Artists can find inspiration everywhere, even in thin air. For shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who grew up in Paris’s far-flung 12th Arrondissement, it was reliably found somewhere more concrete—at the Palais de la Porte Dorée, an extravaganza of an exposition hall built to house the Colonial Exhibition of 1931. With its Ionic columns, colorful frescoes, and a bas-relief façade depicting scenes of colonial life, the palais is a pastiche of stylistic influences, ranging from Art Deco to Moroccan architecture. When Louboutin was growing up in the neighborhood, it housed Paris’s Museum of African and Oceanian Arts (now located at the Musée du Quai Branly). There, the future designer spent long hours, enthralled by the wondrously diverse world cultures on display.

Where it all began: Paris’s Palais de la Porte Dorée “was fundamental” for Louboutin.

To this day, Louboutin—still elfin in his 50s—draws a straight line from those long-ago visits to what became his life’s work: creating art for the feet. So when he mentioned to Olivier Gabet, director of Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, that he yearned to make an exhibition in his hometown, the venue was never in doubt. “The palais was fundamental for Christian,” Gabet says. “He spent all his weekends there. It’s an important part of his story.”

“Christian Louboutin L’Exhibition[iste],” which opens on February 26, is the first major show of the designer’s work in Paris. “It’s an exhibition to share what he is and what he loves, and to pay homage to artists,” says Gabet, its curator. This startling, groundbreaking show includes exclusive collaborations with craftspeople and artists whom Louboutin admires. It is calculated to surprise.

Louboutin draws a straight line from those long-ago visits to what became his life’s work: creating art for the feet.

Gabet plans to take us on a dizzying ride through Louboutin’s life—and footwear—with side voyages to distant lands. In one room he re-creates a Bhutanese theater with enormous carved wooden columns. In another, the “Atelier” room, he maps the intricate, 100-step process of constructing a shoe. Yet another room, “Fetish,” pairs shoes not made for walking with equally upending photographs by the filmmaker David Lynch. Other collaborating artists include Imran Qureshi, a Pakistani who paints searingly, often using a blood-red shade to evoke the violence of the world.

A dizzying ride through Louboutin’s life includes the Love shoes he made for Princess Diana.

The shoes on display range from the phantasmagoric, bristling with studs or spikes, to the downright sentimental, such as the famous Love shoes, conceived for Princess Diana in 1992 and reissued several times over in the years since. Other concoctions, unknown even to Louboutin aficionados, have never been previously shown. Almost all feature his trademark red-lacquered soles. The exhibition concludes with a space that the designer has called “a place where anything is possible.” It would spoil things to describe it. Just go. You’ll see. For a man whose career and shoes have risen to improbable heights, it’s a perfect fit. —Penelope Rowlands