Matter of the Sole

The Design Museum is celebrating the 20 year career of iconic French shoe designer Christian Louboutin with a retrospective exhibition of his designs and their inspiration. With this exhibition, the Design Museum, dedicated to placing design at the forefront of contemporary culture, has created an exhibition that allows visitors to explore the full context of Louboutin’s work.

This rare opportunity to take a journey through Louboutin’s design process – from his original drawings right through to factory production – may help to answer the question of what specifically makes a Louboutin shoe.


Louboutin has for years now been vigorously trying to protect his brand from an abundance of mimics; recently he lost an on-going legal battle with Zara France after the fashion chain started selling red-sole, open-toed shoes similar to shoes of his design. Louboutin who has repeatedly been quoted as saying I do not own a colour. I own a specific colour in a specific place fought back against critics who argued that he cannot monopolise a colour. His cause is that the colour red is used in a very specific way, in a fashion similar to the use of the colour blue by Tiffany & Co. on their packaging, and generally accepted as a trademark. Of course, anyone with even the slightest knowledge on fashion does recognise the iconic red-sole shoes as being Louboutin’s and so the debate continues concluding with the vital question for Louboutin: will the image of his brand be damaged by second class imitations?

The exhibition is not only an ideal space for Louboutin’s most famed and best loved red-sole shoes to be showcased, but it also provides a unique insight into the fascinating life of the designer. The exhibition has been created to reflect his love for the world of theatre and cabaret; it features dark coloured walls, red velvet sofas, large mirrors, big light bulbs and a neon entrée sign. This is the environment – it is very much in correlation with his first inspiration, which kick-started his career – Parisian showgirls. 


Louboutin was just 14 when he left school and was offered a job as an apprentice in the dressing rooms at the renowned Parisian music hall, the ‘Folies Bergere’. There Louboutin would observe the dancers from the wings, captivated by the effortless way in which they moved so elegantly in high heels. He was fascinated by the way they were transformed by their dress and make-up. Louboutin has attributed most of his early designs to these Parisian showgirls – and started his obsession with spike heels.

The exhibition also treats diehard lovers of Louboutin to a Fetish Room dedicated to the shoes he designed for the 2007 Paris exhibition ‘Fetish’, produced in partnership with filmmaker David Lynch. The fetish room is hidden away through a mysterious dark velvet curtain where Louboutin’s most artistic shoes are on display alongside Lynch’s sadomasochistic photographic counterparts. The collaboration between Louboutin and Lynch came about after Lynch – himself a master of his medium – commissioned Louboutin to make shoes for an exhibition he was hosting back in 2007. Louboutin was interested in exploring the notion of extreme fetish in his work; he also wanted to play around with images, with two-dimensional representations of his creations. Lynch was the perfect man to help transpose his creative vision.


The collection of shoes featured in this section, and in Lynch’s images, are more artistic monuments than ordinary forms of wearable footwear.

Louboutin, labelled the King of painful shoes by his critics, explained in a recent interview with Vogue: I try to make high heels as comfortable as they can be, but my priority is design, beauty and sexiness…comfort is not my focus. The fetish room certainly is a reflection of this perspective – here shoes are approached as an art form – taken to the extremes of imagination, inspiration and design.

While the famed red-soles of Louboutin shoes are deemed to be his ultimate trademark, the exhibition is a pure celebration of his ornament like designs. It is this quality which truly sets them apart from high street copies. Ordinary shoes are made for comfort and with a sense of economy. Wearing Louboutin’s shoes is sharing in a world of extravagance, style and beauty.  Red-sole or not, this is what makes a Louboutin shoe.

Credits & References

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Written by Nicky Kirby

Nicky Kirby

Nicky Kirby, 21, graduated from Goldsmiths University of London in 2012 with a degree in Anthropology and Media Communications.

Nicky is a freelance writer for Modeconnect whose interests lie mainly in the areas of photography and art. Currently she is working for the London based charity Stonewall UK assisting with publicity and event organisation on varying projects.

For her future she intends to maintain her interests in the arts -including photography and fashion – and hopes to develop this in ways that will allow her to eventually run her own business.