Well heeled: Manolo Blahnik and his left-hand woman
As his exclusive collection for Liberty arrives, Manolo Blahnik talks footwear, films and fabrics with his niece and 'left-hand woman' Kristina. Carola Long listened in
Monday 06 September 2010
According to Kristina Blahnik, one of the things that makes her uncle, Manolo, the happiest is being in his factory, where, she says, "he sings to himself".
She continues: "I have always thought Manolo's shoes have a lot of character; but then when I went to the factory for the first time and saw them, I realised that Manolo will actually tell a story to himself about a particular shoe when he is cutting the pattern. He will imagine who it will be worn by." Manolo then admits, after some mumblings about how he tells these stories merely to keep the people working in his factory happy, "I do, I just go crazy. It excites me when I do something I like."
"You are in genuine ecstasy," says Kristina, "and, actually, the other time I saw you so excited was when you went to the Liberty archives." Manolo agrees. "Oh, that was exciting," he swoons. "They do have England there, compressed into an archive. Look at this fabric. [He holds up a delicate pump in pop-artish blue spots.] It's almost modernistic, and it's 19th-century. It looks 1960s but it isn't. I could faint!"
These might be the things that really, really thrill Manolo, but when I sit in on him being interviewed by his niece, in his elegant offices on the King's Road, his default setting seems to be "excitable".
That's whether he's in raptures over an obscure movie (the term "film buff" doesn't cover his encyclopedic knowledge and immense enthusiasm), or describing the shoehorn he has created for Liberty, or recalling his horror at discovering an imperceptible air bubble on a boot. Stories are accompanied with theatrical gestures and flourishes and wide-eyed amazement, horror or surprise, like a magician conjuring up melodrama to accompany his illusions.
His niece has a more composed air about her, helped by her impeccably straight posture, and lean, 6ft figure endowed with incredible legs. This contrast gives their exchange a lively dynamism.
Kristina: When it comes to work I'm very Germanic and organised. Does that frustrate you?
Manolo: It doesn't frustrate me. It's useful.
K: Are we like chalk and cheese?
M: More like night and day.
Kristina describes herself as Manolo's "left-hand" woman; his right-hand woman is her mother Evangeline – Manolo's sister – who is managing director of the company.
Kristina has her own architecture practice called Data Nature Associates. As well as designing the interiors of the label's international shops, the firm has helped to create the bespoke World of Manolo area on Liberty's ground floor, which will house the limited-edition collection. Shoes will be displayed on weathered Art Nouveau ironwork gates, and shoppers can recline on a patchwork silk love seat in fuchsia and eau-de-nil. The collection itself features exclusive shoes in Liberty fabrics (including a fine stiletto in a geometric Sixties print), a French-violet and Turkish-rose-scented candle created with the perfumer Lyn Harris, bow ties, stationery, canopy umbrellas, notebooks, cushions, and even his own fabrics for Liberty.
It's a big deal. Since he set up shop in the Seventies Manolo Blahnik has become the world's most famous artisan shoemaker, worn by supermodels, Princess Diana and Anna Wintour. He creates flights of footwear fantasy which cosset rather than contort the foot, which look elegant and feminine without appearing fussy. Although his renown turned into celebrity status after Sex and the City, Blahnik has never boosted his business through the many collaborations that so many designers embark upon, from mobile phones and sky boxes to limited edition vodka bottles. In Britain, his shoes have never been sold outside his flagship boutique on the picturesque Old Church Street in Chelsea, and Manolo has only worked on a clutch of projects: a shoehorn for Habitat, a stool for Christie's and a tuberose candle for Bergdorf Goodman.
His favourite piece from the collection is a shoehorn: an elegant, feminine, leaf-shaped design with which he seems mesmerised, holding it up to the light like a jeweller admiring a high-carat diamond.
M: I really like this – it's my favourite piece from my collection. See how it looks in the light! I like to touch it.
K: Someone could use it to twist their hair. [Tries to demonstrate but her sleek bob is too short.]
M: Yes, but I'm afraid you don't have the right kind of hair. Not like Marlene Dietrich in The Devil is a Woman. [Cue extended reverie about the costumes and sets.]
K: I don't know anyone who is as obsessed with films as you are Manolo. One of your prints for Liberty is even called Rosebud; An Homage to Orson Welles. Explain to me why you called it that.
M: Well, the pattern is of rosebuds, and everyone has seen Citizen Kane with the famous line " Rosebud". So do I name it after the director Josef Von Sternberg? No I named it after Orson Welles.
K: There's another scarf, with a shoe pattern, called Rothko's Shoes, but I don't get the Rothko reference at all
M: Well it doesn't matter if you don't. I do. I am very selfish; I couldn't care less. To me these little twists of that particular shoe remind me of a Rothko painting.
K: Do you ever think in a straight line?
M: Straight line, what is a straight line? I don't like them.
Conversation with Manolo Blahnik is like being inside a kaleidoscope, with his thought evolving in ever more colourful and surreal configurations. His mental landscape is rich and exotic – like his shoes, and the places such as Africa, Russia and Spain which inspire him and feature as themes in his latest book Manolo's New Shoes, and like the land of his childhood.
He was born and raised on a banana plantation in Santa Cruz de la Palma, in Spain's Canary Islands, to a Czech father and Spanish mother. His beloved mother, who lived long into her nineties, has been a huge influence.
K: Do you think Granny has ever been your muse?
M: Oh how insulting! [said with a disdainful wrinkle of the nose]. Muse! I hate that word. It sounds like Amanda Harlech. I am so sick of hearing, "Oh Amanda Harlech is my muse, Daphne Guinness is my muse."
K: Ok, but Granny was your greatest critic and the one you respect the most. You would show her drawings and she would say, "Oh that's pretty! That's not pretty."
M: She had an incredible artistic temp-erament, so she knew by instinct what women would wear.
Blahnik clearly shares this talent, and inspires a fervent loyalty. When he makes public appearances at US department stores, there are queues of women eager to meet him. One asked him to sign her leg, only to return later having had the autograph turned into a tattoo. While we are in the shop a smart Chelsea woman with glossy hair and crisp jeans introduces herself and fervently expresses her gratitude to him for making "such beautiful shoes."
Now, thanks to his collaboration with Liberty, his devotees can branch out beyond shoes; they can inhale the clean rose scent of his candle and cosset their necks in one of his silk scarves. It's Manolo's world; and now we're a few steps closer to living in it.
Manolo Blahnik for Liberty of London launches on 8 September, on Fashion's Night Out. Manolo Blahnik and Yasmin Le Bon will be at Liberty from 6.30pm to open the World of Manolo room, and Blahnik will stay until 8pm to meet customers.
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