Long before he became synonymous with stilettos and scarlet soles, Christian Louboutin was already turning heads as part of the so-called “bande de bandeaux” (“the headband gang”) – a group of magnificently dressed under-18s who frequented the legendary Parisian nightclub, Le Palace. “I was 14 when it opened (in 1978), and I was there for the opening – Grace Jones was playing,” the designer says over the phone from his Paris apartment. “Even though we were the youngest people there, our gang was protected by the owner (famed nightclub impresario, Fabrice Emaer). He loved us because we were all super dressed up. Our name ‘bande de bandeaux’ came from the fact that at one point we all wore tennis bands on our foreheads; we were part of the folklore of the place.”
For those unacquainted with the now-mythical dance spot, Le Palace was Paris’ answer to Studio 54, and played host to many of the same clientele over the years from Andy Warhol and Mick and Bianca Jagger, to French icons like Paloma Picasso, Jean Paul Gaultier, Loulou de la Falaise and Roland Barthes. It was housed in a former theatre, located at 8 rue du Faubourg-Montmartre in the city’s 9th arrondissement, and Louboutin and his friends were there “pretty much every night” from 1979 until 1981 – the club’s early heyday.
Some 40 years on, Louboutin has returned to this heady era to draw inspiration for his latest collection, Palace Nights, an eye-popping offering spanning metallic sock boots, fuschia stilettos and glitter-adorned bandstand boots for women, and sparkling slippers, studded-soled Oxfords and striped, cuban-heeled ankle boots for men. “One of my oldest friends from that period, Eva Ionesco, was making a movie about her youth, which was very much spent at Le Palace,” says Louboutin of his decision to revisit his clubbing days. “She asked me so many questions while she was preparing for and making the film titled Golden Youth, and the idea for the collection stemmed naturally from our conversations. That said, Le Palace is a mood that’s never far from me, because it was so ingrained into my own adolescence.”
And what exactly is that mood? “Fabulous!” laughs Louboutin. “It was very different to anywhere else, because it was the biggest club in Paris – there had never been one that big before. The real difference, though, was the huge mix of people – it was probably the very first time you saw such a diversity of age, gender, race and wealth in one place. But especially age: Barthes was in his 60s.” According to Louboutin, the key to entering through Le Palace’s hallowed doors was simply to “look good, and like you wanted to spend your entire night going crazy. They were the only criteria of Marilyn and Edwige, the two dragons at the door, who were actually very sweet.”
Given the assorted nature of Le Palace’s party-goers, which ranged from the Paris fashion elite (“team Kenzo, team Saint Laurent, team Claude Montana”) to actors, writers and your everyday revellers, it’s unsurprising to learn that the way people dressed for Le Palace varied considerably, too. “It was the beginning of really important ready-to-wear,” says Louboutin. “You’d see Thierry Mugler’s amazing gang of really weird looking models and Jean Paul Gaultier’s too, all wearing the most iconic, outrageous ready-to-wear. But next to that you had people creating their own outfits – there were places where you could buy fabric, and people made headpieces and wore tons of make-up. Really the important thing was to look spectacular. It needed to be shiny, crazy and decadent, with a lot of nudity involved. It was like a very elegant carnival – it wasn’t about being chic, as I said, you really had to be fabulous.”
Louboutin would spend days in advance thinking about what his next Le Palace outfit should be. “If you’re French, you’re having lunch and you’re thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner. But instead of thinking, ‘What’s next to eat?’ we were thinking, ‘What’s next for Le Palace?’ And if you saw someone wearing something you’d been planning to wear the next day, it was back to the drawing board!” Other important rules for keeping up appearances among the “bande de bandeaux” included never arriving at the nightclub before 2am. “We thought it was so tacky, so provincial,” says Louboutin. “Farida (Khelfa) – my sort of fourth sister, who I actually met at Le Palace – and I would sit around playing puzzles at my parents’ house and then we’d take the last metro and hang around waiting for 2am. We wanted to get there at the peak time, before people started to leave around 3:30am, and we always walked straight in.”
Once inside, Louboutin’s greatest pleasure was moving to Le Palace’s famous mix of disco and punk rock on the club’s vast dancefloor, formerly occupied by rows of velvet-covered theatre seats. “There were people who were more into flirting, people doing drugs on the theatre balconies, people having sex. I would never give up having a good dance to a great Diana Ross hit for a kiss – that was always secondary. The club’s energy really came from the dancefloor. It was the early days of pyrotechnics, so there were all these lasers, and I loved the fact that nobody faced the DJs when they were dancing. The DJs were great, but we faced each other.” For Louboutin, it was this sense of community, and of communal abandonment, that made Le Palace so special. “It was before AIDS and everyone was having fun, sex was not a problem – it was a very liberated moment. But it didn’t last – it was the arrival of AIDS that ended the big era of Le Palace really: the owner died from it in 1983.”
In the decades that have followed, Louboutin has rarely encountered the singular vitality he experienced in Le Palace. “I’m not nostalgic because I’ve been doing other things and I’m very happy with my life. But the intensity of the Palace has passed through very few people and places.” Then again, he does occasionally sees glimpses of Le Palace here and there in contemporary culture. “The model Anna Cleveland represents that mood. She could be in a restaurant or at the shittiest party and she’ll jump in the pool completely dressed – no matter where you are you can have a fabulous evening,” he chuckles. “I also went to a pre-carnival party hosted by Vogue Brazil in Sao Paulo a few years ago and it was exactly like Le Palace! People were wearing black tie but they were naked underneath – it was extremely dressy and completely undressed at the same time. I barely knew anyone but the ambience – the people dancing, super drunk but always smiling – was really fantastic. It’s probably one of the only times I’ve felt sentimental because it was exactly that energy.”