I Work For...: Priyesh Shah Is Assistant To Top Shoe Designer Manolo Blahnik: Meet Manolo's foot soldier
Wednesday 15 September 1999
Nick Hornby talks about Manolos in his novels, and they even featured in the opening credits of Channel 4's Sex and the City, when Sarah Jessica Parker said: "You aren't a Manhattan girl until you've got $400 worth of Manolos."
Yet Mr Blahnik doesn't design solely high heels, he makes shoes for everyone, from the shop assistant who wants to look sexy, the barrister who wants something more severe, to my Mum who likes beautiful shoes to wear underneath her saris. Shoes are the part of your wardrobe which celebrate your independence and spirit.
I met Mr Blahnik in 1994 while organising Antonio Berardi's graduation show at St Martin's, where we both studied fashion. Berardi designed a collection of remarkable beauty and we needed shoes to compliment the clothes.
Being a believer in the "you don't get unless you ask" philosophy, I felt there was nothing to lose in calling Mr Blahnik. He was very much the king of shoes, up there on a pedestal, and yet he took the time to help us out, which was a huge acknowledgment of Antonio Berardi's talent.
I very much helped build up Berardi's business, but last spring we went our separate ways. It was then that Evangeline, Mr Blahnik's sister and business partner, asked me if I would like to join the company. Mr Blahnik was looking for someone who could take the business forward without detracting from what he does as a master craftsperson.
Although he and Evangeline are like chalk and cheese, their upbringing has helped them to work together to develop Manolo Blahnik into a very sound business. Mr Blahnik makes the rest of us look like OAPs because, despite being 55, he has the energy of a 19-year-old. He never takes holidays and spends much of his free time studying culture, from ballet to MTV.
I've been researching his forthcoming book, and it's been amazing to go back in time and see his significance then. For example, he was the inventor of jelly shoes in the Seventies, and long ago anticipated the flat-shoe revival that we are now experiencing.
He may be an ambassador for European design, who receives letters acknowledging his importance from Tom Ford of Gucci and Issey Miyake, but he also recognises the need for a sense of reality in life, which I love - after all, shoes are not going to cure cancer.
In my desire to take Mr Blahnik's creativity forward, I recently inspired him to collaborate with the Royal College of Art and work with their footwear students. He's been excited by the students, mesmerised by their take on things.
Yet while being enthusiastic about London and what it can give him, he has no respect for its lack of morals and manners. With my Asian cultural background, I deeply respect his old-fashioned and gentlemanly qualities. I call him Mr Blahnik, which I think he quietly likes. All he expects from me is honesty, good manners and the ability to have fun. He may get in a rage, but it will last just 10 seconds. He also tells wonderful stories about crazy parties he went to in the Seventies. Yet his ego is so small that he still can't believe people have so much admiration for what he does.
He is sensitive, funny, erratic and naive, but also very sure, and I feel protected in his company. He inspires me constantly.
I've gradually begun to acquire his tastes and obsessions. Every season I gain more and more trust and am given more room to learn the craft. Whenever people in the fashion world acknowledge me as a person and see that I'm not just second best, we make a connection. I receive far more recognition by doing this than I would had I followed my original plan to become a knitwear designer for a big label. And I've been able to meet people I used to dream about, from Anna Wintour of American Vogue to buyers from famous stores.
I've been an adviser and external lecturer at the Royal College myself, but at the moment I prefer to focus on learning more about my work.
It's important to be able to enjoy what you do in this business, but above all you need to be able to earn respect. I am one of the few people who can understand a designer's mind as well as how to run a business.
As Mr Blahnik's assistant and collaborator I work on everything with him, be it design, production, shows or his itinerary. Many people don't realise that behind every great designer is a talented assistant. If young designers ask me for advice, I tell them that in order to be successful they need a Priyesh.
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