10 Highlights from Palais de la Porte Dorée’s Christian Louboutin Exhibition in Paris

Christian Louboutin: L’Exhibition[nist], an extensive survey of iconic shoe designer Christian Louboutin’s vivid career, opened February 26 in Paris at the Palais de la Porte Dorée museum in the 12th arrondissement, where the designer was born and raised. “During my teenage years, my visits to this museum were a portal to an imaginary universe,” Louboutin told Interior Design, sitting at the entrance of his show, which starts with a wall-covering grid of high heel molds in bold red—a homage to the legendary red soles he debuted in 1992.

Organized by Musée des Arts Décoratifs director Olivier Gabet, the exhibition occupies the Art Deco-style building, inaugurated during the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931 and later remodeled as The National Museum of Immigration History. The desire to make high heels, in fact, found Louboutin through a sign urging women not to wear them to the museum in an effort to preserve the wooden floors. The shoe design used in the sign permeated Louboutin’s vision as a teenager, prompting him to experiment with sketching, and a replica now greets visitors in the exhibition, which breaks down various stages in the designer’s luminous career through displays of shoes, sketches, and archival ephemera. 

Louboutin's sketch of the sign that inspired him as a teenager. Image courtesy of Christian Louboutin.

Accompanying Louboutin’s own work is a series of artworks commissioned by the designer. Immersive elements of the show include a cabaret set sculpted in Bhutan, a darkened hallway exhibiting the designer’s non-wearable pieces alongside photographs of such taken by David Lynch, a tunnel documenting long-term collaborations with global stars through photographs and media footage, and a living room covered with wallpaper inspired by erotic photographs of the late French artist Pierre Molinier. 

Interior Design explores 10 highlights from the exhibition, which remains on view through July 26. 

Maquereau, 1987

Photography courtesy of Christian Louboutin.

The influence of the Palais de la Porte Dorée museum on Louboutin’s design starts with his very first creation from 1987. Maquereau (meaning mackerel) stems from the designer’s fasciation for Dorée’s basement aquarium, where otherworldly shapes, intricate patterns, and bright colors stemming from 750 species across the world provided the young designer with aesthetic possibilities that stretched beyond his native Parisian streets. Louboutin’s shoe by the same name is a direct interpretation of the fish, featuring vertical stripes applied across an open-back design with a forked tail emerging from its pointed front. Humorous and daring for a debut, the piece, which he made with limited production means as an unknown shoemaker, hints at the boundary-pushing experimentation that would span his oeuvre.      

Love, 1992

Photography courtesy of Jean-Vincent Simonet.

Presented as part of the designer’s 1992 autumn and fall collection, the Love shoe pays homage to Lady Diana’s storied visit to the Taj Mahal in India that same year. In a tabloid photograph of the princess standing in front of the Taj Mahal, a woman nearby looks longingly at her feet. This image, which captured Louboutin's imagination, prompted him to sketch a love note in his own way—by designing a shoe. The four letters in the word ‘love’ appear in gentle, loose handwriting in red leather on a pair of black suede square-toe shoes. The design, which combines Louboutin’s two signature colors with his literal interpretation of sensuality, also was remodeled and upgraded in a 2018 collection for flats, boots, sneakers, and handbags.

Pensée, 1992

Photography courtesy of Jean-Vincent Simonet.

Early in his career in the 1950s, Andy Warhol worked as an illustrator for a shoe company and in the ‘80s, during the height of his career, he revisited the design of unabashedly flamboyant shoes for a series of elegant drawings. Louboutin’s admiration of Warhol—particularly his expansive look at notions of glamour, desire, and fame—directly impacted the Pensée series of shoes in the designer’s 1992 autumn and fall collection. Glowing in dramatic tones of green, pink, blue, and yellow the pointed-toe shoes don medium-length curved heels with splashes of red paint on their soles, preceding the designer’s signature red soles. A matching three-leaf flower is affixed onto each shoe’s front strap, giving a romantic accent to the design.

Stained glass panels, 2020

Photography courtesy of Christian Louboutin.

The exhibition’s theatrical design, reflects the aesthetic notes of his creative vision—bold red is a dominant color throughout, as is the placement of influential art works. The first room, dedicated to Louboutin’s early designs, spotlights his flirtation with visual art with eight stained-glass works on display. Reminiscent of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s window panels depicting the four seasons, each stained-glass piece—created specifically for the exhibition—features an iconic shoe placed amidst embodiments of ideas instrumental to its design. For example, a Venetian mask, lush velvet couch, bouquet of roses, and a hookah surround a high heeled ballet shoe in Ballerina Ultima.   

Installation by Imran Qureshi, 2020

Photography courtesy of Marc Domage.

Artist Imran Qureshi is perhaps as closely linked to the color red as Louboutin. In celebration of the long-term friendship and creative exchange between the two, the designer invited the Pakistani artist to create a site-specific response to the exhibition, which includes artworks by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana and Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. Qureshi is globally known for his miniatures, which reflect cultural elements from the Mughal era, as well as his arresting large-scale installations of red paint that connect themes of socio-political unrest and the human condition through the color’s alarming nature. Here, the artist stages a vague narrative with his site-specific work, using splashes of red paint to create abstract patterns on the walls and floor adorned by a pair of gold high heeled shoes.

Installation by Whitaker Malem, 2020

Photography courtesy of Marc Domage.

Marking a departure from Louboutin’s use of bold red, his Nudes series reflects the many shades of human skin. Louboutin, who grew up in France unaware of the origin of his dark complexion, created the series before learning that his father was an Egyptian immigrant. The Nudes series serves as an inclusive alternative to other types of 'nude' shoes, offering a wide color palette that accommodates various skin tones, each finished with the designer’s signature red soles. Accompanying a similar breadth of colors from the series in the exhibition is a mannequin installation by British designer duo Whitaker Malem, who created leather-clad figures on glass pedestals, each donning a pair of nudes.

Akhnaten, 2019

The most recent example of Louboutin’s reflections on his Egyptian heritage is a piece he delivered for the Metropolitan Opera’s wildly popular staging of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in 2019. Designed as a mixed-media sculpture, the work combines elements from ancient Egypt, such as a gold leaf sun symbol emerging from the top end of the red leather boot, with his flamboyant use of traditional footwear design, including a trio of bows, each finished with real beetles. A white human-like, yet abstract form rises through the boot, echoing the opera’s titular character fittingly embodied in the production as a tall and slender figure. The work was on view at the opera house’s Parterre level for the run of the show.

Siamoise, 2007

Photography courtesy of Christian Louboutin.

A result of Louboutin’s urge to push shoe design into the realm of fine art, he began envisioning shoes not meant for walking, but to be enjoyed as works of art and objects of desire. “I realized I was thinking in a Lynch’ian way,” he says, referring to his friend, American film director David Lynch. “When I think of Lynch, I see certain colors, sets, and movements.” The result is a series of photographs Lynch took through his uncanny and mysterious lens, showing nude models wearing or posing next to a Louboutin shoe, custom-designed as a sculptural piece, rather than footwear. Siamoise is comprised of two pumps conjoined at the backs, requiring the wearer to pose in an over-extended ballet first position. In the photograph, a nude dancer stands in a darkened room wearing the attached pair. Viewers may note Lynch’s hand holding the dancer, whose posture was challenged by the unusual design of the shoes. 

The King by Janine Janet, 1959

Photography courtesy of Janine Janet.

“I look at art and objects in the same wayby that I mean art with capital A,” says Louboutin speaking to his refusal to establish a hierarchy between art and craft. “Janine Janet was never considered, including by herself, a serious artist because she was ‘doing things,’” adds the designer, who included a large bust Janet created for Balenciaga’s window in 1959. She was also the customer designer of many Jean Cocteau films. In a museum context, the bust—carved in wood and embellished with metal pieces around the torso with nails across his head—challenges its own status as a widow dresser, according to the designer. The intricacy of the metal work elevates the subject’s noble status with an elaborate shield and a crown atop his head.

Marquesa bench by Oscar Niemeyer, 1974

Photography courtesy of Christian Louboutin.

Curves have always been a fascination for Louboutin, whose approach to shoe design combines elements not only from utilitarian footwear, but also from architecture, sculpture, and performance. In search of inspiration for mastery in creating exquisite curves, he looks no further than Brazilian furniture designer Oscar Niemeyer’s black lacquered wood bench: Marquesa, from 1974. Admitting bad curves hurt his eyes, Louboutin admires Niemeyer’s precision in creating smooth and symmetric curves—materializing his initial drawing in the chaise lounge. Heavily invested in achieving delicate contours in his fine-tuned heels, the shoe designer draws inspiration from the furniture designer’s mastery of craft, albeit in a different scale and material. 

Read next: Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party Headquarters Brings a Sensual Brazilian Lilt to Paris

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