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Factory Visit: Christian Louboutin

The Naples location where skilled artisans create the brand's trademark shoes

by Paolo Ferrarini
on 24 July 2015

Since setting up his eponymous label in 1991, French designer Christian Louboutin's shoes have become synonymous with power, prestige and class thanks to their sexy, edgy design and extreme creativity. Lesser known is the fact that Louboutin produces men's footwear as well—something that should be on the radar of all shoe enthusiasts.

On a very hot day this July, we had the chance to visit a factory in Naples, Italy, where skilled artisans create these rare, esteemed objects. This area is already known around the world for the production of high-end footwear, continuing a tradition rooted in the 19th century that exploded culturally after Word War II. The production process behind Louboutin shoes is entirely led by hand and consists of a minimum 30 steps. Fine leathers and precious fabrics (like cashmere and grosgrain) are cut, sewn, shaped and combined—but everything starts with a drawing.

Louboutin and his staff's sketches are fleshed out into shapes and turned into a tridimensional design. The pattern-maker obtains a series of flat pieces that will be used for prototyping and—once the final prototype is approved by the designer—for production. The cutting process is key and is also done by hand. Depending on the piece of leather, the single parts are carefully positioned and cut in order to leave as little scraps as possible. It takes almost 15 years of experience to become a professional cutter and it’s incredible to see how fast and precise their hands work.

Precision is of the utmost importance when it comes to working with precious materials such as alligator. In this specific case only one animal skin can be used per shoe. The leather is chosen very carefully in order to make the two shoes as similar as possible, since each animal is unique. Once again it is a matter of fine eyes and expertise. The pieces of leather are flat after cutting, but soon take the shape of the part of the foot they will hold. The curvature is obtained by using machinery that combines pressure and temperature.

Stitching takes place next. The different pieces that will form the upper unite meticulously. “One single upper can be made of 12 different materials,” reveals one of the production managers who took us through the production lines. The artisans focus on their sewing machines with intensity as each stitch is a matter of millimeters, especially with Louboutin’s complex designs.

A red sole acts as a declaration and Louboutin's signature. Interestingly, this color is obtained not by tanning, but with a secret lacquering process. “This complicates the process quite a bit,” the production manager shares. The soles arrive to the factory from a different production facility and, to avoid scratches, they are protected by a transparent film. It is only removed before when the shoes are boxed.

One artisan spreads a special mix of cork and glue onto the interior of the sole before it’s joined to the insole and upper; this padding will make the shoe much more comfortable. This (also secret) blend is kept inside a yellow tin with the logo of a very famous French champagne house. We asked if the blend includes chopped champagne corks, but the Louboutin staff simply smiled without an answer. The phase of sewing the sole consists of making several tiny passes—also rather complex. The hands of the artisans seamlessly switch from cutters to brushes, from cogwheels to wax sticks. Their elegance recalls that of a skilled classical musician.

As soon as the shoes are fully assembled, it’s time to polish. Leather is carefully and repeatedly caressed with pure cotton cloths for almost one hour, using French polish and other potions. Alligator leather, however, comes to the Louboutin factory in white (these blank skins are called "crust") and it’s not dyed until the shoe is complete. As a final step, the artisans imbue a cloth with the color and literally paint the white upper, very rapidly and with extreme precision. This process guarantees deep and intense shades of color, since the pigments have never been warmed up or even touched during production.

Before leaving the factory, the shoes are inspected and all the edges painted tone-on-tone with a marker, making the shoe sharp and visually uniform—the process comes full circle with more drawing. It's a gesture that truly feels like a signature by the team of these Neapolitan artisans—and a bond with Paris and the creativity of Christian Louboutin.

Images by Paolo Ferrarini

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Christian Louboutin on Putting Butcher Meat in High Heels, and Other Secrets From His Decades-Long Career

Plus, why he makes princesses and celebrities pay for their own shoes.
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Plus, why he makes princesses and celebrities pay for their own shoes.
Christian Louboutin. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Christian Louboutin. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

When it comes to shoe designers, it's hard to get much more iconic than Christian Louboutin. The French shoe mogul is regularly name-dropped in pop songs, and his signature red-soled heels are never absent from celebrity-studded red carpets. If his sky-high stilettos seem not-unusual in 2017, that's in part because Louboutin has been pushing the boundary of what "wearable height" means for decades.

On Wednesday night, Louboutin took to the stage of 92Y with Fern Mallis to discuss the colorful life that propelled him to become one of the best-known shoe designers of the 21st century. Louboutin used the conversation to share both much-repeated anecdotes — like the fact that the red soles on his shoes were born from Louboutin "stealing" a bottle of nail polish from a model and painting the soles on the spot — to little-known facts about his childhood. A rambunctious boy, Louboutin was expelled from school multiple times, developed a love for the cabaret before turning 13 and even moved out of his house and in with an older man when he was still a minor ("my mother was fine with it," he remarked slyly, "and anyway, we know now that I could still become a French president"). 

Read on for more highlights from Mallis and Louboutin's conversation, covering everything from meat cutlets as shoe cushions to making princesses pay for their own shoes.

On How a Childhood Lie Launched His Career

Louboutin claims he wasn't necessarily someone who knew what he wanted to do from a young age. "Adults don't realize that it's really a pain in the neck when you're a child and they say, 'What do you want to be when you're a big boy?' I don't know, give me a break. I can wait!" he laughed. "I had this friend at school who didn't want to lie when adults asked her what she wanted to be. Me, on the other hand, I had no problem lying. So I said, 'I want to design shoes.' But I never thought that it was a real job."

Having said it, though, Louboutin soon had friends and family members bringing him shoe-related literature and memorabilia. "I ended up collecting shoes, photographs, shoe things in general. I got into it," he said. It wasn't until later, when he was gifted a book on the designs of Roger Vivier, that he realized shoe design could be a real career. Later on, Louboutin ended up working for Vivier and was so impressed by the older man's talent that he quit working in shoes rather than work for anyone he saw as inferior to Vivier. As a result, Louboutin took up landscaping for a few years before launching his own label.

On Learning Everything From Showgirls — Including How to Cushion Shoes With Veal

Looking for excitement, Louboutin started sneaking into theaters when he was 12 or 13. He and a buddy would wait outside until intermission, then flood back into the seats with ticket holders who'd been outside taking a smoke break. It was there he first fell in love with showgirls, whose exuberance and exoticism excited him more than the "boring" realism that was prominent in French cinema at the time. When he left school at 16, his first job was working for Paris' infamous Folies-Bergère cabaret.

"It was a good way to know about shoes, because for showgirls, shoes are very important. They have very little costume, in general," he noted with a wink, "so they know how to express a lot with shoes." It was also from showgirls that he learned about the importance of proper cushioning in high heels, as he realized the veal cutlets they were always asking him to buy from the grocery store weren't meant for eating. Instead, the dancers were putting them inside their shoes to cushion each step. "It was always kosher!" he said. "No blood, that was important."

On Calling Up Top Designers as a Teen

Though he loved his time at the cabaret, he wasn't actually able to design new shoes there due to budget limitations — so at 18, he began looking for a new job. "I took the yellow pages and looked up the couture houses," he explained. "I'd call and say, 'Hello, I'd like to speak to the director of couture.'"

Amazingly, Louboutin's straightforward approach actually worked. After landing an interview over the phone with a representative at Charles Jourdan, he was invited to come show his designs in-person, then was promptly invited to come to the South of France where the shoes were actually being made. He ended up interning with the brand for a year. "Imagine [doing that] now! You wouldn't get very far," Louboutin laughed.

On Refusing to Gift His Shoes to Princesses and Celebrities

Louboutin landed his first American buyers as a result of a W Magazine article by a writer who just happened to come into his store at the same time as Princess Caroline of Monaco. The Princess, it turns out, found Louboutin's store the way anyone else would — by walking by it. "Princesses are like everybody," he claimed, tongue-in-cheek. "They walk, they don't fly; they pay for their own things; they leave."

This attitude — that people who want his products, regardless of societal status, should pay for those products — is one that Louboutin has continued to hold. He believes it so strongly that he refused to give free shoes to "Sex and the City" in its heyday, even when friends were pleading with him that it would be great publicity. The result? The costumer ended up buying the shoes for the show. The same attitude holds true for Louboutin today, even in the face of an increasing industry emphasis on influencer marketing.

"You're dying to have this thing or that thing? That's an important feeling that everybody should be able to have, regardless of how famous you are. So it's actually an act of charity that I'm doing [by not giving away the shoes for free]," he laughed. “That said, I give shoes to friends — so if you're a friend, celebrity or not, I give shoes. But I'm not saying all stars are good friends of mine."

On Why He Hates "Natural Beauty"

For a man in love with the glitz and glamour of the cabaret and known for pushing the height of the heel to ever more dramatic proportions, it's somehow fitting that the first product category that Louboutin launched outside of shoes was beauty. "I've never been very interested in 'being natural,'" he explained. "I think that 'natural' is just as much a pose as 'sophisticated.' What I like is that with the beauty industry, a woman is in charge of herself. Which basically is freedom."

It's this ability to channel and take charge of one's own perception of beauty that has been the undercurrent in all of Louboutin's creative endeavors — including those few years he spent as a landscaper. "I like landscape more than [untamed] nature. I like staged things; I like fabrication, because it's all coming from someone's head," he said. "And I much more believe in humans than I believe in God."

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