Christian Louboutin polishes up

Shoe designer Christian Louboutin has moved into the beauty business, starting with nail polish

Christian Louboutin sells around a million pairs of his signature red-soled shoes - ready-to-wear heels are priced between $1,000 and $5,900 a pair - a year.

Now, the shoe designer is possibly peddling one of the most expensive nail polishes in the market. Priced at HK$450 (S$75) for 13ml (Tom Ford sells his for $48 for 12ml), the 31 Christian Louboutin Beaute Nail Colours are each inspired by a red-soled heel, such as Decollete and Lady Page. The signature shade? Rouge Louboutin, a vivid cherry red.

The lacquer comes in a faceted glass bottle topped with a gleaming 8-inch spike for a cap, the same dangerous height as the fetishistic heel of Louboutin's highest stiletto design, the Ballerina Ultima that was made for an exhibition.

The weighted spike cap / brush handle was also inspired by calligraphy brushes and offers a precise application. The polish promises to be as glossy and intense as shiny lacquer with two coats.

In Asia, the nail polish is currently available in Hong Kong boutiques; it will be stocked here by the middle of next year.

Louboutin was in town last month for a market visit. In an exclusive interview with Life! at the Raffles Hotel, he explained why his nail polish flacons look like objects of art: "I was always shocked by the beauty industry which talked so much about beauty, but so often, ugly things are produced.

"Not only is the content important, but every aspect of it needs to be beautiful and has to look like an object that you can decorate your dresser with, not something you want to throw out afterwards," said the 50-year-old in French-accented English.

The nail lacquer range is the first collection from Christian Louboutin Beaute, the brand's beauty category that was launched in July. He declined to give details, but said that more beauty products in different categories will be launched every season.

Nail polish, and in particular, a bright scarlet shade has always had a special place in Louboutin's heart. After all, his signature red soles are inspired by a bottle of red nail lacquer.

The year was 1992 and he felt something was missing from the prototype of his pop art-inspired Pensees heels. His assistant was painting her nails at the table then, so he grabbed her polish and painted the soles of the shoes red. And voila, the Louboutin signature was born.

The polish line was also a result of his frustration with the lack of colours that matched his striking heels and clutches.

"Whenever we shot our look books and have the models wearing a sandal or carrying a bag, there was always this moment when I would be thinking, it would be nice if we had a specific nail colour," said Louboutin, who was dressed simply in a bright turquoise T-shirt, taupe chinos and a pair of studded brown leather boat shoes.

"The nail colour could be the right neutral that showcases beautiful skin and nails, or to complement the shoes, like a perfect red with deep blue shoes."

His attention to detail explains why his heels have attained cult status.

He has a long list of high-profile clients, which includes celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker, Blake Lively and Beyonce, and socialite Daphne Guinness.

But at the interview, he refused to discuss them.

"I sometimes think of myself as a doctor and a dealer, as shoes are often an addiction for women. I fulfil the need and a good doctor never talks about his patients."

He draws every shoe himself and spends hours sketching on paper in any of his three homes in Egypt, Portugal and Brazil.

"I need to concentrate when I design. I need to have places that are very quiet, with no phones," he said.

Most of the shoes are made in Italy, while the special orders are made in his Parisian atelier, the espadrilles in Spain and the embroidery work in India.

It takes up to three days for a simple pump to be finished and at least a week for a complicated design.

"The shoe should not only look good on its own, but also blend into a woman's silhouette when worn and hold the foot well," he added.

If Louboutin sounds like an expert on the female form and psyche, it is because he has spent plenty of time observing it.

Born in Paris to a furniture carpenter father and an indulgent mother, Louboutin grew up with three elder sisters. He left home at 12 in the 1970s and hung out at the Folies Bergere cabaret to watch the showgirls train and perform, and day dreamed.

"Since I was a kid, I have been pretty much carried away by exoticism, worlds that are not familiar to me. If you look at the showgirls, with all their feathers, they are like birds of paradise," he said.

In the darkened cabaret, he discovered his ambition.

"As a kid, I never wanted to work in the fashion industry; I didn't even know what it was. I just wanted to design shoes for showgirls."

There, he also learnt about the "power of parade"; a theme that still runs through his lavishly studded, embellished - and sometimes outlandish - creations.

His desire to design shoes set off a series of stints over seven years at some of the best French fashion houses: Charles Jourdan, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Roger Vivier.

After spending about a year as a landscape gardener, Louboutin opened his first boutique in Passage Vero-Dodat in Paris in 1991.

Today, the company remains privately owned by Louboutin and his two original business partners, Henri Seydoux and Bruno Chambelland. There are more than 90 Louboutin boutiques in Asia, the Middle East, United States and Europe. There is also a men's line that makes up 15 per cent of the business.

Looking back, Louboutin says being true to himself explains his success.

People do not just buy a brand to be trendy, he said, "they buy it because they can see the passion behind and there is something they can communicate with in the brand."

gladysc@sph.com.sg


5 reasons Louboutin is an icon

1 The red soles

The shoe designer first painted the soles of his heels in red lacquer in 1992 when he felt that a pop-art inspired shoe prototype was missing something. Today, his red-soled shoes are instantly recognisable and protected with a trademark.

2 The who's who are his customers

Pop stars such as Rihanna, Beyonce and Lady Gaga own at least a pair. Author Danielle Steele apparently has 6,000 pairs in her closet.

3 About 2,700 pairs of shoes are sold a day

Around a million pairs of Louboutin shoes are sold every year. The brand's ready-to-wear heels cost between $1,000 and $5,900.

4 Admired by his fellow designers

He has designed shoes for Jean Paul Gaultier, Diane von Furstenberg, Givenchy and Lanvin. In 2002, he created a design for Yves Saint Laurent's final runway show. More recently, he designed a caddy bag for Louis Vuitton to mark its 160th anniversary.

5 Louboutin has many talents besides designing shoes

In a sabbatical from shoe designing, Louboutin worked as a landscape gardener. He has directed a Crazy Horse cabaret show and teamed up with director-artist David Lynch on an exhibition entitled Fetish. Oh, and he trapezes in his free time.