Heart & sole “WE MEA­SURE SUC­CESS ON CRE­AT­ING BEAU­TI­FUL OB­JECTS”

Un­ri­valled film buff? CBE? World’s great­est footwear de­signer? Manolo Blah­nik is a shoe-in.

VOGUE Australia - - Vogue Mood - By Alice Bir­rell.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.