1. HEEL THYSELF

    Toe cleavage and lordosis. A shoe for every fantasy.

    WORDS EILEEN B. RIVERA PHOTOS Chippy RIVERA

    The world’s affection for footwear is no secret. Given that the average person walks between three to four thousand kilometers in a lifetime, it makes sense that shoes have been studied, documented and fetishized. Shoes are so significant that a recent study showed that people can accurately judge 90% of a stranger’s personality simply by looking at what they have on their feet.

    As much as they serve humankind a practical purpose, shoes have also become an all-consuming obsession for women. Ladies step into skyscraper-high, anorexically thin heels and endure pinching pain for that fleeting moment of pure pleasure derived from slipping into gorgeous shoes. Gorgeous shoes that are inspired, intricate, and almost impossible to wear.

    Christian the magician

    I am what they call “shoebsessed.” In my opinion, shoes make the outfit—they are the outfit—and everything else is gravy. I am an indiscriminate lover; every shoe stirs primal emotions in me quite the same way Impressionist paintings give me visual orgasms. But as much as I appreciate the beauty in (almost) every shoe—and names such as Manolo Blahnik, Roger Vivier and Nicholas Kirkwood are music to my ears—nothing can make me clammier, more light-headed than the sight of red soles. 

    “Designing shoes is magician’s work,” Christian Louboutin once mentioned. And indeed he is right. Shoes do possess magical properties. They can instantly elevate moods, make us feel sporty, sexy, and—even if we hate to admit it—just a teeny bit dirty. And that’s the beauty of Louboutin. He has a shoe for every fantasy, even the filthiest ones. He cloaks these dreams in such elegance that women do not feel the need to hide them in the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds. His shoes allow women to express their sexuality in an artistic, although sometimes subconscious, manner.

    If a single pair of red-soled wonders induces palpitations, then a roomful of bejewelled pumps, studded sneakers, stilettos, and lace-up boots may just cause a heart attack. Christian Louboutin, a multidimensional exhibition celebrating the 20-year career of the iconic French shoe designer, did just that.

    On view in Toronto’s Design Exchange, the exhibition’s first stop outside London’s Design Museum where it opened last year, Christian Louboutin showcases over 250 pairs of feet jewelry. The collection is installed in the art-deco gallery with shoes grouped into different themes: “Travel,” “Boots,” “Transparency,” “The Showgirl,” “Entertainment,” “The Handcrafted,” “Architecture,” and “Fetish.” There’s also “The Atelier,” “5 Stages of Shoe Construction,” “Life and Times Theatre,” “Biography Room,” and “The Shadow Theatre,” which, taken together, detail the life of the man and the history of the brand.

    Upon entering the hall, you are greeted by a whimsical, brightly lit fairground carousel, the panels of which feature the designer’s travel photographs. Instead of the usual horses, velvet-covered swings hang from its canopy; and instead of children, shoes inspired by Louboutin’s travels sit pretty on the swings’ platforms. By standing still, the observer is toured around the world by the revolving merry-go-round. Each swing represents a different part of the globe, from Bali to Shanghai, Mexico to Africa, with footwear demonstrating different artistic techniques as well as avant-garde materials. Truly, in Louboutin’s world, you don’t take your shoes traveling. They take you.

    The foot as object of desire

    During his early years, Louboutin concentrated on creating dressy shoes that almost completely covered the foot. During the second half of his career he turned his attention to sexier endeavors, creating footwear “that preserves and accentuates nudity, leaving the foot as the object of desire.” This is the concept behind “Transparency,” where shoes that use veiling, chiffon, mesh and ribbons are featured on panels of mirrors lined with white incandescent bulbs à la theater dressing room. 

    Some shoes in this collection are minimal in their design, with bare lines that make the shoe look like an extension of the leg. It is here that he truly showcases the versatility of his work as several different and sometimes contrasting designs reach the exact same goal: seduction. It may be via an edgy number like the black and silver peep-toe mesh and snakeskin stilettos with asymmetrical spikes that really are the shoefication of a sexy young Cruella De Vil, or a virginal-looking number with white flowers and silver-glittered heel. It can also have “a low throat,” as with the case of Spring/Summer 2011’s Très Décoletté, which Louboutin was told “showed too much of the foot.” He later realized it was because the root of the toes, or what he calls “toe cleavage,” was left exposed. This image unconsciously suggests other deep creases like the line of the buttocks or even breasts. It is also in “Transparency” that he shows off Spring/Summer 2002’s Défilé Yves Saint Laurent, a tribute to the iconic fashion house’s last couture show in Paris.

    Central to the exhibit is “The Showgirl,” a testament to the French designer’s love of Parisian night life and theater. The display, as the exhibition notes state, is “an abstracted form of Louboutin’s iconic shoe, the Pigalle, upturned to show a Louboutin red high gloss surface with black sides running the length of the gallery.” On the heel end, a hologram of burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese seduces the crowd from a stage, while benches line the opposite end of the shoe. In between, footwork inspired by the theme are displayed, with gold shell-encased footlights illuminating each artwork.

    To understand this collection is to delve into Louboutin’s life growing up in the streets of Paris. His first inspiration for drawing shoes came from a sign from Africa forbidding women wearing sharp stilettos from entering a building for fear of damaging the wooden floors. The image stuck and he kept drawing the shoe form over and over again. “I wanted to defy that,” he later said, “I wanted to create something that broke rules and made women feel confident and empowered.”

    Just before meeting Hélène de Mortemart and working for Charles Jourdan, master Roger Vivier (the supposed inventor of the stiletto) and fashion houses such as Chanel and YSL, a teenage Louboutin apprenticed in the Folies-Bergère. It was in the famed Parisian music hall’s dressing rooms that his fascination for high heels and for creating the illusion of length grew. He was surrounded by women who were confident and empowered, sexy, glamorous and very feminine. The showgirls, in their elaborate, feathery, glittery costumes and impossibly high heels served as the designer’s muses, with footwear as his medium. 

    As such, “The Showgirl” is not just another theme in his vast collection of work; it symbolizes his beginnings, his idealism and his fascination with what the world had to offer. This is very apparent, too, with his use of materials, color choices, and design approach. Lady Page, made of satin, flowered lace and velvet ornament, has no straight lines. The shoe, inspired by “personification of curves” and 1950s pin-up model Betty Page, “clearly evokes femininity” according to Louboutin. Anemone (Autumn/Winter 2008-2009) is a variety showgirl-turned-footwear with a bare shoe and a burst of ribbon and feathers on her tail. And then there’s 1 Bis, perhaps one of the more challenging shoes to walk in with barely anything to hold your feet in place. “In so far as there exist shoes for every moment of life,” the designer explains, “I think there should also exist shoes for bed, shoes whose primary function is not walking but the sexual charge they contain. As everyone knows, footwear can be highly erotic.”

    Vertiginous heels and sex

    “Most people see shoes as an accessory to walk in, however some shoes are made for running and some shoes are made for sex.”—Christian Louboutin

    Just exactly how sensual footwear can be is displayed in “Fetish.” A collaboration between Louboutin and filmmaker David Lynch for an exhibition in Paris in 2007, it is the only part of the exhibition where cameras are forbidden. The entrance, a large-scale graphic of a showgirl’s legs, leads into a dark labyrinth, where shoes are set on plinths and displayed inside bell jars. Images of nude women in compromising, highly provocative positions wearing the different shoes adorn the walls of the narrow room. The term “pleasure with pain” is elevated to new heights as the footwear, together with the photos, provide vivid images that dip into the realm of sadomasochism. 

    The highly seductive twin and erotic realization of the designer’s quip “isn’t the pointe the ultimate high heel?” makes an appearance through Fetish Ballerine, a vertically positioned black patent leather ballet shoe kept upright by an eight-inch stiletto heel that runs the length of the shoe. There’s also Fetish Barbarella, patent leather and chicken wire stiletto boots; and Siamoise, unequivocally the hardest pair of shoes to walk in, given that they are connected with only one heel and the toes of each shoe point in opposite directions. 

    Louboutin has always seen the connection between vertiginous heels and sex, and he is quite smart to do so. Like most animals, people associate height with power. A woman can raise her status by simply and quite literally raising herself. Furthermore, wearing stilettos forces a woman to assume a primal mating pose called lordosis, wherein the butt lifts and the back arches. Aside from the fact that feet have a lot of nerve endings and are thus more sensitive, the part of the brain that communicates with our nether regions is right next to the area that deals with the feet. If wrong numbers and party lines can happen in telephone networks, so can they in one’s head.

    And then there’s the color red. Dangerous, passionate, beautiful, fiery, sexually vibrant, suggestive red. The lacquered scarlet sole has made his creations so easily recognizable that when YSL came out with a red-soled shoe, the Parisian designer was quick to sue the fashion house (the case was later dismissed). 

    But the hood of Little Christian wasn’t always red. It is thanks to Pensée (1993-1994) that women (and men) around the world now enjoy the benefits of a red-soled shoe. Louboutin was so unsatisfied with how one of his designs turned out, even if it couldn’t have been any closer to his original sketches, that he grabbed his assistant’s nail polish and used it to paint the shoe’s sole. Add to that the fact that his first customer ever when he set up shop in Paris was Princess Caroline of Monaco, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    It is very difficult to pinpoint the root of our lust for Louboutin’s works of art. It is definitely not because of comfort, as the man himself once said “if you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them” when asked about women who struggle in his stilettos. It can’t be because of practicality, either. 

    On second thought, it is precisely this impracticality that makes Louboutin’s creations so desirable. Wearing strappy stiletto sandals in the middle of winter means your feet are always in the comfort of heating and away from slippery sidewalks. Scraping thousand-dollar lacquered soles on wooden floors means you can replace them. 

    Or maybe we love Louboutins because we feel so damn sexy in them, even if Monsieur Louboutin admits that he creates shoes for the pleasure of men, not women. “Several of my clients have told me that they have never had so many pick-up offers as they’d had since they started wearing shoes with red soles,” Louboutin claims. And I believe him. Bulls, after all, come charging at the sight of red. 

    INCIDENTAL INTELLIGENCE

    Christian Louboutin: An Exhibition Celebrating 20 Years of Design, Artistry and Magic is on view at the Design Exchange in Toronto until Sept. 15. For more information, visit www.dx.org

    While in Canada, the “shoebsessed” must also visit The Bata Shoe Museum at 327 Bloor St. West, downtown Toronto. Footwear on display ranges from Chinese bound foot shoes and ancient Egyptian sandals to chestnut-crushing clogs and glamorous platforms. Over 4,500 years of history and a collection of 20th-century celebrity shoes are reflected in the semi-permanent exhibition, All About Shoes. www.batashoemuseum.ca.