Christian Louboutin’s very first designs, such as the Maquereau shoe, noted inspiration from the architectural beauty of Paris’ Palais de la Porte Dorée, which he discovered around the age of six. The museum was located nearby to the then aspiring fashion designer’s birthplace, in the 12th district of La Ville Lumière.
“Every single day I would see that building,” recalls Christian. “So I can’t remember the first time [I saw it], but I remember the architecture was very powerful.” He would spend his Sundays visiting the Palais galleries and aquarium. During one visit to the Art Deco masterpiece, a young Christian stumbled upon a sign forbidding visitors to wear high heeled shoes. “In the fifties, the tip of the heel was made in metal so it would break the floor,” he explains.
Christian Louboutin at the Palais de la Porte Dorée.
As stiletto heels became more and more popular during this period of time, building owners became concerned about the impact the shoes would have on their floors, particularly in high-traffic public buildings. This became the inspiration for the iconic Pigalle shoe, which has been redesigned over the years.
The Palais de la Porte Dorée quickly became a place the fashion designer cherished greatly, a place where he discovered the diversity of decorative arts for the very first time. “I saw a lot of incredible things, from African artefacts and furniture to jewellery, carpets, totems and masks,” he shares. “So it really opened my eyes up to a lot of different cultures. I was intrigued by the refinement and the monumentality of Alfred August Janniot’s bas-reliefs, the spectacular frescoes of Ducos de la Haille and the Ruhlmann and Printz furniture.”
This is also where he saw a drawing of a shoe for the very first time. With the façade covered in over 200 animals and figures, the museum was first built for the International Exposition of 1931 through a collaboration with architect Albert Laprade, sculptor Alfred Janniot, painter Pierre-Henri Ducos de la Haille and interior designers Jacques-Émile Rulhmann and Eugène Printz, among others. Today, the monument is home to the endless creative facets of Christian’s universe in the form of art pieces.
Maquereau shoe created by Christian Louboutin in front of the Tropical Aquarium of the Palais de la Porte Dorée (based on visual archives dating from 1988)
On view until July 2020, the Palais de la Porte Dorée is home to an exhibition devoted entirely to the designer’s inspirations, covering almost three decades of his life. “This is an exhibition which could only really be at this place because I have so many links with the museum,” he shares.
The featured works invite visitors to immerse themselves in the creative world of Christian Louboutin and to discover the many elements of his multi-referential work. Curated by French art historian Olivier Gabet, the shoes on display – some never before exhibited – are a tribute to the designer’s daring and creative visions throughout his lifetime. Works from his personal collection as well as loans from public collections are also highlighted.
Visitors will discover a selection of exclusive collaborations the designer has been a part of, such as stained glass panels created by the Maison du Vitrail, a Sevillian silver palanquin and a cabaret sculpted in Bhutan. Some collaborations have been unveiled by this exhibition for the first time, including with American director and photographer David Lynch, New Zealand multimedia artist Lisa Reihana, British designer duo Whitaker Malem, Spanish choreographer Blanca Li and Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi.
“This exhibition showcases the precious relationships that have marked my journey, through working with craftsmen who possess unique expertise as well as collaborations with artists who are dear to me,” says the designer.
Christian Louboutin. Image courtesy of Jean-Vincent Simonet
So what does the man himself believe is the relationship between art and fashion? “The border between art and fashion is very blurred to me,” he explains. “It’s really about perception. There could be a part of art that could be considered fashion definitely; if you look at some of the designs of John Galliano, they’re pure art. But I wouldn’t say that about every designer. Some designers are artists, some designers are designers.” The final section of the exhibition reflects the theme of endless possibilities.
The space houses the many inspirations that are rooted in the present while are simultaneously shaping the future, as well as works that have resonated with Christian for decades. “For me, this exhibition is an opportunity to pay tribute to the Palais, which gave rise to my vocation and that has continued to inspire me ever since,” he says.
“The influences are really art pieces, furniture, architecture, photography, movies, characters, or related to painters. [The section] will explain that everything starts with a sketch - a sketch to me is a very important thing.”
Gate of the Palais de la Porte Dorée made by Jean Prouvé. Photo by Bryce Davense
The show marks the first major Parisian exhibition devoted to the roots of Christian Louboutin’s fashion masterpieces. Perhaps most important are the memories associated with the space – the neighbourhood where he grew up and the museum he visited as a young boy.
For the first time, the designer has completely opened the doors to his creative universe, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in his lifelong journey where art meets fashion and the possibilities are endless.
The Christian Louboutin exhibition is on show at the Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris, until 26 July 2020
Images courtesy of Christian Louboutin
From the spring 2020 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art