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Christian Louboutin, the exhibitionist: the exhibition of a dream.

shoes with heel in exhibition
shoes with heel in exhibition

Written by
Maxime Laprade
Published date
01 November 2020

Maxime Laprade is an Alumnus of MA Fashion Curation now working as a freelance Museum Professional working in digital engagement.  Here, he reviews Christian Louboutin the exhibitionist at Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris.

I was excited. Shoes in general and Christian Louboutin in particular are the reasons I fell in love with fashion. The shoe gives the body posture, the attitude. The right shoe makes an outfit; the wrong shoe destroys a look. It is the fashion item of oppositions: a shoe is full of constraints and at the same time a symbol of freedom. A high heel gives power to its wearer while restraining them and hurting them long-term.

A shoe is an obsession for so many of us. Christian Louboutin shares the same obsession and made it his work. He is known by many: the red sole and the very high heel being his trademarks. I discovered him early in my life. As I mentioned, he made me fall in love with fashion. I adored the Pigalle, his most iconic design, and in my teenage years worshipped the little store on rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. Going to this exhibition, I felt like an excited teenager.

On a beautiful fresh morning of October, I headed, impatient, to the Palais de la Porte Dorée in east Paris to see The Exhibitionist. As we learn in the first room of the exhibition, the show is being hosted at the Palais because the shoe designer visited it during his childhood – he lived nearby – and was surprised by the sign at the entrance indicating “no heels” (so as to preserve the decorated floors). A drop of dream and the start of everything.

My visit was a journey. Different feelings, different concepts, different approaches. Many interesting elements combined, both in terms of exhibition-making practices and in terms of museum experience. I am going to try to take you on the same journey. This approach is parallel to the one used by curator, Olivier Gabet, director of MAD, who builds exhibition with different themes to create a journey for the visitor. I am going to try here to give you the same nonlinear experience. Moreover, I will not discuss the academic research and content of the Louboutin exhibition, not being an expert on the subject.

Dreamy shoes: symbols of a creative mind

As we would expect, they are everywhere. Shoes, shoes, shoes. Christian Louboutin has a style. He is a genius in that way: his designs are all unique but all from the same creative mind and I witness it here! I notice it in the first three rooms of the exhibition, which present the first collections of the designer, the iconic designs of his career and an installation about the construction of a shoe.

shoes son display

Guinness, Spring-Summer 1994

shoes on display

Love, 1992

The first collections are very simply displayed. We are literally presented with Christian’s style. They show the incredible creativity he already possessed when he opened his first salon in 1991 at the age of 27. The heel of the Guinness shoe is bold. The Pensée, inspired by the flowers of Andy Warhol is exquisite – it brought the idea of producing the same design in different colours. I am obsessed with the LOVE shoe (the word “LOVE” appearing across the front of the pair): it is original and innovative, while being so acceptable for society (it looks quite simple and classic). This is, in my opinion, why Christian is a genius: he moves forward, tries new things, without ever crossing the line of bad taste, ever. The shoes are glorified, as expected, and it is a pure pleasure to look at them.

I then enter a glamorous room where I admire the highlights: the iconic designs. For a shoe lover like myself, it is a dream. I am in a 3D page of a magazine, within the photoshoot, surrounded by incredible designs. It is too much but it is awesome! For the exhibition-maker that I also am, I see it as an effective and affective way of introducing the genius of Louboutin while creating a “Wow” factor. In the blink of an eye, I get it: he is incredibly creative, his talents and vision deserve an exhibition.

shoe on display

Mondriana, fall winter 2007

This first journey ends with a third room, which presents the importance of the shoe curvature, guardian of the extension of the leg and of the body posture. With a kinetic installation playing with shadows, I understand that the curvature is always the same, whatever the size of the shoe. It addresses biomechanics and ergonomic impacts of shoes on the physical body and mentions the mathematics of shoe construction. Contemporary and fun.

shoes on display

Curvature installation

Unique artists celebrating a unique career

Christian Louboutin, who is the exhibition’s Artistic Director, commissioned several artists to create pieces especially for the exhibition. This approach adds value – more than historical designs, we are seeing original creations as part of the experience.

Emmanuelle Andrieux from la Maison du Vitrail produced eight phenomenal stained glass pieces imagined by Christian Louboutin himself and representing the recurrent themes in his work: the Parisian woman, Performance, Sexuality, Couture, Art, Travel, Innovation and Arts and Crafts. The shoe becomes an icon and an art object.

stained glass

Stained glass

Whitaker and Malem created the leather sculptures moulded from a woman’s body: they symbolize the importance of the relationship between the shoe itself and the body. Dita Von Teese and Iya Traoré remind us of the role of the shoe in creating movement and a presence. In a room staged like a Bhutanese theatre, where we can admire shoes made for or inspired by stage performers, they both perform on a screen for our pleasure. From Josephine Baker-inspired models to a pair exclusively made for Michael Jackson’s This is it Tour which never eventuated, Louboutin has always been connected to the world of spectacle. To conclude this series of original pieces, Lisa Reihana, with A Reverie, takes us on a video journey where we meet the objects of the personal collection of M. Louboutin and wonder around his favourite places, to evoke the important moments of his life and career.

mannequins with just shoes on

Whitaker and Malem leather sculptures

The Louboutin Family

Christian Louboutin is one of the most famous shoe designers in fashion history, alongside talents such as Roger Vivier and Pierre Hardy. This is mentioned in the “pop corridor”, an actual corridor with a mix of media presenting the Louboutin “family” of admirers and wearers of his designs: singers, movie stars, models, and fashion designers. On the walls I see photos, visuals, videos, letters, social media posts… of or from diverse personalities Louboutin has worked with and created for. The red reminds us of his style crossing the barriers of show business, and the mirrors reflect the reach of his talent. His style has definitely no limit.

photos on display

The Pop Corridor

Did you say kinky?

When I think about a Louboutin shoe, there is always a hint of seduction, of eroticism, of sexual tension – at least for me! For him, not so much. With his studs, he invokes medieval crowns. With his unreal designs, he flirts with the idea of fetishism. With his evocative shapes, he quotes the images of photographer Pierre Molinier whose work inspired the wallpaper of a room of the exhibition decorated in a vintage English style. In this room are displayed “kinky” models: leather, latex, high thin heels, studs, holes, lace…. The contrast works: I feel like in a brothel, from a different era, without anything to be shocked about: there is nothing to see but everything suggests it – sex. The designs include some of my favorite designs: Guerilla from the 2013 Spring-Summer collection, leather boots covered with studs, and Vampeerelah from the 2014 fall-winter collection, a dreamy combination of fishnet and rope.

gothic style shoes

Vampeerelah, Fall Winter 2014

The kinky returns at the end of the exhibition with a space dedicated to his collaboration with David Lynch. The photographs of naked women wearing impossible-to-wear shoes co-habit with the designs of the shoes themselves made especially for display, not to walk in. The photographs are stunning and the designs creatively astonishing. This series is an ode to fetishism, closing the show with a clarity of intent: from the everyday model to the impossible dream, shoe design is an art form in the hands of Christian Louboutin, of which he is the master.

The invitation to the club

There are two spaces that are not, in my opinion, contributing to the dreamy experience I experienced and described in this review. The first one introduces interesting content but shows us the practicalities of Louboutin’s work: we step out of the dream for a second. It is a space dedicated to the technicalities of making a shoe. Videos explain the different steps from initial drawings to placing a pair in the box. The second space is at the end of the exhibition and is called the Imaginary Museum. Louboutin comments on museum objects and art pieces, which have inspired him throughout his career: from paintings, sculptures, fashion objects, photographs, queer art, Bhutanese crowns, ceramics, and jewels. But I was not interested. It felt like a space that was requested by the Palais. something of an agreement to display work from the Museum’s collection. There was no particular staging; I was back in a traditional museum space. It was an odd feeling after such a series of dreamy spaces. However, it showed me one thing: Christian is an eclectic character. He is interested in diverse topics. This offers me important insights into this exhibition. I can’t quite grasp him, which is why I love his work so much. Beautiful, creative, innovative, unique, stylish, his designs are also mysterious. Wearing a Louboutin is becoming someone, being part of a private club, the club of the red sole. With this exhibition, Louboutin invites me, for a moment, to be part of the club: he shows the way, and I gladly follow him.

While being self-promotion, the exhibition is surprisingly humble. Christian introduces himself to us – himself, the man – while offering us the capacity to dream. The Exhibitionist is an intimate ode to his talent. I entered impatient. I left complete. I had become a member.

Chiristian Louboutin,The Exhibitionist, Palais de la Porte, Paris. Temporarily closed.