What is it about Manolo Blahník shoes that drives women so crazy? What inspired The New York Times to dub him “the high priest of
the high heel” and led Madonna to compare his heels to sex? (For
the record, she said the shoes were better.) They are the perfect combination of fantasy and classic, of glamour and understatement, they are – quite simply – gorgeous. Put on a pair of Manolos and your legs feel longer and slimmer, and you hold yourself taller. I defy any woman to wear them and not become thoroughly enchanted by her own feet.
For an artisan, luxury shoemaker, Blahník’s cultural influence is disproportionately wide. Of course, you would expect a designer of Blahník’s talent to be a fashion deity, but even outside of his world
he is recognisable by his first name alone. Or rather, his shoes are. “Manolos” have become synonymous with elegant, expensive footwear.
I am due to meet the footwear maestro at his Chelsea offices in London.It could be any luxury fashion house were it not for the drawings decoratingthe walls – those distinctive sketches with the unmistakable Blahník flourish.He arrives resembling something between a modern-day dandy and a stylish university professor in a grey-blue double-breasted suit and round tortoise-shell spectacles. His monogrammed shirt, silk pocket handkerchief and polka-dot bow tie suggest his attention to detail doesn’t stop at shoe design.“Where do I get my inspirations from?” he repeats back to me. “I can’t really say. I have a huge concoction of things in my brain. I have got so many tangential directions,” he says emphatically. “I am going to be very difficult to edit,” he laughs. “Poor you!”
The Manolo Blahník story begins in 1942, when he was born in the Canary Islands to a Czech father and Spanish mother. Growing up on a banana plantation is not the usual route for becoming an influential shoe designer; as a child he harboured no ambitions of entering fashion. “One day I wanted to be a dancer, the next day a conductor,” he smiles. Yet fashion crept into his life at an early age via his mother’s subscriptions to American magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar. “They would arrive months out of date, but it was always
a joy when they came,” he says. “That was my first taste of beauty.”
Blahník’s mother has obviously had a huge influence on her son’s aesthetic. Although he was never formally trained in shoemaking, he says he had “an eye trained by my Mamá”. In the post-war Canary Islands, sartorial choices were few and far between. “She wanted to have dresses, but couldn’t get materials. So she had a friend from Madrid or Paris send chiffons and things. After the war there was nothing there,” he says. So Mamá Blahník did what any woman
with a love of fashion would do in the face of post-war austerity.
She improvised, persuading a local cobbler to teach her how to
make her own shoes. “It was fun. How fantastic that my mother willed herself to do such a thing,” Blahník says. “And they were wonderful things: wraparound pieces of silk chiffon and soles with little flowers.”
Yet shoes weren’t Blahník’s plan until much later. He went to university in Geneva, where he studied politics and law. But after
a term he switched subjects to literature and architecture. In the mid-1960s, he moved to Paris, where he worked in a vintage
clothes shop. After that, he came to London.
By then he was dabbling in stage set design, and he fell in with an exciting, creative set including Eric Boman, Peter Schlesinger and Maurice Hogenboom. “In 1971 we decided to go and try America, because Europe was kind of small for us,” Blahník says. “How pretentious!” It was in New York – where Blahník was staying with Andy Warhol’s partner Fred Hughes – that a fortuitous meeting with the then editor-in-chief of US Vogue, Diana Vreeland, took place.
Arranged by Hogenboom and facilitated by Paloma Picasso (a friend from Paris), Blahník went to see Vreeland with some of his theatrical drawings. He went to the meeting wearing a gingham suit, terrified. “I was ridiculously dressed,” he says. “Mrs Vreeland couldn’t believe her eyes. I was in a state of catatonia because she was too impressive for me.” Vreeland took one look at the sketches and told him, “The hats are funny; the dress is a little bit droopy. But ah, the shoes! Young man! Concentrate and do shoes.” And naturally, what Vreeland said, went.
Back in London, Blahník began designing shoes for Chelsea boutique Zapata. In 1972, he created a pair decorated with cherries for Ossie Clark, but forgot to reinforce the heels, prompting Vogue to caution its readers to “employ a sense of humour” if they wore them. By now, Blahník’s designs were picking up a loyal following from the likes of Bianca Jagger and Jackie Onassis. With a £2,000 loan he bought Zapata, which became the first Manolo Blahník boutique.
Going against the grain is what made and keeps Blahník relevant. While clumpy platform shoes were de rigueur in the 1970s, Blahník set about redefining the stiletto. He still loathes platform shoes, believing they distort the body’s silhouette rather than enhance it.
He likens the clumpy nature of his bête noire to “pieces of furniture; bits of commode on the end of your legs”.
It’s fair to say that fashion for fashion’s sake leaves Blahník cold. Trends have come and gone, but his designs have remained a totem of elegance for almost 40 years. “Of course I’m interested in fashion,” he says, “but I’m selective about it.” Rather, Blahník is in the business of beauty. He has a clarity of vision and displays sharp attention to detail. “When I see something bad, I see something baaaaad,” he says. “When I see something divine, I see it immediately. That is the only gift God gave me.”
He treats his customers (or perhaps “fans” is a more fitting term) with respect. Many buy multiple pairs of the same styles, and he admires their aesthetic conviction. “You’re not going to tell them, ‘Buy this,
it’s what people in that film are wearing’. They don’t care about that.
They know what they want and they get it,” he says.
Comfort can be something of a dirty word in fashion, but Blahník, refreshingly, puts an emphasis on it. He thinks that the sight of a woman who can’t walk in her shoes is ridiculous. “Comfort is paramount! Design first, and comfort second. The women who say,
‘I love to wear them, even if they kill me’ are stupid.” It’s true, a pair of Manolos not only look fabulous, they feel fabulous too. Comfort gives his designs effortlessness and, in turn, elegance.
It’s true to say that Blahník belongs to an altogether classier era and, despite becoming a household name thanks
to Sex and the City, he is unmoved by celebrity, even his own. He’s more impressed by his fellow designers, namely John Galliano and Yves Saint Laurent. He admires the women of Saint Laurent’s heyday. “It’s the way they carried themselves. Those are the kind of women I design for. Although for truly elegant women, beautiful dresses and shoes are just fluff.”
As well as the conviction of vision, Manolos are marked by immaculate craftsmanship. Blahník learned on the job and still works almost entirely on his own, from sketching designs at his home in Bath to making the shoes in Italy. “When I’m at the factory, I’m in heaven. I lose track of time.” Is he a workaholic? “Definitely. People say, ‘You’re working too much’, but to me it’s not work. If I didn’t work for just two weeks, I would be absolutely neurotic.”
It also explains why he has never sold out to a big conglomerate. His expansion deal with Kurt Geiger was one of the most seismic moves of his career. “I still have something to say to people,” he explains. Blahník has never had to water down his aesthetic because he has never had anyone to answer to apart from himself. Sure, he could have been much wealthier, but that could mean diluting beauty. And that’s not very Blahník.
It’s an admirable concept, and one that many young designers could learn from. He credits his success with getting into the industry at the relatively late age of 28. He has never believed his own hype, so he has never become complacent. “Whenever I talk about my work it starts to sound so pompous and so pretentious,” he says. “After all,
it’s just shoes. Which also happen to sell very well, and they’re very pretty, yes.”
Interview over, he leaps onto a chair to pose for his portrait, exhibiting the same joie de vivre that his designs possess. Perhaps that’s why Manolos drive women crazy: because the serious business of wearing beautiful things can be so much fun.
New to Harrods. Available soon from The Shoe Salon, First Floor
Calling all budding shoe designers – take inspiration from Manolo Blahník’s sketches and design your own perfect style for us to present to the maestro. This is an opportunity to be recognised by one of the world’s most renowned shoe designers, and the winner will receive
a pair of his much-coveted shoes and an invitation to an exclusive
VIP event in October, where they will meet the man himself.
Simply draw, paint or sketch a shoe design on a single A4 sheet, and email a scan to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line Manolo, or post it to us at Harrods Magazine Manolo, 7th Floor Harrods Publishing, 68 Hammersmith Road, London W14 8YW. Please also provide your full name, email address, postal address and phone number with your entry.
All entries must be received by midnight on 23rd September 2012.
A shortlist will be submitted to Manolo Blahník for judging and the chosen designer will be alerted in early October. Please note we are unable to return entries.