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Cult object: Christian Louboutin’s crystal shoe

© Ateliers Stéphane Gérard

A gigantic stiletto made from PLEXIGLAS® is the centerpiece of an exhibition in Paris devoted to the famous shoe designer Christian Louboutin. Producing the sculpture was a nerve-wracking process.

It almost feels as if you should enter this treasure chamber very carefully on tiptoe. In the center of the room is an awe-inspiring, magnificent sedan chair enthroning a giant crystal shoe, just like from a fairy-tale, surrounded by burning candles. “L'Exhibition[niste]”, the exhibition in the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, showcases shoe artworks from designer Christian Louboutin. His credo: “I don't want people to see my shoes and say: Oh wow, that looks so comfortable. I want people to think: That is so beautiful!”

And breathtakingly beautiful is also the perfect description for the eye-catching centerpiece of the exhibition: the crystal shoe radiating a magical light. The shoe towers above all in the center of the room on a typically thin heel, partially enclosed by a crystal from which the toe and heel protrude, smooth and crystal clear. However, the sculpture is made not from crystal, but PLEXIGLAS®!

A real eye-catcher

The two-meter tall crystal shoe forms the heart of the Louboutin exhibition, “L’Exhibition[niste]”, in the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris.

© Marc Domage

Staging concept

Like a cult object, the crystal shoe is presented on an ornate sedan chair in the “Treasure Chamber”.

© Marc Domage

Stiletto as a trademark

As thin as a candle: Direct comparison clearly shows just how fine the stiletto heel of the PLEXIGLAS® crystal shoe is.

© Marc Domage

Secret order from Paris

“We received a request from a Parisian atelier for a 2 meter by 1.5 meter by 75 centimeter PLEXIGLAS® block. What it was to become was shrouded in secrecy,” remembers Wolfgang Stuber, specialist in specialty glazings at PLEXIGLAS® manufacturer Röhm GmbH. He sent samples of the block material of the brand acrylic glass to the Seine – a material which, thanks to its extraordinary transparency, is otherwise used for applications like transparent diving spheres and huge aquarium panes. The clients, shoe designer Christian Louboutin and sculptor Stéphane Gerard, then let the cat out of the bag, sending a photo of a 20-centimeter-tall model of the planned shoe sculpture.

Stuber immediately realized: “This is a highly complicated milled part with the highest demands on precision. Each and every surface of every single crystal must be included. Even the tiniest error would be immediately apparent.” The fine stiletto heel seemed particularly tricky. “If the miller takes a wrong turn here, everything is ruined.”

Outstanding technical achievement

The crystal shoe was to be two meters tall, be illuminated from the inside, and appear to float freely above a pedestal. Another challenge for the fabrication. This concept meant that the sculpture, which would weigh several hundred kilograms, would only be supported by five thin cones milled from the PLEXIGLAS® block. “This is an outstanding technical achievement, and one which requires a fabricator with the ability to realize this vision,” said Stuber.

Let there be shoes!

Shoe designer Christian Louboutin (left) and sculptor Stéphane Gérard view designs for the crystal shoe.

© Macassar Productions

Direct template

This 20-centimeter-tall miniature version was created at Atelier SG as a template for the full-sized sculpture. “The model was already extremely well developed,” said Wolfgang Stuber, expert in PLEXIGLAS® special glazings at Röhm GmbH.

© Macassar Productions

Showpiece made from PLEXIGLAS®

It’s finished! Specialists from Heinz Fritz in Herbrechtingen and Atelier SG in Paris created the giant crystal shoe from a two-meter-high PLEXIGLAS® block.

© Ateliers Stéphane Gérard

Danger zone

The thin stiletto heel was the trickiest part of producing the sculpture.

© Ateliers Stéphane Gérard

Finishing touches

Sculptor Stéphane Gérard then added his signature finish to the sculpture.

© Ateliers Stéphane Gérard

Nerve-wracking milling of the crystal shoe

“The Louboutin project was unusual, even for our company,” emphasized Jakob Sixl, Managing Partner at Heinz Fritz GmbH in Herbrechtingen. The fabrication partner to Röhm GmbH usually turns PLEXIGLAS® blocks into spherical pressure hulls and viewing windows for submersibles. The thickness of the block for the crystal shoe made it one of the largest pieces the specialists had ever worked with: two meters tall, 1.5 meters wide and 75 centimeters thick.

However, the XXL block of PLEXIGLAS® went on a radical diet, losing kilograms of shavings on its way to becoming a shoe. The finished sculpture weighed around a quarter of the approximate three-ton initial mass. Simply programming the machines to prepare for the milling process took around three weeks; the milling itself eight weeks. The process also required specially manufactured tools and hundreds of programs for the necessary angle settings, in order to ensure that every single point was milled correctly, Sixl explains. The undercuts and the processing of the complex geometry from all sides were particularly tricky.

Sculptor Stéphane Gérard, who designed the sculpture for Louboutin, and artists from his atelier in Paris then traveled to Herbrechtingen to put the finishing touches on the sculpture and apply his signature style to it. The finest details were crafted by hand.

As long as the heel doesn’t break...

Even as experienced an expert as Jakob Sixl from Heinz Fritz GmbH rated this project as an 11 on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10. “A single error would have been fatal. Everything had to work straight off the bat; there were no second chances for us.” The time frame was also limited by the exhibition opening date. “It was a nerve-wracking time for the team. They had to remain highly concentrated for over eight weeks in order to complete all the details. At least two people were working on the block at all times.”

As was the case during milling, the crucial part when tempering the finished object was the stiletto heel. Extreme caution was required to avoid stress cracks from occurring. “But: forewarned is forearmed!” said Sixl. The solution was to allow the heating and cooling phases to take place so slowly that the temperature differences within the material remained as low as possible. The process took several weeks.

PLEXIGLAS® instead of crystal

The work of art was created over a period of around three and a half months. It may seem a long time, but that depends on your perspective: “Christian Louboutin had actually considered creating the shoe from crystal glass,” said Sixl. “But on a piece of this size, the cooling phase of the tempering process would have taken years had it been made of crystal!” It was clear that a different material had to be chosen for the sculpture.

Louboutin’s partner at Atelier SG then suggested acrylic glass – but the shoe designer first needed convincing. His initial reaction was one of incredulity: “What, make it from plastic?” This initial skepticism soon passed, however, as Louboutin saw what a high quality material the brand acrylic glass from Röhm is. Fabricator Sixl clarifies: “PLEXIGLAS® is unique as, even at this thickness, it still has distortion-free optical properties and offers excellent transparency.” At this thickness, other plastics often appear milky or have a yellow tinge.”

Curtain up for Louboutin’s sparkling shoe show

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