For someone who has built an empire on shoes, Christian Louboutin spends an awful lot of time with his feet off the ground. To be specific: pointed straight up at the ceiling; swinging in the air; parallel to the floor but many feet above it; or scissored around a thin bar suspended by ropes from the ceiling of his Paris atelier, in one of many positions that comprises the – art? activity? game? – of the swinging trapeze, Louboutin’s passion for the past 20 years.
“I think it’s something between a sport and dance,” Louboutin says, sitting relaxed on his low bar in the trapeze room of his atelier between exercises. (He has two bars: one 50cm off the ground, for work on the ropes above the bar, and one about 4.5m off the ground, for swinging work.) He’s wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt and a wide belt to support his lower back.
“There’s something about moving through space, being lifted through the air,” he says. “I never wanted to lift weights, and dance is too choreographed, but the fact that this looks so effortless, and it’s so hard – what it gives to people is beauty. But it’s also a private thing; it’s not competitive, it’s not for anyone else. It gets into your head.”
Trapeze originally got into Louboutin’s head when he saw the 1987 Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, which features the late Solveig Dommartin as a circus acrobat whose “flying” entices an angel down to earth.
“I thought, I want to do what she does; I want to swing on the trapeze,” says Louboutin. He found a class in Paris, run by a woman named Zoé Maistre, who is still his teacher. “The first day I got there, it was me, and all these women,” he says, “who were sort of housewife-looking. But then they’d get on the ropes, and just look incredible. It’s the one time I regretted being a man, because you have to do all the holding, and the women get to do the most exciting tricks.” Still, he kept coming back. “You get addicted,” he says. “But in a good way.”
It’s true. I started doing trapeze a year or so ago, and now I have dreams about it. The instructions on the rhythm of a swing (kick back … up and out … hold… hollow … sweep … seven) are a permanent chorus in the back of my head. And it is also something you can do, if you keep in relative shape, no matter how old you are: Louboutin is 46, and Maistre is in her 50s.
“I think it represents possibility,” he says. “I know I’ll never be a circus performer, but it’s freedom for me.”
It’s also not a small commitment – two hours, every morning (one to warm up, one to work on the bars). Around the turn of the millennium, Louboutin had to put his training on hold because he was travelling so much: he has 29 shops around the world, with 11 more due to open by January next year. But, he says, he missed the trapeze, and the fact that “it completely clears your mind; it’s a real escape.”
As a result, when he bought his Paris studio space in 2006 – a high-ceilinged apartment in the back of the courtyard of an old building, with space for making his samples – he installed the bars and a wall of mirrors in one room, and started private lessons with Maistre. He has just bought a house on the beach in Portugal, and is installing a trapeze rig in the garden; Maistre has promised she’ll come with her family for a week of lessons. (Ideally, he’d have positioned the bar over a swimming pool, so if he lost his hold he’d just splash down into the water, but the house is in a conservation area, so it’s not allowed.)
In Paris, he does trapeze first thing in the morning, after some coffee (he doesn’t like to do it later in the day, because he’s tired and full), dragging out some large mats from behind two elaborate carved wooden doors from Egypt. Normally, the trapeze room is empty, but during the seasonal presentation of Louboutin’s shoe collections it doubles as a showroom, and the walls are lined with spiky gladiator sandals and rhinestone trainers and elaborate boots made from a lattice of snakeskin. That’s how it looked when I met him to swing a bit during the last round of fashion shows.
There are three different kinds of trapeze – the static trapeze (where the bar doesn’t move); the swinging trapeze, which is what Louboutin does, where you move the bar but don’t let go of it; and the flying trapeze, which is what I normally do, where you flip off one bar through the air to get caught by someone else, and which is less about sheer strength than timing and physics. At a certain point, however, for a trapeze person (as for a sot), a bar is a bar is a bar, whether it’s in a playground or a circus rig, so I was quite excited about the opportunity. Louboutin says it’s like being a Vespa owner: “It used to be you’d pull up next to another one, and catch each other’s eye, and just give a surreptitious nod, because you were both part of this unspoken club.”
So he is indulgent while I do knee hangs on the high bar. Instead, he does tricks on the low one: the iron cross, which is what gymnasts do on the rings, and which makes his forehead break out in sweat, and causes him to shake his hands in the air (trapeze ropes are hard on the palms). He also does a kind of step-out into space, which makes him laugh. In tandem, we can do a pseudo-layer cake thing, legs extended in the air, or just stand on the bar and swing.
“People react to trapeze,” says Louboutin. “If someone sees a tennis racket, they shrug, but with trapeze, they ask questions, they want to know why you do it.” This is said with a complicitous smile, because if you do it, the why is simple: you love it. “And then they want to try. I have a friend, a young pop star, and he came here to get some shoes for a stage show, and saw the bars and asked about them. He didn’t believe I could do this, so I showed him and his jaw just dropped. When he introduces me now, he says: ‘This is Christian and he does shoes and trapeze.’”
And then he tucks his head and starts a slow, very controlled somersault in the air, arms flexed on the ropes. He promises, when he comes to New York, he’ll fly with me.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor. Lunch with the FT: Larry Gagosian