Entrepreneurs

Secret behind Louboutins: This family business protects the red soles of millions of dollars worth of the iconic shoes

In a bustling factory in Long Island City, New York, just a short subway ride from the tony streets of Manhattan, rows of coveted, red-soled Christian Louboutin shoes sit neatly lined up on metal racks. Workers hunch over tables, repairing and cleaning everything from Gucci fanny-packs to spiked Louboutin sneakers.

For many of those lucky enough to buy Louboutins, after they've plucked the perfect pair from the shelves at Bergdorf Goodman or Barneys and put down their credit card, this unassuming factory in Queens is the next stop.

That's because those iconic (and trademarked) lacquered "Chinese Red" soles are so much of what makes a Louboutin a Louboutin, and The Leather Spa is famous for helping to preserve them. Owners turn to The Leather Spa to have their red-painted soles protected or refinished.

"The red sole is a status symbol," David Mesquita, vice president and co-owner of The Leather Spa, tells CNBC Make It. "I'll be honest, even when you watch a TV show, and you see them cross their legs, you're like, 'Wow, cool she has Louboutins on.' I even see women walking down the street even with a pair of jeans and a simple outfit, but when you see that red sole, I think it just triggers an emotion inside you."

David Mesquita of The Leather Spa in New York City
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David Mesquita of The Leather Spa in New York City

But the red sole does get damaged with wear, Mesquita says.

"People come to us, they ask us if we can put clear coatings or any type of rubber protections. The trick with the rubber is that when you wear it, it stays red," he says of the protective rubber soles that typically cost $46 to $60.

For Louboutins, The Leather Spa offers protective soles in a variety of colors — including a red one matched using a Louboutin shoe as a reference. But since rubber is different than leather, Mesquita says it's "impossible to say the color match is 100 percent."

Mesquita has clients that prefer to have their soles re-painted red, he says, adding that it's around 20 percent of their clientele who opt for re-painting, in which the red is matched 100 percent.

"We first have to completely mask the upper of the shoe for protection. Then gently sand the sole to achieve a nice smooth finish," he explains. "Then, the final step is layers of paint that are applied lightly over the course of four to five applications. We let the shoe dry naturally for an hour or two between applications.

Refinishing the soles of Louboutins at The Leather Spa
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Refinishing the soles of Louboutins at The Leather Spa

"They'll wear it two, three times, it'll get scratched off again, they'll bring it back and have it re-painted red again so that it always looks new when they wear it." The typical cost for re-painting half soles, according to Mesquita, is around $60.

That may sound expensive, but the investment in Louboutin shoes is nothing to sneeze at: They typically start at a little under $700, climbing upwards of nearly $2,000. And seasoned shoppers know that, like with any big investment, it's important to be proactive about protecting the value of the purchase.

"I think it's very important for your investment if you're spending $500, $600 on a pair of shoes, to spend a fraction of the cost to put a little sole on it just to preserve it, to add longevity to the wear," he adds.

Louboutins have become a specialty at The Leather Spa, which has been in operation for over 30 years. It is co-owned by Mesquita and his father, Carlos Mesquita, who operate the repair facility in Long Island City and four locations throughout Manhattan: At the posh Plaza Hotel, Grand Central Terminal, in midtown and downtown. The company offers services ranging from total shoe repairs to shoe shines, and is well-known for extensive leather repair and care.

The Mesquitas have seen decades of shoe trends come and go: In the '80s, Mesquita says it was all about Manolo Blahniks. After that, Jimmy Choos filled the racks in the factory. Now, Mesquita says Louboutins are having a moment, with musicians like Cardi B rapping about the "bloody soles" and stars like Rihanna showing off the brightly painted red bottoms on the red carpet.

Mesquita says that on average, The Leather Spa repairs anywhere between 400 to 1,000 pairs of Louboutins a month, depending on the season. (Using the brand's iconic, Pigalle black patent leather stiletto as an example, priced at $695, that could mean $695,000 worth of shoes or more a month.) The busiest times being between March to June and then again from September to December. The heels hail from all over the world, and customers ship them in from places like Hong Kong, South Africa, France, England Mongolia, Peru, Chile, Columbia and Venezuela.

"We actually even got a pair of Louboutins from Alaska," Mesquita says. "We were questioning ourselves like, 'Where does she wear these?' But hey, good for her."

And recently, "there's been an influx in shoes getting stuck in escalators," Mesquita says, adding that customers will send them pictures of such disasters. "There was a woman from Vegas, and the picture came in at 1 o'clock in the morning, and she was like, 'oh my God I'm freaking out, can you fix this?' And she's emailing us as it happened, when the shoe got stuck in the escalator."

Mesquita even has customers who only own Louboutins, he says. "We have a particular customer who flies in from Dubai, and she always brings us a suitcase, and they're all brand new Louboutins. We do the little rubber soles...she's always in town for about a week, so she brings them in when she arrives, we do all the little protection shields for her, wrap them back up in her suitcase, she picks them up and flies back home."

Louboutins
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Louboutins

For its work, The Leather Spa has received the stamp of approval from Christian Louboutin himself, and is a preferred vendor of the designer. On the Christian Louboutin website, under "Product Care," the brand states "red lacquer on our soles will wear off with the use of the shoes," and recommends customers consult with a leather care professional for specific advice. The Leather Spa is listed by Louboutin as a suggested shoe and leather specialist, and Mesquita describes his company as "basically like a service center" for Louboutins. Every couple of months, the company comes to check out The Leather Spa facility.

"They're just here to see what we're doing, how we're doing it, how we're working with their materials, how we're storing the shoes, how we're handling the shoes," Mesquita explains. "Because if they're recommending us, they want to be sure that they have the right provider servicing their goods.

"To be honest, it's not nerve-racking, because I know everything here is spick and span, you can you can eat off the floor," he adds.

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