Head south for 130 kilometres from Lisbon to the village of Melides, on the Alentejo coast, take the dirt road that borders the lagoon and leads to the Atlantic and, after a few minutes of bumpy driving, an 8.5-metre-tall tower emerges from a thicket of parasol pines. At first, it resembles a spaceship: a wide concrete cylinder with a round hole in its roof. But to its owner, the structure represents something much more whimsical. “I call it La Folie,” says the 59-year-old French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, “because it’s just for fun.”
Louboutin visits Melides, a farming town that’s become a destination for wealthy creative types (the German artist Anselm Kiefer and the Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen have houses in the area), at least twice annually: in April, to design his winter collection, and in the summer, to vacation with his eight-year-old twin daughters. He has purchased almost 140 hectares of land here, many of which have been left empty to prevent overdevelopment. Louboutin’s home base here is a compound of eight single-storey dwellings on a lagoon-front plot, with sleeping quarters for his family as well as six more guests. A recently constructed villa has room for four more people, and another structure, nicknamed the Boathouse, sleeps an additional six. Such extensive accommodations belie the fact that, though he is a gregarious character, Louboutin considers himself a poor host. He values his privacy and likens his holiday setup to the village in the “Astérix” series: “Everyone has their little hut and then, when you want, you come together and meet during lunch or dinner.”
The single-room La Folie, which was completed in 2021, after seven years of design and construction, is a gathering point. “I thought, ‘I don’t need to build another house,’ ” Louboutin says on the terrace of his personal compound, which is a 20-minute stroll from the tower. “ ‘But I probably need a beautiful place where you can see the sea.’ ”
The 130-square-metre round building was inspired by Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India — a collection of large-scale stone and marble structures built in the 18th century as astronomical instruments — as well as by Rajasthani stepwells, ancient subterranean cisterns known for their sharply angular staircases. Made of reinforced concrete, it has 20-centimetre-thick walls pierced by keyhole windows and coated in lime wash. On the ground floor, a seating area offers views of the sky through a large oculus in the ceiling, while crisscrossing staircases around the tower’s outer rim spiral up to a flat roof. From there, the views of the Melides lagoon, which cuts through rice paddies out to the ocean, are expansive. Designed by the Egyptian architect Tarek Shamma, who has worked on Louboutin’s European boutiques, the three-storey tower stands in stark contrast to the area’s low-slung thatched-roof houses and is intended as a place for both parties and meditation — not currently a pastime of Louboutin’s, “but if I want one day to meditate, voilà”.
During the day, the Folie feels almost spiritual: cool and quiet even in the heat of summer. But at night, it can take on a clublike atmosphere thanks to a series of glowing LEDs set into the steps under slabs of marble, a design masterminded by the French lighting engineer Erick Helaine. In one setting, the lights shift hue to hypnotic effect, making the place feel like an installation by the American artist James Turrell, with whom Helaine has collaborated for many years. “[The lighting] is amber; it starts to glow very delicately; then all of a sudden it’s bluer, and it starts to melt,” says Shamma. Once night falls, it “goes crazy” with colour, he says, and “you can have a party”.
Indeed, Louboutin inaugurated La Folie with a 150-person birthday bash in 2021 for his then-boyfriend, Rui Freitas, the co-founder of a Melides housewares store called Vida Dura. “The light was amazing,” Louboutin confirms. “But I didn’t permit anyone to go up [to the roof]. I am always thinking about drunk people with architecture!”
Born in Paris, Louboutin first travelled to Portugal in the 1980s with friends. He initially settled in Comporta — then a quiet village, now an overrun beach town — but in 2010 he discovered Melides by chance, when he was returning from the hospital after sustaining a particularly severe paper cut. In coming months, he plans to open a hotel in the village, adding to a property portfolio that includes a 16th-century townhouse in Lisbon, which he co-owns with his business partner Bruno Chambelland; an apartment in Paris; a 13th-century chateau in the Vendée region of France; a house on the Nile in Luxor, Egypt, complete with a traditional two-masted sailboat; and a bolt-hole in Rio de Janeiro.
Louboutin says he buys property partly to justify his obsession with acquiring beautiful objects. His policy is simple: “You only regret what you don’t get.” Currently in storage: a 1960s Brazilian staircase, a gilded and painted 19th-century Ottoman room interior and other treasures catalogued by Louboutin’s longtime assistant, who built an app to keep track of it all.
Many of these treasures have been installed in the latest addition to Louboutin’s Melides portfolio, also designed by Shamma: the two-bedroom guest villa he’s christened La Salvada. The 270-square-metre L-shaped house was built around an ancient cactus and painted in a rosy shade inspired by the pink marble of Vila Viçosa, a quarry town that dates to the 13th century, about a two-hour drive east of Melides. Pieces from Louboutin’s vault fill the double-height sitting room, including a First Nations totem pole and two sets of hand-loomed raw silk 1930s panels by the French designer and weaver Hélène Henry. Louboutin says he takes particular delight in happy accidents, such as the fact that an almost six-metre-wide triptych by the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi that he purchased years ago happened to fit perfectly above the built-in sofa.
The textile designer Carolina Irving, a close friend who followed him to Melides, recommended the Egyptian tenting fabric on the sofa. He showcases traditional craft, too, in the woven esparto grass ceilings, striated terra-cotta floor tiles and a bathroom outfitted in Lioz limestone from a nearby quarry. Several pieces were commissioned, including an imposing plaster ceiling light by the French artist Patrice Dangel that resembles giant vertebrae, and saffron yellow urns by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ducrot that will eventually line the staircase up to the 150-square-metre flat roof, which doubles as a terrace.
La Salvada is a 10-minute drive down the road from Louboutin’s compound, close enough that visitors staying at the villa can pop by for cocktail hour. The designer often mixes either Melides Mules, his spin on the Moscow Mule that substitutes port for vodka and includes Pedras carbonated water in addition to ginger ale, or Melides Grenadines, made from crushed ice with pomegranate and vodka. And he likes to serve Portuguese food, including bacalhau à Brás — a dish of salt cod, potato and egg. During the pandemic, Louboutin spent six months in Melides, but now his schedule has resumed its usual frenetic pace: trips to Miami, China and Egypt are on his calendar. But he will always come back to this particular idyll. “You know what I love about this place?” he says. “There is no noise, only birds and the sea.” And, of course, the occasional Louboutin party.