Two weeks ago I attended “Christian Louboutin: L’exhibition[niste] – Chapitre II in Monaco. This was the second chapter of Louboutin’s first exhibition held in 2020 at the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris; the Monaco edition offered a new perspective with this second exhibition named “Chapter II”.
This was probably Grimaldi Forum’s biggest event of the summer, dedicated to the universe and the creations of Christian Louboutin, a legendary shoe designer and one of the most prominent figures in the world of fashion.
The set design stretched for 2000 m2 of the Espace Ravel in the Grimaldi Forum building and included additional items linked to the designer’s Monegasque inspirations and new collaborations. The retrospective was conceived as “a joyous odyssey spanning three decades of Louboutin’s creativity, tracing his curiosity towards culture and art in all its forms”, celebrating art through the creator’s eyes.
The shoes were the retrospective’s main protagonists, with a selection of exceptional creations including some unique models.
Christian Louboutin started his apprenticeship at the end of the 80s with Folies Bergère, a Parisian music-hall, for which he realized the costumes (he once said in an interview: “I’ve always loved anything having to do with theater – theatricality and movement, the movement of theatricality.”), then he worked for a while with Charles Jourdan and Roger Vivier, a famous Parisian shoe designer, who was one of his biggest inspirations at the beginning of his career.
Louboutin founded his own brand and opened his Paris shop in 1990. His first line with the iconic red sole came out in 1992, giving his shoes a distinctive look; by inventing the red sole, he found his signature, which is known and recognized across the world to this day.
The first room of the Monaco retrospective was decorated with a set of eight stained-glass windows especially designed by Christian Louboutin and displayed the first shoes he ever designed. Most of those he made himself on a budget in his tiny apartment – the designs show the influence of Roger Vivier on Louboutin’s first shoe models.
This room reconstructed the beginning of his career, with the help of magazine covers, initial sketches and personal photographs, which recapture the buzz of the 80s and 90s, when fashion was still something fun and light-hearted, less intertwined with the concept of luxury. The room displayed some of his early creations like the Pluminette (Spring/Summer 1995, inspired by birds), Love (Louboutin’s “Première Collection”, Fall/Winter 1991), Aqua Girl (Fall/Winter 1998) and Pensée(Fall/Winter 1993, produced in a variety of different colors).
Princess Caroline of Monaco and Madonna were among Louboutin’s first clients at his Parisian boutique in Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Of his legendary career, the designer says: “It’s really a lucky star that has brought me to this point, more than ambition, dreams, or imagination. I let myself be guided by things.”
As I previously mentioned, the windows in this room were especially designed by Christian Louboutin for the exhibition and realized by Maison du Vitrail in Paris under the direction of maître verrier Emmanuelle Andrieux. These glasses decline the eight defining elements of Louboutin’s work: la Parisienne, le Spectacle , la Couture, l’Art, le Voyage, l’Artisanat, la Sexualité and l’Innovation (which mean respectively Parisian Woman, Theatre, Couture, Art, Travel, Craft, Sensuality and Innovation). Louboutin stated: “It’s a job in itself to keep your eyes open, to stay alert in the places you go, because there are always things to see. […] There’s always a garden to see, a museum, a church, a market, a concert, a piece of architecture – even in places that seem devoid of interest.” The glasses also reaffirm his attachment to the decorative arts and the professions connected to the “métiers d’arts”, while at the same time self-referencing a kind of adoration for the shoe, seen as a true objet d’art.
The adjacent room showcased Louboutin’s inventive genius; through his work, we can further explore how the art of shoe design stems from the mastery of drawing and illustration. This is where the idea of the silhouette plays a crucial role, because the shoe serves as an extension of the body and the leg. Louboutin affirmed:“Ninety percent of my shoes start with a drawing. The complicated but very important thing is to remain as faithful as possible to the original design.”
The Ombres Portées (Shadows) installation represented the shoe’s main essence; it makes use of a complex scaling process of harmony and proportions that must retain the energy of the silhouette, echoing some principles which are typical of the architectural world. With this installation we got to see that whatever the size of a shoe, its shadow remains the same.
Another room was dedicated to Couleurs Peau (Nudes); launched in 2009 and with a Helmut Newton accent, the Nudes series is now considered a pioneering creative act in the history of fashion.
Louboutin played with the visual effect created from a chromatic unity between the leg and the foot that is wearing the shoe, lengthening the silhouette and unifying the color of the skin with that of the shoe. He soon realized that he could not reduce the flesh color to a simple beige, but that he would have to embrace all the colors of humanity; nowadays the Nudes consist of eight shades of different skin tones. When they first came on the scene, they were viewed as a strong, even political, cultural act, especially in the United States. Christian Louboutin has actually conceived them as representative of “the idea that color is not a question as such, but that the Nudes are a universal, inclusive way of revisiting a fashion world that has long been fascinated by hybridization.”
The Salle du Trésor (Hall of Treasures) was probably the retrospective room most emblematic of Louboutin’s body of work. This circular space brought together his most iconic creations, chosen from an archive which today contains thousands of designs. All these shoes are based around themes that reveal his eclecticism and they embody a sort of accomplishment in creating the shapes, in using certain materials and even for the historical context of the idea that inspired them.“There are things that are supposed to make you think, but shoes, after all, are for dreaming. Joy, awareness, and surprise – to me, that’s the perfect combination for creating shoes.” Each shoe displayed was inscribed in the strong artistic references that always permeate Louboutin’s work. Some models from Louboutin’s past collections have also been influenced by the designer’s fascination for Africa, Oceania and the Americas, his love for architecture and design and his strong interest in modern art.
The shoes created for Yves Saint Laurent’s last haute-couture show in 2002 were produced in collaboration with graphic designer Cassandre, who elegantly designed the YSL logo.
Of his Saint Laurent collaboration, Louboutin recalled: “It was very strange for me to see this shoe celebrate the entire history of Saint Laurent, with my name attached, so that’s why this shoe is so important to me. But it also symbolized something else: the certainty that when you create things out of love and driven by emotion, there is never any difficulties, almost no boundaries.” When asked about how he finds the inspiration for his designs, Louboutin answered: “Weather and light have a huge influence on me, which, moreover, is the reason why I’m a morning person; I can’t work or concentrate without light. […] My real creative work is done in the morning, then in the afternoon and evening I revise and remodel my designs, work out problems. And it’s the same thing for the designs themselves: cold light gives me inspiration for the winter collections, and warm light for the summer models.”
In my opinion, the most interesting and fascinating models in the Salle du Trésor room were also Mort à Venise (Death in Venice), inspired by fifteenth-century Venetian wine carafes and created for the New York Times, Juliverna (a 2022 creation made of wood and seashell), Illusion Crazy (created for the Crazy Horse cabaret in 2010 and made of leather and rhinestones), Pensamoi (Fall/Winter 2014, made of satin, velvet and rhinestones).
Other shoes worth mentioning due to their original aesthetic and overall beauty are Ulona and Zoulou (Spring/Summer 2010 – Spring/Summer 2013, the first one in leather and the second one in hand-painted python), Kriptonite (Spring/Summer 2010, made in python, fishnet, rhinestones and leather), Bibariellita and Mondriana (Spring/Summer 2018, leather and rhinestones – Fall/Winter 2007, patent leather) and the famous Despressi Platform Stiletto shoes in black leather (Spring/Summer 2015).
The room also contained some stunning installations, the most notable one being at the center; a traditional Spanish palanquin, traditionally used for carrying nobility or religious effigies during parades, handcrafted by Spanish coppersmiths, with drapes embroidered by Mukherjee, an Indian couturier. A two-meter-tall Louboutin stiletto could be seen rising from a silver and gold altar, created by French artist Stéphane Gérard and celebrating the myth of Cinderella’s crystal slipper.
Other two significant installations included photographer Peter Lippmann’s setting with a thigh-length boot, the “Versailles”, hanging from a chandelier and recreated from a drawing done by Christian Louboutin in 2009. According to a museum caption, the decor for this sculpture-object “adopts the soft light of Flemish still life paintings that enhances colors and textures.”
I think the most impressive installation was “Under the Sea-Strass”, a fairy-tale like creation which consists of a treasure buried in the depths of the ocean for centuries from which emerges a world inspired by the aesthetic of James Bidgood, a mélange of pearls and glitter that illuminates one of Louboutin’s most iconic collections of strass shoes, which sparkle like precious jewelry. This evokes Louboutin’s quote:“I’m not very concerned with fashion, because I love the idea that there’s a certain timelessness to my work. I consider myself more like a goldsmith, like someone who designs jewelry.”
The atelier section delved deeper into the making of a shoe; a model is the result of almost a hundred steps that contribute to its design. Fashion is the ideal context for expressing the craft professions, bringing together workmanship and the use of technology. “Working with artisans means favoring human connections”, as Christian Louboutin once said.
A number of the objects displayed in this section encapsulate the creative process, while a series of videos allows the audience to see the main stages of assembling a shoe.
The Théâtre Bhoutanais (Bhutanese Theater) section was about Louboutin’s love for theatre and conceiving the stage as an endless source of creativity and inspiration. It is a multi-faceted stage, which includes film, cabaret, music-hall and the circus. The pieces in this section were brought together within a theater set especially created for this exhibition by Bhutanese artists, with a particular attention to wooden elements carved and painted using age-old techniques used for temples and monasteries in Bhutan. The creations presented here included the Forever Tina boots, inspired by singer Tina Turner, and Louboutin’s famous 20-cm ballet shoes.
The Muséè Imaginaire hall(Imaginary Museum) was meant to create a dialogue between objects from Christian Louboutin’s personal pantheon and heritage artworks borrowed from public and private collections, some of which were from Monegasque museums. This section explored various thematics that cross the creator’s work, like his love for dance and the Russian Ballet heritage, his passion for Asian and African art, the Warhol pop influence, Helmut Newton’s photographic genius and his fascination towards the oceanographic universe. The room was thought of as an homage to artists and artworks that have been part of Louboutin’s universe since his adolescence, serving as an inspiration to him. Always curious and sensitive towards all cultures, he loves eclecticism, a distinctive trait of his work in nearly 30 years of his career. Here we found fashion moments, iconic figures from his personal pantheon, queer culture, paintings, objets d’art, popular art, contemporary African art, Wedgwood porcelain, seashells and feathers.
For the Monaco exhibition, many works which inspired Louboutin’s from the Nouveau Muséè National de Monaco and the Musée Océanographique were shown, as the designer is deeply attached to the history and the artistic heritage of Monaco.
When he was a child, Christian Louboutin visited the Oceanographic museum several times. I have been there at least three times and it’s a marvelous example of the “cabinet of curiosities” concept, showcasing the beauty of natural kingdoms and presenting natural objects in their pure form. Observing the marine creatures who live at the Oceanographic Museum instilled in me a sense of wonder and appreciation for the beauty of the animal kingdom and a deep admiration towards the people who work hard to protect and preserve nature and its inhabitants. Prince Albert 1er was a pioneer in the protection of the environment and the field of oceanography, leading various scientific expeditions in the late 19th century. The Oceanographic Museum opened in 1910 and its architecture and decoration are a spectacular illustration of the marine world.
In the “Imaginary Museum” room, we got to see shells, sponges and colors chosen from the Museum by Louboutin himself, as well as 19th-century lithographs illustrating the flora and fauna of the oceans.
The Fetishism room (not recommended to anyone under the age of 16) was the result of a collaboration between Christian Louboutin and David Lynch; in 2007, they unveiled a series of groundbreaking photographs. Louboutin designed a series of shoes that were meant to be impossible to walk in, while Lynch staged them and photographed them. Louboutin reveals: “I told David I wanted to approach the realm of fetishism and create shoes that were not made for walking. […] And I wanted them, once they were manufactured, to be staged and photographed, but not by a fashion photographer. I didn’t want this work to become part of the fashion world; these shoes weren’t meant for that. As the colors of fetishism are fairly dark and implied, and the material rather dull, I instead imagined colors à la Lynch, which I’ve always adored.” David Lynch took the photos showcased in this series: “For Lynch, photography is very much like painting. He uses light like brushstrokes.”
The shoes exhibited here evoked different forms of fetishistic attachment, like the points that prevent the shoe from being worn. With this partnership, Christian Louboutin and David Lynch transformed the shoe into an unusable object with artistic value, turning it into an objet d’art.
The last section of the exhibition consisted of a “Pop Corridor”, a passageway between two worlds. Here were gathered portraits of music and film celebrities, friends of the Maison, and pop culture icons like Naomi, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, stars of Bollywood and Hollywood, basketball stars like the late Kobe Bryant; each photo tells a story or relates a moment based around a shoe, with anecdotes from the media world and even Mattel’s Barbie doll wearing Louboutin boots!
The corridor included magazine covers and extracts from film and music videos, reminding the audience of how much Louboutin’s work has inspired the creative talents of our time.
The Christian Louboutin retrospective was one of the most amazing experiences in my life and I am incredibly grateful for the chance to witness in person the showcasing of his creative genius (it was even bigger than what I have described, I have skipped writing about a couple of exhibition spaces because the article is so long already!). I have always been a fan of his work and I enjoy going to fashion exhibitions and events in general (I was a member of the V&A in London when I was living in the city). This Monaco exhibition closed on August 28 but there is rumored to be a Chapter III in China, so I hope you’ll get to see it if you are interested in fashion!
Thank you to Grimaldi Forum for the wonderful experience and for providing full explanations with your captions during the retrospective.
Louboutin’s quotes were taken from Christian Louboutin’s interview with Eric Reinhardt in the fashion volume “Christian Louboutin”, Rizzoli, 2011.
My look: Pier One for Zalando sandals, Zara shorts, Zara shirt, Chanel bag and Miu Miu sunglasses.
All pictures are my own.
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