Christian Louboutin: L’Exhibition[niste]

Worshipping at the Church of Louboutin

July 1, 2020By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
“Puck” shoes by Christian Louboutin. Still life © Jean-Vincent Simonet

After seeing the spectacular exhibition “Christian Louboutin: L’Exhibition[niste]” at Paris’s Palais de la Porte Dorée, I am convinced that Louboutin is a shoe-in for best footwear designer ever, and that he himself (judging by this show, he is no shrinking violet) would obviously add, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”

Now that I have those puns out of my system – wait, just one more: this show is so long that you can literally walk a mile in Louboutin’s shoes – I can heartily recommend that you travel to the edge of Paris to see it. It’s simply great fun, even for those, like myself, who appreciate but have no particular interest in shoes.

Christian Louboutin’s sketch of the museum sign banning high heels that inspired his profession. © Christian Louboutin
Christian Louboutin’s sketch of the museum sign banning high heels that inspired his profession. © Christian Louboutin

At the beginning of the show, we learn that Louboutin grew up near and often visited the Palais de la Porte Dorée – spectacular in its own way, with its Art Deco architecture and period murals – and that he was fascinated by a sign he saw at the Musée des Arts Océaniens et Africains (housed in the building at the time) with a drawing of an Xed-out spike-heeled shoe, which was banned because of potential damage to the building’s tiled floor. It is only fitting, then, that this late-career retrospective of his work is being held in the place that first inspired it.

Exhibition view with the "Alu-Saumon." © Marc Domage
Exhibition view with the “Alu-Saumon.” © Marc Domage

Anyone who ever watched the TV series “Sex and the City,” of course, knows that Louboutin designs shoes with vertiginous spike heels and signature bright-red soles, but that was not always the case. The exhibition starts with some of his early pieces from the 1980s and ’90s, most of which are pumps with moderate or wedge heels (there are even some flats!), but Louboutin’s creativity is already well in evidence in such designs as the “Alu-Saumon,” made with tanned salmon skin and aluminum leaf, a fishy reminder of the aquarium also located in the museum; the beribboned, high-heeled espadrille model “Le Catalane” and, my favorite, the “Botte Pantalon,” lambskin boots that are also pants, traveling all the way up to the waist.

Exhibition view with the palanquin designed by Louboutin. © Marc Domage
Exhibition view with the palanquin designed by Louboutin. © Marc Domage

You know you have entered the Church of Louboutin in the second room when you see the incredible centerpiece, an enormous gleaming silver palanquin designed by Louboutin and bearing tall candles, bouquets of white flowers, lanterns, tassels and, in the center, an enormous synthetic-crystal sculpture of a shoe by artist Stéphane Gérard. In case you didn’t get the message, the circular room also has side chapels with kneelers where you can pray to the shoe gods.

Still life. © Jean-Vincent Simonet
Still life. © Jean-Vincent Simonet

The parade of shoes that follows is mind-boggling in both their inventive forms and materials. There are shoes with feathers, denim cuffs (homage to “Purple Rain”), sparkling spikes, loops of photographic film (in leather), lace climbing up to the knee, elaborate embroidery, little belts and, of course, sparkly jewels of all sorts. Others have delicate passementerie structures or are studded with nails or covered in birch bark. Their names are often good for a laugh: “Faux Cul,” for example, which can mean both “fake buttocks” and “hypocrite,” is a shoe as rounded and protruding in the back as Kim Kardashian’s rear end.

Each room has its sensational scenography and its own theme. There is a real Bhutanese theater of sculpted and painted wood with holographic performances by Dita Von Teese and Iya Traoré, along with samples of shoes designed especially for such stars as Tina Turner and Michael Jackson. 

In another space, the complex process of making a Louboutin shoe is demonstrated through texts, illustrations and amusing videos with impressive production values. The “Pop Corridor,” with its dazzling lights, brings such celebrities as Naomi Campbell, Lady Di, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and, of course, Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, together with shoes designed for them.

The “Fetish” room (no one under 16 allowed) features a collaborative project: Louboutin designed unwearable shoes (ouch! – they bring to mind the bound feet of Chinese women), and David Lynch made suggestive photographs of naked women wearing them. The song “Blue Velvet” plays on the soundtrack.

The last – and one of the most interesting – rooms is the “Imaginary Museum,” filled with works of art and design that have inspired Louboutin, ranging from the work of photographer Pierre Molinier and architect Oscar Niemeyer to early and folk art from cultures around the world.

The two most striking things about Louboutin that come through in the exhibition are his wildly creative imagination and his joyful, whimsical approach to life. You will be amazed, overwhelmed and amused.

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