Many would view his childhood as anything but normal. Not too many kids get expelled from school three times – before they reach age twelve – and most don’t leave home at the age of 12 1/2. For Christian, however, his youth was both normal and natural. Born in Paris, France in 1963 – his father was a cabinet maker while his mother, a home-maker, eventually took a job as a maid.
Christian grew up in a feminine environment – being raised by his mother and three sisters. His father, who was mostly absent, did teach him that, when working with wood, to go with the grain – follow the lines. This was a lesson which the boy would take both literally and figuratively. He loved to draw – often sketching rather than paying attention in school. One day he visited the Museum of African Art and saw a sign featuring a woman’s heeled shoe inside of a red circle with a slash through it. The intent was to protect the wooden floors in the museum, but the vintage 1950’s sign had a different impact on Christian. The lines of the shoe fascinated him and he began sketching shoes.
In the years after leaving home he discovered the exotic, sensual life of Paris with its nightclubs and music halls. He would frequent the numerous theaters, sneaking in after the intermissions to experience the live stage shows. He began to design shoes which he envisioned being worn by the dancers. At seventeen he got an apprentice position at Folies Bergeres – one of the best known cabarets in Paris. That led to apprenticeships with designers Charles Jourdan and Roger Vivier. He then free-lanced for Chanel, Yves St. Laurent and Maud Frizon.
He became disenchanted with the design business and turned to another love – landscaping design. After two years he was advised by a man from whom he was attempting to purchase a lamp. He challenged Christian to follow his passion and pointed out that a small retail space was available just around the corner. Two days later, at dinner, he and two friends agreed to start a shoe design business in that corner store front. It was 1991 – Christian was 27.
An American fashion writer searching for up and coming designers found him, his store and his shoes. She wrote an exceptionally favorable review and business was immediately brisk. Two years later, he was assessing a mockup of one of his designs. It was a shoe with vivid colors – inspired by the pop culture of the day. The shoes were made exactly to his specifications but something was missing – suddenly he plain black soles leapt out at him as the culprit. It was then that he noticed a model painting her nails. He took the polish and covered the soles with the bright red enamel – it was the answer.
He decided then to select a different color sole for each year’s new designs, but the red sole caught on. The feminine environment of his youth, the need to follow the lines and his belief that shoes set the posture of a woman – both physically and attitudinally – all combined to inspire and influence his designs. Beliefs such as “no high heel is high enough” and “I don’t hate the idea of comfort – I just don’t think it’s important to me as a designer” one would think that his shoes would be shunned by the majority of women.
Instead, Christian sells over 700,000 pairs of shoes a year with annual revenue in the neighborhood of $300 million. He has stores in over 40 countries, has added handbags and evening bags and has even added a line of men’s shoes. Prices for his signature red soled shoes range from $675 to over $8,000 a pair. It’s not these results that define the brand. Louboutin shoes are so successful and sought after because they were created to be a fearless brand.
Fearless Brands are built from passion and conviction
Christian Louboutin designs his shoes with the intent to make a woman feel beautiful and sexy while making her legs look as long as possible. He fends off accusations of being anti-feminism by pointing out that Madonna, who wears Louboutin, has done more for feminism that those ‘grumpy feminists’ – that the suggestion that a woman shouldn’t wear his shoes, is itself an anti-feminist attitude, as it implies a woman cannot make her own fashion choices.
Early on, the shoes were worn by high-profile, successful women including Princess Caroline of Monaco, Diane von Furstenberg and Catherine Deneuve. Today they are worn by rich and famous trend setters including Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj and Jenifer Lopez. It is said that his single biggest fan – and customer – is Danielle Steele who is estimated to have over 6,000 pair of Louboutins.
Louboutin expanded his business to include men’s styles because of the actions of one finicky woman. He had custom made a pair of his shoes for a woman who wore a size 13 1/2. When she rejected them, Louboutin gave them to a friend of his. She in turn gave them to her husband who loved them. His men’s line now offers one of the most unique design elements in all of fashion. Men can have their tattoos digitally photographed in a Louboutin store. The image, if approved by Christian, is designed in to a pair of shoes, creating the most individualized shoe a man can buy.
What a man. What a shoe. What a brand – and so many powerful lessons in fearless branding:
Follow your heart – embrace your passion – Christian Louboutin had a deep-rooted interest in shoe design from a very early age. His mother, herself a free spirit, never judged – rather she supported him and encouraged him with love. The man selling the lamp brought that passion back to the forefront. (Louboutin still owns that lamp). His undying passion translates directly to the shoes he designs – it’s that passion that keeps him going.
Be true to your vision – The Louboutin line is wildly successful yet has not been gobbled up by one of the big design houses – Christian won’t consider it. He is determined to be true to himself, to his vision and to his passion and won’t be swayed by the ‘industry’. While he has an extensive staff, he remains the driving force of the company both in design and inspiration.
Find your ‘red sole’ – A relevant brand icon will create awareness while delivering the essence of a brand. The most successful ‘signatures’ are those that evolve organically. In the case of Louboutin, the red sole which now defines his brand, came about as a design element. Be certain that any element which communicates your brand message is genuine and relevant – do not force a branding icon which is not genuine and emotionally connected with your brand.
Whether or not you care for Louboutin’s designs – regardless of your ability to afford one or more pairs – it should be abundantly clear that Louboutin is without question a fearless brand. The key to building your own fearless brand is to walk tall – stay fueled by your passion, deliver quality and remain relevant.
Fabulous insight into one of my favorite brands. By staying true to their value and offer, knowing their customer VERY well, and consistently producing a quality product, Louboutin has made the red bottom shoe synonymous with style and high-priced fashion. In today’s market, that’s nearly impossible!
Thanks for a great post, Bill! I’ve shared this around on social media 🙂
Wow – thank you Lida. Louboutin is a powerful example of a truly fearless brand. Perhaps I should check out their men’s line. I am very appreciative of your kind comments…especially given the amount of respect I have for you.
We should keep at this and maybe we’ll get some free shoes? Ha ha
Actually Lida, my research reveals that Christian doesn’t give away any shoes – except perhaps that pair of 13 1/2’s 🙂