When the company of the Agnelli Exor family acquired a 24 percent stake in Christian Louboutin this week, it doubled on red. The family already owns a participation in Ferrari, whose Formula 1 cars run in this color. Now he added the supplier of luxury red soled shoes.

The agreement promotes the French designer 150 stores and branded high heels at 2.3 billion euros. That’s remarkable, given the high fashion industry’s shift to casual wear and a pandemic that has reduced the possibilities of going to town or drawing attention to the office, in pairs.

Louboutins are expensive – a pair of its iconic Pigalle pumps with 10cm stiletto heels cost £ 545, and his LoubiShark low-top sneakers with red shark-tooth soles cost £ 100 more. Despite the Agnellis’ vote of confidence, it’s easy to dismiss them as hedonistic thrift stores that don’t go well with time.

But Christian Louboutin pulled off two deceptively difficult things at once in paint the sole of a prototype with red lacquer nail polish in 1992. He made his designs immediately recognizable and turned them into symbols of women’s empowerment. These are not trivial achievements.

Capturing a color is difficult because colors are public property in all but rare cases. It would be very useful to market the only red lipstick, but it is impossible to get copyright or trademark protection to prevent competitors from producing theirs. All that most businesses can do is gradually associate their brand with a shade.

Ferrari did this by participating in the Rosso Corsa color for Italian racing car teams, while Bugattis were painted in France blue. The same was true for the Financial Times by adopting salmon pink newsprint in 1893 to distinguish itself from its competitors. But many automakers sell red cars, and other financial newspapers mimic the FT.

It is easier to protect packaging such as Tiffany robinsblue egg boxes, although the UK Court of Appeal ruled in 2018 against an effort by Cadbury to brand its purple chocolate packaging. But the courts are rightly reluctant to let a company monopolize a color for a product itself.

Louboutin’s stroke of genius was to paint only red. An American judge initially rejected his attempt to stop Yves Saint Laurent from selling a red high-heeled court shoe, saying colors were an integral part of fashion. You cannot register a function of a product, such as the shape of a soccer ball.

But while a court of appeal agreed in 2012 that Louboutin couldn’t have red shoes all to himself, it earned him “a red lacquered outsole on a high fashion women’s shoe,” while the upper was a contrasting hue. By decorating the room that other designers ignored, he found a loophole.

Putting red on the bottom of the shoe was more than a legal triumph – it gave Christian Louboutin shoes their special power. The Pigalle pump in black leather looks elegant and severe, but the glow of its “Red China” visible on the edge of the soles suggests a hidden excitement.

Red was often associated with male authority – Louis XIV of France wore high shoes with red heels, restricting them to aristocrats, while Catholic cardinals obtained the right to wearing scarlet coats centuries ago. The racing colors of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo signal the thrill of men’s competition.

Color leaned towards emancipation in the 20th century, with supporters of the women’s suffrage movement walking in New York in 1912 wearing lipstick donated by Elizabeth Arden. Arden also produced the “Red Montezuma” lipstick worn by women in the United States Marine Reserves in the 1940s.

The lipstick pivotal moment was Revlon’s advertising campaign for its Fire and ice lipstick and nail polish in 1952, written by editor Kay Daly. “For you who like to flirt with fire. . . who dare to skate on thin ice, ”he proclaims. The client was the woman herself, rather than her husband – the product was provocative and sexy, but under his command.

The same spirit lives in the 2009 song by Jennifer Lopez Louboutins, about leaving an unreliable lover: “I throw away my Louboutins / Look at those red stockings / And the backs of my jeans.” Red is a stop sign as well as a come-on – it’s a powerful part of a woman’s armory.

But I think the ultimate power of Christian Louboutin innovation lies in the cover-up. Many of his shoe designs were extravagant – some were associated with fetishism in the early days. But even her black pumps have another side. The red lies hidden, waiting to be deployed.

It echoes men’s tailoring, with dark wool covering colorful silk linings: British designer Paul Smith offers a slim fit gray suit with turquoise lining and interior pocket flashes. Louboutin gave female executives a similar style of bossy sobriety, imbued with glamor and excitement.

The combination is more potent than red alone. Christian Louboutin’s invention is even now protected by law, which he could not have anticipated by painting his first sole. But this act was worth a lot.

john.gapper@ft.com



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