On a sweltering summer day in Florence, the Piazza Santa Maria Novella is filled with tourists juggling gelato and guide books, locals taking a quick lampredotto lunch break and Firenze’s ubiquitous pigeons strutting their stuff in the open air plaza.
Oh, and on this particular day there are eight bike polo teams from around the globe whizzing around, whacking their mallets pell-mell in a tournament staged by French shoe designer Christian Louboutin as part of Pitti Uomo, the largest and most prestigious men’s fashion trade fair in the world.
Extreme sport and extreme style is not a combination you see every day in Italy, and American bike polo player Nick McLean is the first to admit he knows next to nothing about the latter. He knew nothing too about Louboutin, whose creations are instantly recognisable thanks to their signature red soles, before the world’s most famous shoe designer invited him to compete at the Florence event last month.
“I did not know much about him, but I mentioned his name to my mom and she immediately responded ‘I’m a size 9½ in narrow’,” he laughs.
‘Sense of grace’
You might wonder why a French fashion icon would embrace a sport that began in Seattle in 1999 when the city’s community of bike messengers began holding informal games as a form of recreation in their down time, but to Louboutin it is comme il faut.
“I became naturally interested in it because there is a great sense of grace in bike polo that is like when the cavalieri are taming the horses or like dressage,” says Louboutin. “I love a sport when there is a sense of dance about it.”
It was thanks to dancers at the Folies Bergere that Louboutin found his calling to create his highly coveted, supremely elegant and often provocative footwear for the world’s most glamorous women.
“My favourite thing growing up in Paris was to see the music hall shows and what I first wanted to do was design shoes for showgirls,” he says. “As an adolescent I could understand that those girls were girls, but that they were also representations of exotic birds. Of course birds have feathers, so for me the feather thing [on stage] was not a costume, but a natural element of those birds of paradise. The only thing those birds of paradise didn’t have was beautiful shoes, so I wanted to do shoes for those birds.”
With their feathered plumage, curling ribbons, scarlet soles, and metallic spikes and studs, Louboutin’s exotic and highly sexual shoes are birds of paradise in their own right. They have been seducing women with their swooping shapes, bold designs and outré toe cleavage since the designer opened his first boutique in 1992 in Paris.
Today he sells hundreds of thousands of pairs every year, and has enjoyed double-digit growth in Australia since opening his first flagship Australian store in Melbourne in 2015, followed by stores in Sydney and on the Gold Coast.
Creating to excess
Louboutin created an entire collection for Mika before realising “he didn’t need a whole collection, he just needed a few pairs of shoes for the tour”.
Louboutin launched his men’s line in 2011 with the excess. Styles range from classic oxfords to embellished evening slippers and sneakers, of which the latest iteration is the Aurelian.
“I was thinking of urban sports like bike polo, where you want to wear a shoe that makes sense for sport, but that also looks good when you are dressed during the day,” he says.
What began as a street/sport hybrid then evolved with an infusion of 1990s NBA basketball into a low-top silhouette lined with a red neoprene sock for comfort.
“I cannot say I thought I should go in that direction originally; you can analyse it later but I never analyse it before. What I do know is that I’m very privileged to have been able to transport from something I loved as a kid to a passion running all the way through my adult life.”