Heart & sole “WE MEASURE SUCCESS ON CREATING BEAUTIFUL OBJECTS”
Unrivalled film buff? CBE? World’s greatest footwear designer? Manolo Blahnik is a shoe-in.
Two minutes before a scheduled phone call with one of the most important shoemakers of our time, a terrible realisation dawns: I am not wearing shoes. It is 6am and the prospect that the man referred to as the emperor of shoes, who has created the “sole of perfection”, as Beatrix Miller once put it, might somehow intuit bare-footedness seems real. A quick change and my anxiety is assuaged, even though the call is of the landline type, not Skype. Which seems to suit Manolo Blahnik himself equally well.
“I don’t like myself anymore. In the pictures, I am talking about. As a person I can tolerate myself. In pictures I don’t,” he says, with complete sincerity. He is in the minority. Blahnik, though plainspoken, is tirelessly warm and, despite talking incessantly to fashion journalists and editors throughout his life, is an excellent sport. He very politely excuses himself for choosing an interview time that is early before saying we can discuss “whatever you want to know. I have all the time.”
It is hard to believe the 74-year-old has any time at all, given his output and influence. His is a label imprinted on the contemporary psyche, thanks to Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, whose Manolos played a supporting role, namechecked ad nauseam by countless editors, actresses and musicians, and recognised by the Queen, who named him an honorary Commander of the British Empire in 2007. He has said himself his shoes have the power to save marriages.
The kind of recognition a life’s work of this calibre receives is something that has Blahnik bamboozled. If he’s famous, he’s the last person to comprehend it. “I don’t understand when people stop you in the street and say: ‘Hello Manolo, can I have a picture with you?’” he says in his blend of Received Pronunciation and his native Spanish with the occasional florid emphasis. “Oh my god,” he says, taken by a new thought, as he flits seamlessly between anecdotes. “Today I went to my store in Burlington Arcade and two lovely Chinese girls came up and asked for a picture and then another Spanish girl, and then someone else. And I said: ‘Look, I have to go now because I am late …’ If I go out people recognise my stupid old face!” he says with mock horror, laughing.
“I don’t think he recognises it. He is about doing what he does and doing it well,” says his niece, former architect and now CEO of the company, Kristina Blahnik, who places her uncle’s creativity first. “We measure success on creating beautiful objects that are creative … I would, hand on heart, say that is Manolo’s measure of success as well.” If he has trouble grasping his level of influence, it is only because he is concerned with other things.
Those who know him describe him as extremely cultured. The erudite references that pepper his conversation are the result of an intense curiosity. “[He] is constantly running on some sort of nuclear battery. His mind moves at the speed of light,” says Kristina. “He is so aware of what is going on and he talks to people. He talks to his team, he talks to the press, he is reading; everything you know from the classics to the latest books and watching the latest films. It is hard to keep up with him because culturally I don’t think anyone could surpass him.” When the conversation moves to Australia – where Harrolds boutique will make his shoes available here for the first time since he began his label nearly 50 years ago – he reels off a mix of
famous and lesser-known Australians. It’s the kind of thing that spills out when the door to his encyclopaedic mind is ajar. This time it’s Cate Blanchett, Jenny Kee, Nicole Kidman, director Gillian Armstrong and costume designer Norma Moriceau. Most of them are movie names, because he is a film aficionado in the truest sense. His knowledge is intimidating, anchored from time spent in Paris, where he studied art and saw the Nouvelle Vague films of Jean-Luc Godard and Luchino Visconti ( The Leopard is one of his favourites). He fell in love with Romy Schneider and Alain Delon at the theatre and opened himself to the cultural seedbed that was the French capital.
“It was 1968 and Paris was burning, almost with energy, and they had change in mind,” he recalls. He tells the story of one summer going to see the Doors, whom he describes as “the important young Americans”, and being taken with the youthful guile of Jim Morrison et al. “It was the beginning of my discovery of what could be possibly done with the energy, how to channel [it], politically or otherwise.”
With so much to draw on, the resulting designs, in anyone else’s hands, could easily be costumey. Not so for Manolo. Creations in silk, brocade, mink trim and exotic skins with oversized buckles, exaggerated bows and swirling straps are all anchored by heels, lasts and welts that are as light as slippers. “From the fairytale of Cinderella, women all around the world have been in search of the perfect shoe,” observes Harrolds womenswear buyer Kathleen Buscema. “The experience is what makes Manolo Blahnik like no other. It begins with discovery; the shoe picks her.”
The septuagenarian’s shoes are enjoying some extra buzz at the moment. Collaborations with Rihanna, Vetements, New York label Khaite and young London-based designer Grace Wales Bonner have helped this along. He draws energy from the present and the new guard. “The names are difficult: Demna Gvasalia and the other one,” he says, by which he means brother Guram Gvasalia, of the collective behind Vetements. “They have another concept of fashion,” he says. “I love people who are courageous and have conviction, and they have conviction.”
While he thinks some of the new gen have definitely “got it”, he still yearns for elements from the past. He bemoans the splintering of a throwaway society and the shrinking class of people who exude elegance. “Madam Kennedy and people like that in New York like Nan Kempner, all that generation is disappearing.” He admires Chinese couture clients, the “classic chic” of Japanese women and the Englishwomen he sees in his adopted hometown Bath in tweed and twin sets. “They don’t dress chichi but they look fantastic! I love this country for that reason. People don’t give a damn about things.”
It is why core values of quality and integrity govern the way both Manolo himself and the business at large operate. All the shoes are made in Italy and, until he injured his tendon, he would himself try pairs on in the factory. “You can go crazy with the decorations and things like that but the most important thing for me is the comfort,” he says. “I do not have people complaining at all and I have been doing this for 45 years now.” Splashy labels and loud branding are not his style. “We haven’t got a kind of glaring beacon that this is a Manolo Blahnik … there is a modesty about our shoes,” says Kristina. There are only 12 stand-alone stores when there could easily be more, seeing that his shoes are sold in more than 30 countries. The business has remained independent and isn’t rushing to expand. “I think in this world of brands being owned by large conglomerates you lose a little bit of that soul,” Kristina says, pointing to their rare freedom. “We are not beholden to anything. It is unconventional; it is not following the path that is written.” When Manolo left the banana plantation in Santa Cruz de la Palma on the Canary Islands where he grew up, he was beginning to write that path. When he was 16 or 17, he can’t remember which, he went to work for his uncle, then director of the United Nations in Geneva. “Every day we would put papers in the chambers and I found that so tedious.” So he escaped to Paris, where he went to art school and studied set design at L’École du Louvre before moving to London. A stint designing costumes for film and theatre followed before he was set on to shoes on the advice of Diana Vreeland, to whom his friend Paloma Picasso introduced him. By 1971 he was making shoes in his own name with clientele that included Jane Birkin, Penelope Tree, Charlotte Rampling and Grace Coddington. He borrowed £2,000 to open his first store. Staying steadfast to the traditional values that served him well in those early years has meant he has endured in 2017. When once a young Manolo worked up the courage to compliment Luchino Visconti on his costumes, the filmmaker told him: “Without tradition, we’re nothing.” Owning a pair of Manolos taps into a bygone glory. “My customers tell me they feel like the shoes belong to something very important.” A documentary directed by Michael Roberts looking at his life is due out any day. Retrospectives, inevitable after Manolo’s kind of career, make him nervous. Unfortunately for Manolo there is a big one coming up that will tour Russia, Spain, Canada, Japan and his father’s native Czech Republic. “I have my young lady here helping me because I am really lost,” he says of an unseen assistant. He will continue to work because he simply wants to. “I like to work. I haven’t got anything else to do. My curiosity and my energy to me are the same things. Maybe I was born as what they call a neurotic or hyperactive child. I have to control myself!” Women everywhere will pray he doesn’t.
Shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, with a model wearing the waist-high boots he created for Vetements.
$1,299, FROM HARROLDS. $1,299, FROM HARROLDS. ALL MANOLO BLAHNIK SHOES, $990, FROM HARROLDS.