak differently. When a man was there, they would be different. I remember my friends from school would say my sisters were fake because they were completely different with guys. I would disagree, saying you’re just different according to what happens to you every day. Being different doesn’t mean being fake. Men are also different when there are women [present].
Most of society is driven by men. We’re still completely under the spell of men dominating women. I think it started to fade in many ways, but it’s coming from a long history of this idea that women are le sexe faible (the weaker sex). The idea is interesting because it’s fake and everybody knows it, but there is still the mentality of thinking that way.
What do you think about feminism these days? You have faux feminists like Kim Kardashian championing gratuitous nudity as the highest expression of feminism.
I think that feminism has changed a lot. From when I was called a fake feminist when I was 13 or 14, I liked the idea that a girl could have makeup on and not be considered stupid. That seemed crazy. Now, after the 70s, I think it comes from musicians and the freedom of expression. I would give the example of Tina Turner. She’s a survivor and she wears makeup. She’s a musician. Can you say that she is a kept woman? People would say that she’s an exception. Come on. A lot of people are exceptions. Is she a kept woman? Is she a stupid woman? No. She has been driving her own career. She had a very hard time, but got it her way. She’s a fantastic person. She’s dancing, she wears high heels, and she has beautiful hair – what is the problem? She was accepted.
Then, there was one person who was the first to embrace her femininity in a classical way – meaning she was wearing makeup, she was a musician, and she dyed her hair blonde which was, again, a very shocking thing at the end of the 70s. Nowadays, you don’t say if someone is a fake blonde, you just say she is a blonde. In the 70s, there was a difference between being a blonde and a fake blonde.
Did that have more to do with race than gender?
No, it has to do with the fact that you were who you were, and you should not change. One of the biggest insults is not being natural, and I was always saying to people that you are confusing natural and normal. She is not normal in your eyes because she is special, but she is natural – she is naturally different – and that’s a big difference. People were really confused with having to be in the norm. Anybody who was not in the norm would be considered weird or someone people should be scared of.
Education does not encourage differences within people. Society wants to have you in the same world as everyone. I was very conscious of that, as a kid, because I felt different.
If you look at kids, they don’t like to be different. They like to be the same because they are scared to express any type of difference. Education does not encourage differences within people. Society wants to have you in the same world as everyone. I was very conscious of that, as a kid, because I felt different. It wasn’t a problem for me, but I could see that it was a problem for a lot of people. So, a woman who was a fake blonde was considered unnatural, having something to hide, or being called superficial – I really did not understand it.
The first singer who actually pushed the personality was Blondie. She was very pretty, and wore really beautiful makeup. Her hair was blonde. She was a super fake blonde. She really pushed it in a way of, ‘This is all I am, and I have no problem with that.’ Blondie was an example of a woman who was like, ‘I’m a beautiful, feminine, fake blonde. I wear a lot of makeup, I wear heels, but I can sing. I can perform. And I’m the leader.’ She really was the first person like that. Of course, there was also the person who became an iconic figure – Madonna. Blondie was a musician with a good career, but she did not have the heavy ambition of Madonna.
Now, people no longer think that a woman who has a career or decides to work is a man or living a man’s career. I think there is now an understanding that a woman can have the same idea as a man, and that also means a man can have the same idea as a woman.
You and I both work in an industry that is dominated by women. What is the difference between a female-dominated industry like ours and a male-dominated one?
I think the big difference is that women are more diplomatic in a way, and they give more room to think. There is almost an animalistic way of being a man, which women are very different from. There is more reflection with women. They’re able to say, ‘Let’s think and digest it.’ Men, on the other hand, are more instinctive and brutal in a way.
Ironically, we are considered the more emotionally-charged gender.
Exactly. Men were meant to basically hunt and bring back food, while women were there to actually protect the family.
You see, I am thinking of Muhammad Yunus. He is a Bengali teacher who won the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing microfinancing. When he was microfinancing in Bangladesh, he was lending money to people so they could be free to start working with their possibilities. At the very beginning, when he was lending money to both men and women, he learned that only women were paying it back. He wrote a book about his experiences in which he explained that women were doing different things with it, and it goes back to the old structure of women being more considerate than men.
And yet we have a leading superpower like the US still without a female President.
You can be a superpower, but it doesn’t mean you are super free. I think America still has a lot to learn. It’s a very wealthy and powerful country, but it is not mentally leading. I’ve been to a lot of countries that are much more respectful of rights in general, and much more advanced in a lot of democratic ways. If you look at India, you have female leaders. If you look at Pakistan, you have female leaders. If you look at England or Germany, you have female leaders. Angela Merkel is a woman, and it’s never been a problem. No one has thought about it – she is the first German female leader. Same thing with Obama – you had the first black president, and someone said, ‘I’m just waiting for the day when it’s not going to be the first or second black president.’ Same thing with women in politics. It shouldn’t be an issue.