Christian Louboutin makes fragrance launch in Lisbon a mischievous affair

The celebrated shoemaker unveiled three women's perfumes in the Portuguese capital, each with a fascinating anecdote.

From left, Bikini Questa Sera, Tornade Blonde and Trouble in Heaven. Photo by Ali Mahdavi
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As I sink into the sofa next to Christian Louboutin, arguably the world’s most famous shoe designer, I reflect on the last couple of days spent as his guest in Lisbon.

I had arrived two days earlier, stumbling into a lunch event with my suitcase in tow, delighted to have been invited (who can say no to Louboutin?), but with scant idea of why I was there. Under a cloak of secrecy, we had been flown to Lisbon to witness the launch of ... well, we didn’t know.

Anyone who’s familiar with Louboutin’s shoes – of the distinctive red soles – may also know that the designer has a gleeful sense of humour. A pair of shoes from his current autumn/winter 2016 collection, for example, is based on the masks worn by Mexican wrestlers. So, this trip to Lisbon, as well as being a journey through one of his favourite cities, was clearly an excuse for a little mischief-making.

As we lunched in the elegant surroundings of the historic Casa do Leao in central Lisbon, we became aware of a couple arguing outside the window. As the exchange became more heated, we idly noted how well dressed they both were.

Next we boarded a charming wooden tram, and clattered along admiring the city. A young woman jumped aboard, ran the length of the tram, and was gone in the blink of an eye. That evening was spent on a roof terrace, admiring the sunset, while an impossibly beautiful woman wandered among us, dressed as if she had come in straight off the beach.

Little did we know that these were all players in a little Louboutin-led game. At the 17th-century Palácio Fronteira the following day, however, the mystery finally began to unfold. Standing on the patio, now reconciled, were the bickering couple from the castle. Waiting in the garden was the young woman from the tram, while the lady from the party stood by a fountain. Three seemingly innocuous and unrelated moments were in fact a carefully orchestrated tableau played out by actors.

Monsieur Louboutin, it seems, had been toying with us all along.

Led through the garden by the actors, invited to smell flowers and admire blooms, we finally understood why we were here. Louboutin was launching his first-ever perfume. And not just one – three at the same time.

It may seem bizarre for a shoemaker to launch a perfume; however, there is some logic behind it. When Louboutin launched its first beauty product in 2013, it was a nail varnish, an homage to the red varnish that first inspired Louboutin to colour the soles of his shoes red, back in 1993. For a company so focused on women’s feet, it also made sense to produce polish to adorn their toes.

Last year, the brand introduced a lipstick, So it was a natural evolution to follow on with a fragrance.

But why, I query, in an already crowded perfume market, did he choose to launch three at the same time? “I grew up with three sisters, three different characters, so I cannot reduce women to just one element,” he tells me.

“My sisters were different during the day, during the night. When we decided on the idea of three fragrances, it was about three women, but I started thinking about it and decided it should be three facets of the same person. And that’s what I love about women, in general; there is no one straight character. Women have a lot of sides.”

Louboutin was undaunted by the task of creating a scent. “I didn’t have flowers in mind; I was thinking about people’s attitudes. Everything I am trying to do is about evoking an attitude. With shoes, it’s the way you walk. For a bag, it’s the way you hold it, the way it animates the upper body and the shoulders. Fragrance is the same thing. It is a trace, an attitude.”

Once the scent was ready, Louboutin turned to the design of the bottle. “When I started beauty [products], I thought of them as a city. So I wanted to bring elements, like buildings, to this place I called Louby Ville,” he says, somewhat perplexingly. “It was very constructed in my head, so I had already thought of architecture. The person who came to mind was Thomas Heatherwick.”

The founder of the British architectural firm Heatherwick Studio is known for ambitious projects as diverse as the Olympic Cauldron for the 2012 London Olympics and the upcoming Al Fayah Park in Abu Dhabi. “The project that really persuaded me that this was the right person was his design for the Shanghai Pavilion,” Louboutin says. “It is very organic.”

Heatherwick was brought on board to create a bottle so unique and so beautiful that women would want to keep it on display “like an Oscar”, says Louboutin. Heatherwick and his team spent hours scouring museums and researching the many bottles already on the market.

“Often they just make an innovative lid and stick it on a normal bottle,” Heatherwick confides when I meet him.

Inspiration eventually came from an unlikely source. “Did you ever have a yum yum?” Heatherwick asks me. “The pastry? Like a doughnut, split in the middle and turned inside out, and then fried.

“When we were thinking about this [bottle], we imagined just splitting it and turning it inside out, so that it formed these surfaces. Something that has a hole, like it was a loop.”

The innovative twisting design, however, proved to be technically difficult. “It became a voyage that was extremely demanding,” Heatherwick says. “We knew there were real limitations, because manufacturing is hugely challenging. Making one bottle is totally different from making many. To get the quality, compared to the number that had to be remelted, is phenomenal. It is a secret within the factory exactly how the finished product is made. We weren’t even allowed to see all the processes and machines.”

Next came the rather unusual names. “The smell gave me the names,” Louboutin explains. “Once I had the fragrance and the bottle, the way to marry them together properly was with colour. The gradation [of colour] was directly because of the smell and the names.”

Back in the Palácio’s garden, the first perfume we try is Tornade Blonde, which has top notes of violet leaves and cassis, set against middle notes of rose, orange petals and gardenia. Encased in a bottle that shifts from gold to red, the scent is heady with rose, yet underpinned with a fresh, citrusy lightness.

Louboutin explains how the unusual name came from a single, fleeting encounter. “This came from seeing a little girl. I was sitting reading a book, and she ran past me, and I thought: ‘My God, she is a blonde tornado.’ She left a ray of light behind her, and you are left wondering if you saw something or not, like an illusion.” He adds: “With my shoes, they leave a trace of red as she walks away. Perfume is the same, it leaves a trace.”

Next comes Bikini Questa Sera, in an ombre bottle of amber and warm golds, shades inspired by an Egyptian sunset. “Like sky touching the skin,” Louboutin says poetically. The floral middle notes of jasmine and tuberose are balanced by dry scents of sandalwood, vetiver Haiti and ambergris, creating a highly feminine, yet warm, scent.

“It developed from the idea of someone taking the sun and radiating with it. Keeping the sun’s warmth, like amber is warm. A duality.”

The last of the trio was the most complex scent, and is perhaps fittingly called Trouble in Heaven. With middle tones of rare iris firabs, coupled with dry scents of amber, patchouli and labdanum, it is sophisticated and rich. “This is when women are conscious of their power, conscious of how they can flirt,” Louboutin explains. “Someone who decides, for a few hours, to be in charge of her charm.”

Describing the striking purple bottle, Louboutin claims: “Trouble in Heaven is more villainous, a little more aggressive. I thought of a very specific iris [flower] that is purple going to yellow. It’s very beautiful, but has a danger about it.”

This latest stage in the evolution of the brand was not without its challenges, Louboutin explains. Delays with the production of the bottle caused the whole project to run over by a full year. But compromise was never an option.

“At one point, I had a complicated conversation about launching,” Louboutin tells me. “And I said: ‘It will be finished when it’s finished’, because I don’t care how long it takes.”

Sitting on the sofa next to Louboutin, whose first foray into perfumes is a reassertion of his appreciation of powerful, confident women, the overriding impression is of a man of unwavering convictions.

“I don’t do very many projects,” he says. “The thing is really that I am proud of what I am showing the world. Not just because it bears my name, but because if you do a project, you have to be proud. I want to be proud of what I am doing. If success doesn’t come, if you are still proud, then it has been a great journey. Then you can be happy.”

Read this and other stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, September 8.