Louboutin’s Maquereau shoe inspired by the palace’s aquarium.
Photo by Guillaume Fandel courtesy of Palais de la Porte Dorée
How an art deco palace spiked Louboutin’s passion for stilettos
(The Philippine Star) - December 28, 2019 - 12:00am

The Palais de la Porte Dorée is an Art Deco jewel that is unfamiliar to most tourists and even to many Parisians. But Christian Louboutin has many fond memories of it as a child and in fact credits it as instrumental in finding his metier. “I loved the tropical aquarium, but also enjoyed wandering around the rooms populated by large, mysterious silhouettes bathed in soft light. They looked spooky and fascinating at the same time,” related the designer in an interview for Le Gazette Drouot.

Located at the edge of the Bois de Vincennes, the palace has had many incarnations since 1931 when it was built as the museum for the French colonies at the Paris Colonial Exposition. Turning into various ethnological museums through the years, it is now the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration. It was during its life as the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie that the shoe designer explored its halls and stumbled upon a sign by the entrance that had the image of a stiletto pump crossed by a red bar. “No High Heels,” it warned, to protect the floors of the halls. Piqued by the image, the designer began doodling shoes and became obsessed with them, commencing a life-long passion.

The image in the sign itself would keep recurring in his mind, eventually inspiring the Pigalle shoe, one of his signature pieces that is tweaked and reinvented through the seasons.

But the building and its rooms with their ornamental richness would be constant sources of inspiration, feeding his love of the applied arts and informing his designs, which include the Maquereau shoe in patterned metallic leather, mimicking the iridescent skin of the fish in the palace’s tropical aquarium. The different cultures featured at the museum also stir his imagination to no end, aside from being in tune with his advocacies: “The palace represents the values that I share around diversity and openness to the world,” says the designer.

Designed by the architect Albert Laprade, the Palais was built to celebrate the glory of the French colonial model in the tradition of the universal expositions of the 19th c. and the colonial expositions of the early 20th century. Showcasing the empire’s historical, artistic and economic wealth, it encouraged visitors to invest in the products brought back from the colonies or even to move overseas.

For the facade, Laprade evoked the classical monumentality of the Louvre colonnade juxtaposed with the Ionic temples of antiquity by adding an imposing sculpted frieze. His projects in Casablanca and Rabat influenced his aesthetic as seen in the symmetrical plan typical of a Moroccan palace built around a large central patio surrounded by galleries.

The façade deserves a tour on its own because of its animated stone decor in bas-relief sculpted by Alfred Auguste Janniot, who drew on the exotic and fulfilled the ideological function of raising the colonial consciousness of visitors by depicting the wealth and diversity of the colonies’ inhabitants, flora, fauna and products. The sculptural style promoted the imperial propaganda with its imposing muscular figures, vast wilderness and simplified, ethnic faces based on ethnographic codes. The work is arranged around a central axis above the doorway where an allegorical figure of France is enthroned, symbolising Abundance towards whom everything converges. “France” is the only figure with a frontal view whereas all the others from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America are sculpted in profile, with shoulders facing just like in Egyptian art,

Historic rooms are situated on the two opposite ends of the palace’s Hall of Honor: The Oval Room is named after Paul Reynaud, then Minister of the Colonies. Dedicated to the African colonies, it was designed by Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, the famous furniture designer and interior decorator known for his sleek pieces of fine craftsmanship and rare, luxurious materials like brown Morocco leather for the “elephant” armchairs and Makassar ebony for the tripod chairs. The minister’s desk combines ebony and shagreen with inlays of ivory. All these precious and exotic materials enhanced the palace’s prestige while promoting the products found in the colonies. Bronze busts by Anna Quinquaud and Gaston Broquet represent the works of colonial academic artists of the period.

For the frescoes, Louis Bouquet was tapped to paint the contributions of Sub-Saharan and North Africa, in a style that reflected a stereotypical view of a so-called “black” Africa with “the body, nudity and dance” and African inhabitants depicted as “natural” and ‘childlike.” The main panel features the artistic union of an African muse and Apollo playing a lyre in a luxuriant natural setting while red walls recall Djenné, the ancient capital of Mali. North Africa’s Arab-Muslim contributions in the religious, scientific and artistic fields are set against Moorish architecture.

The other historic room, named after Marshall Lyautey, General Commissioner of the Colonial Exposition, was dedicated to the Asian colonies. Painted by André and Ivanna Lemaître, the room’s frescoes are inspired by Hindu and Buddhist religious writings as well as Confucian thought: The Hindu god Krishna is seen playing the flute in the forest, a representation of the Buddha is deep in meditation while Confucius is teaching his disciples. There are representations of the arts (dance, music, sculpture), and the natural elements (earth, fire and water) together with the mother of arts Kwan-Yin born in a lotus flower surrounding a peaceful family.

For furniture and fittings, one can glean the audacious style of Eugène Printz, the master woodworker known for the pieces of the ocean liner Normandie. He created the two large doors of Gabonese palm wood called “patawa,” skirting boards for the whole room, two three-door cabinets and marquetry flooring made from different types of colonial wood. He also produced bespoke lacquered wood and velvet seats for the desk and built specially designed lamps.

If the Palais and its rooms look as good as on the day they were created, credit should be given to Louboutin for his substantial donation in its restoration which include an overhaul of the grand hall, the atrium, the two historic rooms and the library which contains screens by Jean Dunand, an acclaimed lacquer artist of the era. It was something he just had to do, he said, given his personal connection to the institution.  

It’s no surprise then that with the restoration of the palace completed, the designer has chosen it as the venue for a coming exhibit next February to celebrate his career. This major exposition, according to the palace’s website, is “designed as an invitation to discover Christian Louboutin’s rich universe, exploring every facet of his multi-referential work, in an institution that has played an important role in inspiring his vocation.” Now that will definitely be another major reason to see this masterpiece of a building with its many treasures.

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Visit www.palais-portedoree.fr for details. Christian Louboutin footwear is available at Rustan’s www.rustans.com. Follow the authors on Instagram @rickytchitov; Twitter @RickyToledo23; Facebook - Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre




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