WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – MARK LUSCOMBE-WHYTE
The attics and hidden store rooms of Christian Louboutin's country chateau are stacked with shoe boxes. The teetering stacks form a priceless archive of fourteen years or more of design, creating pumps, sandals and simmering stilettos for the likes of Nicole Kidman, Gywneth Paltrow and Louboutin's muse, Daphne Guinness. Many of these designs were also conceived at his secluded country escape in the Vendée, surrounded by woodland and tumbling greenery.
"I can only work in places that I really know," says Louboutin, who launched his own label – based in Paris – in 1992. "I don't understand people who say, "this season I'm going to design my collection in Venezuela" or wherever. I would want to see the place, to see nature, the monuments. That's why it's important for me to be in a place that I know, a place that is friendly and familiar. It requires a lot of concentration to draw and design a collection."
For the summer collections, designed over the winter, Louboutin usually heads to his other escape – a house that he built some years ago overlooking the Nile. But for the winter collections, Louboutin usually takes himself and an assistant off to the Vendée and immerses himself in his work, gradually building up after a few days into a regular rhythm of sketching.
"It is a beautiful place to work," says Louboutin. "The feeling is very special – you know where you are. And that's important to me, especially when you are designing things that are supposedly giving pleasure to people. You can not expect to do that in a hostile environment."
Louboutin bought the house with his business partner, Bruno Chambelland, in 1988. Parts of the house are 15th century, and were used by the Knight Templars, although the house as it stands owes much to its reinvention in the 18th century. It once belonged to Chambelland's ancestors and his father had once tried to buy the chateau but had failed. It fell to Bruno Chambelland and Louboutin to buy the house together and begin restoring the house for another age.
"I have known Bruno for a very long time now and we have worked on many projects together," Louboutin says. "I have two business partners who are my oldest friends and I always have partners in crime. I didn't know this area at all – my family are originally from Brittany – so for me it was an accident, just like everything. It's always by accident...."
The house and garden had been much neglected in the early decades of the twentieth century, its parkland used for grazing and the house divided. There was still much restoration work to be done when Louboutin and Chambelland arrived at the house. Structurally the house was in good shape, a generous L-shaped chateau, with large rooms of classical proportion and high ceilings. The grand salon and music room, either side of the dramatic entrance hallway with its sweeping spiral staircase, are bathed in light from windows to both sides and overlook the gardens front and back.
The parquet floors, the fireplaces and wooden panelling were mostly in tact but it proved a large house to decorate and furnish. Louboutin and Chambelland bought much of the furniture at auction from the Salle Drouot in Paris, choosing pieces to complement the period and character of the house, while adding contemporary touches, pieces from Egypt and flea market discoveries.
From Egypt, Louboutin brought back much of the bed linen for the house and a collection of figurines that sit on a French console table in the hallway – actually contemporary pieces by a Czech artist working in North Africa. There is a collection of Victorian curios in the main bathroom: painted vistas and vignettes on oval timber palettes originally sold like postcards and once a common sight in Parisian flea markets.
With a penchant for vibrant, warming colours, Louboutin often retreats from the large formal room downstairs to the Chinese inspired sitting room upstairs, where the walls are painted a vivid bull's blood red with chinoiserie panels hanging upon them. Leather club chairs from the 1950s make this a more relaxed, informal space, although Louboutin insists the fireplace – not an original and out of scale – will have to go. The walls of Louboutin's own bedroom are lined with framed excerpts from a French herborium, assembled during the First World War.
But for Louboutin, the biggest challenge was really the garden, while Chambelland was more instrumental in bringing the interiors together and assembling the auction house discoveries. For a time, in the early 1990s, Louboutin stepped back from shoe design and worked as a landscape gardener with projects in Paris, Brittany and beyond. He had been drawn to design from an early age and even at school was telling his teachers that it would be his profession, although with tongue in cheek.
"I was quite mature for my age, even when I was 12 years old, growing up in Paris,'" he says. "I was conscious of how annoying it was that people would ask you at school about what you are going to do when you grow up. You really don't need to know at 12 what you are going to do for the rest of your life but I thought I would say that I would like to design shoes, after seeing some sketches in a museum. I didn't think it was a real job and that if I said it then people would give me a job, but of course it really happened."
Even as a teenager he was influenced by music hall and city night life, fascinated by the style of the performers at the great Parisian night clubs, where the sirens might be wearing little else but their dancing shoes. He worked for Charles Jourdan and Roger Vivier, yet after collaborating on a major retrospective of Vivier's work, Louboutin felt overwhelmed by the breadth of design and imagination that he had seen. He stepped back, into the garden.
"But at the end of 1991, I was buying a piece of furniture in a gallery in Paris near the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau," says Louboutin. "They asked me what was happening with the shoes and I said I wasn't doing it anymore because I didn't want to work for anybody. They said why not work for yourself and told me about an empty shop on the street. I went to see it, took the store, which I still have, next to my office, and started with an empty box."
Now, of course, Louboutin is France's most feted shoe designer, with stores around the world, including London, where a second shop opens next summer. There are plans for a third store in the States and a new one in Moscow, as well as a new atelier near the existing shop at Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau which will be for bespoke, made to measure shoes and special commissions. He also added a line of handbags and is co-writing a film script. And along the way he has collaborated with a who's who list of fashion designers, including Yves Saint Laurent, Roland Mouret, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Viktor & Rolf and more.
But the gardens still offer him another world, or at least his garden in the Vendée. The gardens were originally planted in the 1850s, but had been long neglected and overgrown. Yet looking at the trees and the outline of the park, he began to uncover and restore some of the original pattern of the garden.
"The trees gave the garden some direction and at one point I thought, with the way the trees were distributed, that it would be nice to create some steps running up a bank. We started to get rid of some shrubs and found that there were already some steps there, hidden underneath. So clearly there was a design strong enough so that you could find the bone structure. What is interesting for me with gardens is when people put themselves into their design and here I was having observations that totally corresponded to those of someone 150 years before."
House and garden are a source of relaxation and escapism, as well as a setting for some serious work. It is not usually a place for great gatherings – Louboutin suggests he is not a slave to formality or a great host – but a place for close friends and the inner circle. Despite the apparent grandeur the house is, he says, very relaxed.
"We had just one big weekend here. I wanted to plant a maze and for that you need a lot of people. So we had a maze weekend with 7,000 holes to be dug. So a bunch of friends dug the holes and that explains why the maze will never be straight."
Christian Louboutin – 23 Motcomb Street, London, SW1 – 020 7245 6510.