In His Shoes
by Fiona Clarke
Manolo Blahnik opened his first shoe store in 1973 on Old Church Street in the fashionable Chelsea district of London, where it remains today. With a unique sense of precision and proportion, the Manolo Blahnik signature style is easily recognizable: the spindly heel that flares subtly at the base and the elongated pointy toe, with its ever-so-slightly rounded tip.
Having earned industry acclaim, won dozens of design accolades and worshipped by female shoe aficionados everywhere, Manolo Blahnik has never paid much attention to fashion trends. Instead, for 47 years and counting, the Spanish shoe designer has perfected his own formula for fabulousness: start with a slender heel and add exquisite embellishments (or not). Sticking to his ways has made Blahnik a traditionalist, yet also turned him into the coolest guy in the shoe business.
Born in the Canary Islands to a Spanish mother and Czech father, Blahnik grew up the son of a banana plantation owner. As a child in the tropics, he made tinfoil shoes for iguanas. First homeschooled, then sent off to a Swiss boarding school, his parents enrolled him at the University of Geneva to major in Politics and Law. They wanted their son to be a diplomat: Manolo had other aspirations.
Switching his coursework to Literature and Architecture, Blahnik received his degree in 1965. Continuing his education, he moved to Paris to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts and Stage Set Design at the Louvre Art School.
In the late ‘60s, hoping to become a set designer, he landed in London. Seeing his sketch for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which somehow included a high-heeled sandal with ivy and cherries – Diana Vreeland told him he should be making shoes.
PERFECTING THE TRADE
Never having studied shoemaking in school, Blahnik learned the skills by visiting shoe factories and talking to pattern cutters, technicians and machine operators. When the mainstream shoe styling was still dominated by clunky platforms in the ‘70s, he revived the sleek stiletto heel, which has since become a classic. Hating wedges, the designer believes in the power of heels and the sex appeal they convey.
Blahnik is a hands-on designer. He not only draws the design of a pair of shoes, but also handcrafts the shoes himself. He carves the wood last, which he then hand sculpts the shoe onto. When the time comes for mass production, he oversees every step to ensure each shoe is an exact copy of his original creation. He keeps every one of his designs. Last year his personal collection of over 30,000 pairs, previously stored in his Bath, UK estate, were properly cataloged in a temperature-controlled vault near his Chelsea headquarters.
SHARING THE STAGE
At age 75, Blahnik continues to collaborate with some of the biggest names in fashion and Hollywood to create best-selling silhouettes. Vetemants designers Demna and Guram Gvasalia went straight to Blahnik for the satin pumps and waist-high waders for their Spring 2017 Collection, citing him as the first person who comes to mind when one thinks of high heels.
Blahnik also created the suede court shoes for the buzzy fall debut of the New York label Khaite and made the sandals and boots for LVMH Prize winner Grace Wales Bonner’s Fall 2017 Collection.
Rihanna, a devout Manolo fan, recently launched their third collaboration called “So Stoned.” The four-piece collection consists of clear PVC sandals embellished with colorful Swarovski crystals.
Currently on exhibition, Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes, is an intimate, thematic, curated collection spanning 45+ years of work by Blahnik. Providing insight into his private archive, it showcases over 200 of the designer’s favorite shoes. The exhibit also includes exclusive footage of his workroom, artistic drawings and sketches. Having already toured in Milan, St. Petersburg and Prague, there’s still an opportunity to view the show in Madrid, Dallas and Toronto.
Blahnik is also the subject of an upcoming documentary by the artist and fashion journalist Michael Roberts. Titled Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards features appearances by Anjelica Huston, Sofia Coppola, Paloma Picasso and Anna Wintour, or “the conductor,” as Blahnik likes to call her. “It’s [ the documentary] very amusing. But then, I always have a fun time, no matter what I’m doing.”
For that reason, he can’t fathom retiring. In fact, he finds the idea depressing. “I’m very lucky to love what I do. If you love what you do, you enjoy it until you drop,” Blahnik shares. “I just want to make pretty things and make people happy. It’s not work.”
Manolo Blahnik shoes are available locally at Saks Fifth Avenue, Biltmore Fashion Park and Neiman Marcus, Scottsdale Fashion Square.