Glittering, bedecked with trademark symbols or a signature shade of red, the modern-day signifier of true shoe luxury has a history that spans centuries.
This pair of Christian Louboutin pumps is embellished entirely in silver strass with toe boxes decorated in red and black strass-covered suits—one of four limited-edition styles available exclusively at Wynn Las Vegas.
When Meghan Markle stepped out of Windsor Castle with her new husband, Prince Harry, en route to the couple’s evening wedding reception, only the most eagle-eyed of spectators likely noticed the flash of baby blue from the underside of her shoes.
For the newly minted Duchess of Sussex, the lacquered soles she’d specifically requested on her satin heels were her way of carrying her “something blue” with her. But to the rest of the world—or at least, to the fashion-savvy portion of it—the soles winked luxury. Of course it was impossible to guess from looking at Markle’s satin and nude mesh heels what designer had made them (they turned out to be Aquazzura), but the pale blue soles made one thing clear: The shoes were one of a kind, and what could be more luxurious than that?
When you think of sole branding, probably the first designer to spring to mind is Christian Louboutin, he of the trademarked red (officially, Pantone18 1663TP) that’s even been name-checked in songs by Jennifer Lopez and the rapper Cardi B. But other luxury designers like René Caovilla and Markle’s favored Aquazzura (she owns at least five pairs) have also colonized this less-seen shoe real estate, using it both to send messages to the buyer about the sumptuousness and quality of their product and to telegraph the brand to those in the know.
It’s not surprising, considering that a recent Bain & Co. report pointed to consumer perception to explain why shoes are the fastest-growing category in the world luxury market, reaching $21 billion globally in 2017.
Aquazurra's trademark pineapple adorns both the sole and the heel of this shoe.
“Shoes aren’t broadly recognized by design or by look or by styles,” says Jeffrey Carr, a clinical professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at New York University’s Stern School of Management and director of the school’s Fashion and Luxury Lab. He notes that there aren’t really separate or distinct shoe silhouettes associated with luxury brands, the way, say, a two-handled exotic leather tote with a lock and keys enclosed in a clochette is immediately identifiable as an Hermès Birkin. “The sole is often where the logo is, and it’s very subtle.” Louboutin is an exception to this rule. “He did a hell of a job with that sole,” Carr says. “On the shoe side, it’s probably the most identifiable branding in the world.”
Soles, of course, have a long history as a signifier of a luxury good—and indeed even shoes themselves have been used to convey the wearer’s wealth and status at least since ancient Egyptian times, when beautiful sandals were a powerful enough sign of rank to be depicted on tomb reliefs. King Tut’s tomb contained, among other things, elaborately decorated flip-flops with marquetry veneer. Luxury footwear created sufficient fashion frenzy in the 1300s that governments got involved: The growing merchant class so desired to wear the long, pointed-toe shoes of the elite—all crafted of expensive materials—that laws were passed limiting the length of a shoe’s toe according to the wearer’s income and position in society. A century later, the fashion was for a wider-toed shoe called, among other things, a hornbill or bear paw, where width was then limited according to the wearer’s status.
It wasn’t until Louis XIV’s court in 17th-century France that soles, too, became a symbol of wealth—specifically red ones, says Giorgio Riello, a professor of global history and culture at the UK’s University of Warwick and co-author of both Luxury: A Rich History and Shoes: A History From Sandals to Sneakers. In 1673 the king issued an edict that only nobility could wear the coveted red soles, and that no one could own a pair of heels (yes, men once wore them, too!) higher than his highest pair, which was five inches tall. (Heels, of course, have always denoted status, because no one could do manual labor wearing them.) One key reason for the selection of red: It was an outrageously expensive color to make, requiring the crushing of the dried bodies of the female cochineal, a Mexican parasite. (Louis XIV also ordered the royal bed curtains and the chair upholstery at Versailles dyed with cochineal.)
It was Louboutin’s assistant’s manicure—not 17th-century France—that inspired him to hand-paint the bottom of his shoes with red nail polish, and a signature was born. “The shiny red color of the soles has no function other than to identify to the public that they are mine,” the designer has said. “I selected the color because it is engaging, flirtatious, memorable and the color of passion.”
Double the prestige: These red soles are also autographed by Louboutin himself.
For Edgardo Osorio, the designer of Aquazzura, which opened on the Encore Esplanade at Wynn Las Vegas this summer, the choice of what to put on his soles (except when soon-to-be-royalty has other ideas) was obvious: gold pineapples, which he’d always collected. The brand is designed to evoke the Riviera kind of good life—its name is derived from the Italian acqua azzurra, or blue water—and at villas in the south of Italy and France you see stone pineapples, a symbol of hospitality, he explains. Then he discovered that in Asian cultures, the gold pineapple was a symbol of good fortune. “It attracts money, so it’s like a lucky charm,” Osorio says. “I liked the idea that every woman could wear a lucky charm on the sole of her shoes.”
At René Caovilla, the glittery soles—actually crystal powder—“come from the idea of making our customers feel unique and special like the stars in the sky,” says Edoardo Caovilla, the founder’s grandson and the brand’s creative director. “We give the shoe soles this special characteristic with the idea of the woman leaving her trace as she walks.”
The delicate, three-hour process of perfect glitter application (Caovilla refers to it as “diamond dust”) mixes craftsmanship and high technology, a suitable hallmark of the nearly 100-year-old maison’s demands of its artisans: “so fine it is like alchemy, producing shoes that are no longer simple accessories but become works of art in their own right,” he says. What better message to send than that?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BARBARA KRAFT (LIMITED EDITION CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN PUMPS); DONATO SARDELLA/GETTY IMAGES FOR SAKS FIFTH AVENUE (AQUAZZURA SANDAL); MAT HAYWARD/GETTY IMAGES FOR NORDSTROM (CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN SOLE)