On July 27, 2012, agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection swooped down on the Port of Los Angeles, commandeering five containers packed with contraband. Estimated street value: $18 million. You might think it was handguns that the agents seized, or drugs, or endangered animal pelts.
But no. The feds laid their hands on 20,457 pairs of high-heeled shoes from China—counterfeit Christian Louboutins.
Fakes are one way to measure a brand's popularity. So are fans, and Louboutin has plenty of those, too. Lauded on Sex and the City, sung about by J-Lo and worn by the likes of Oprah, Lady Gaga and Victoria Beckham (to name but a few), Christian Louboutin remains the most coveted heel in fashion—the name's been around for 25 years, and over 700,000 pairs sell each year. "It's still the quintessential shoe brand," said Ashley Spiker, founder of the blog ShoeRazzi, "—a solid, quality and sexy choice whenever women think of a luxury shoe."
In a practical sense, Louboutins make no sense at all. They're offensively priced (about $1,500 on average) and the pinched toe and 7-inch heel are torturously uncomfortable. ("I don't think comfort equals happiness," Louboutin has said.) But visually, sensually, Louboutin shoes have no peer, and fans will stop at little to obtain them. A 2011 New Yorker profile mentioned a woman who, each time a sky-high credit card bill arrived in the mail, told her husband that Christian Louboutin was her gynecologist.
Louboutin the man is an unlikely creator of such devotion. A quasi-homeless dropout in his teens, Louboutin found work sewing sequins onto showgirls' costumes at the Folies Bergère. Later, he learned to make shoes by working for Charles Jourdan and Roger Vivier (who invented the stiletto heel). Those influences would be found in Louboutin's own creations, which he began selling in 1991. Two years later, the designer found himself unhappy with the black soles of a pair of prototypes when, on a whim, he grabbed the nail polish of one of his assistants and coated the soles in blood red. It was that impetuous little move that created Louboutin's legend.
And his trademark—one he's gone to court repeatedly over the years to defend. Currently, Louboutin has exclusive rights to heels with red soles (Pantone 18-1663, reportedly)—unless the entire shoe is red, in which case other brands can make them.
Louboutin has said that the red of his shoe soles attract men the way red capes attract bulls. Maybe. But the appeal of Louboutins transcends whatever effect they may have on men. "Women know if they want an everyday soft suede shoe, they turn to Aquazzura, or for a classy office-to-happy-hour pump, they can turn to Gianvito Rossi," Spiker said. "But for something remarkable, they slip on the red."
This story first appeared in the September 12, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.