Love is a pair of iguana skin stilettos

Deborah Ross talks to Manolo Blahnik
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Manolo Blahnik shop is a discreet little thing just off the King's Road. No big sign outside. A bell to get in. A single, mint-green shoe with a heel like a mint-green icicle poised with great minimalist elegance in the window. This isn't Saxone, you know. You have to know it's here. Madonna and Naomi and Kate and Bianca and Jerry and Paloma and Ivana and Cher all know it's here. Princess Diana knew it was here. As Manolo says: "Diana, she would say to me: `Manolo, when I feel down I come to your leetle shop and get a leetle lift'." A Blahnik shoe is a spectacularly perpendicular thing. It'll give you a lift, alright.

Inside? Just heavenly, frankly. Shoes displayed on fat, plumped-up, crushed velvet cushions. Shoes perched on burgundy and gilt boudoir chairs. There are lilac shoes, made of the finest leather, with straps like angel hair and another of those icicle heels. Shoes in scarlet silk, hand-decorated with teeny roses and bows. Pointy shoes in the softest, baby-blue suede.

Sequinned mules. Hand-beaded sandals. Stilettoes in iguana-skin. Real iguana skin, Manolo? "Yes. But we no hurt the iguana. We kill the iguana in a very nice way." I don't know how you kill an Iguana in a very nice way. Dizzy with excitement and expectation by now (Manolo has promised we'll play shoes!), I forget to ask. Presumably, though, it involves a clean blow to the skull as it's relaxing on a sun lounger, reading Hello! and wondering what to wear to the Oscars.

Manolo is here today, yes. He is half-Czech, half-Spanish, beautifully groomed, deliciously perfumed, around 60, and a great air-kisser, mwah, mwah! Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd comes in with his wife Polly. "How lovely to zee you, mwah, mwah." Polly needs some new boots. She ruined her last Blahnik boots mucking out their horses. "OH, I love it that you ruin them mucking out the horses. See, my shoes not just for going from the pool to the limo!" The wife of a Russian attache is in. "Madame, how are you? Mwah! Mwah!" Jane Pickering, a fashion editor from Vogue but currently on maternity leave, rings the bell. "Jane! Jane. How iz the baby? Mwah! Mwah!" Jane tries on something very black and pointy and high. "What do you think, Manolo?" "I sink you have the most elegant feet, Jane. I sink they look wunnerful..." "What do you think?" she says, turning to me. "Just the thing for breast feeding," I say, "but then what do I know?" Not a lot, obviously, her look says, which is very confusing because, as ever, I am looking supremely elegant in my DMs.

Do you like Dr Martens, Manolo? "Well, I am sure they serve a purpose, although I can not think what that purpose is for the moment, ha ha." I say that, in terms of shoes with doctorly connections, at least they are possibly one step more stylish than the Dr Scholl, no? "Oh, I wish I was the Dr Scholl. Everyone with the corns and the bunions, they come to me and make me the very rich." I like trainers a lot too, I add. Do you like trainers Manolo? "No. I hate the trainers. Ghastly! Filthy! Always dirty. Look at children from the United States. They have big deformed duck feet through wearing trainers." Can we play shoes now, Manolo? "Yes, Yes. Michael! Michael! Get the nice lady a shoe, pleeze."

Michael, an assistant, brings me something very spindly and sparkling and spikey and strappy in neon-pink. I am immensely excited now. I am Barbie. I am Cinderella on her way to the ball. Every Blahnik shoe is designed by Manolo himself, then handmade in limited numbers from the finest materials. They go from pounds 200 (a basic sandal) to more than pounds 1,000 for an iguana job. (A Blahnik iguana's life may be a short one, but those copies of Hello! mount up.) I try the pink shoes on. Sadly, I am not used to walking on tippy-toe with an effectively vertical foot. I don't do limos or Oscar ceremonies or even Harvey Nichols, only the corner shop when I run out of fags and then my fluffy, bri-nylon, Dougal slippers tend to do. I am utterly hopeless. I have no arches. My foot cannot follow the steep gradient of the sole. Manolo says: "Not really you, I sink." Jane says "hmm" pityingly. The Russian lady goes "tee hee", which is possibly Russian for "tee hee". Manolo suggests we go for our lunch. "But another style might suit me better!," I cry desperately.

"Lunch," he repeats. "I just need some practice," I add tearfully.

"Lunch. We come back and play some more later, okay?".

We walk round the corner, to Terence Conran's Bluebird restaurant. Manolo walks close. He is wearing a pure cashmere coat, the sort you just want to melt into every time it brushes against your arm. He is a magnificent gentleman. A hand in the small of my back when we have to cross the road. He opens doors, helps with my coat, pulls out my chair. Later, he pays the bill, even though I try to insist otherwise. "Are you out your bloody mind?," he cries. "You bloody stupid. You my guest." As an ardent feminist, I find all this so patronising and reprehensible that, should he ever ask me for a second date, I will have no option but to accept directly.

Sweetly, he affects not to take himself too seriously. The following day, he says, he has to go to America to receive some award from the fashion industry for "services to high heels." He thinks this enormously comical. He chuckles until tears come to his eyes. "Service to the bloody shoes, hah! Who cares about the bloody shoe!" But of course he does, passionately. Shoes are his life. They could make him a lot richer and a lot more famous that he already is. He's had a lot of offers over the years. A handbag range, Manolo? A home furnishings range, Manolo? Oven- to-tableware, Manolo? No. Never. The shoe is the thing for him. He even says later: "Oh, yes, I anxious all the time. Will people like my new collection? Am I repeating myself?" There is little else in his life.

Do you have relationships, Manolo? "I have good friends, yes." No, I mean sexual relationships? "Ah. No. I sorry to have to say this, but I never enjoy the sex and find it repulsive. Why, I do not know." You're celibate, then? "Yes." No urges ever? "I have moments when I get hot flushes and I think, well, maybe ... after all. But my fantasies don't really have a body. I find men's body's repulsive." Do you find your own body repulsive? "Yes. I sink I do." But you're so wonderfully handsome! "No, no, no, no ... please, no." He is a great aesthete. He likes things to be exquisite, beautiful, as perfect as possible. Sex is rarely so. Bodies are rarely so. A shoe can sometimes get there, though. Everything he has he pours into his shoes. They may even be his sex life. Certainly, women say they feel very sexy in them. "They are are strappy and sexy as hell. The shoe itself looks like a woman," Sandra Bernhardt has said. This, I suppose, is what makes a Blahnik a Blahnik, and not just an over-priced, tissue-thin fad.

A Blahnik shoe isn't just a fashion accessory. It's a fashion phenomenon in it's own right. There are pairs in the V&A and pairs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is the choice on the catwalk. Patsy Kensit wore a rose-covered pair on her wedding day. The night Prince Charles's interview with Jonathan Dimbleby was broadcast, and Diana wanted to steal his thunder, she attended a dinner in off- the-shoulder black lace teamed with the spikiest, sexiest Blahniks. Paloma Picasso says: "I am never without my Blahniks, even in my dreams." Bianca Jagger says: "Manolo is not a shoemaker. He is a great artist." I say: "Can we go back now and try on some more? I think the problem might have been my thick socks. Would there be a 70- year-old pop sock out back I could borrow? Saxone always seem to have one."

Manolo was born in the Canary Islands. His mother, Emmanuela, was Spanish while his father, Stefan, was Czech. Manolo and his younger sister, Evangeline, who now works with him in London, were brought up on the family's banana plantation. Their father was very strict in an Austro-Hungarian way. You had to be bathed and ready for dinner at 8pm precisely. It was starched shirt and tie for church on Sunday. Bedtimes were strictly adhered to. Manolo loved his father, but they were never close, no. He was always much closer to his mother. Emmanuela loved glamour and beauty. She read American Vogue and Italian Elle. Manolo soaked them up after her. She loved Hollywood movies. Manolo always accompanied her to the one cinema in town. She bought rich silks and had the local shoemaker make up shoes especially before her. "I remember this red silk pair. Oh, so wonderful." He was an aesthete even then. Things that weren't beautiful got short shrift, and would continue to do so. He lost his virginity at 20 to an older woman. It effectively put him off for life. "How do I say this? It was disappointing. It not live up to my expectations. Maybe I had seen too many Hollywood movies." Of course, sex the first time is never very pretty for anyone, but we persist. Manolo didn't bother.

Manolo has to have everything just-so. Manolo has three baths a day and is furiously tidy and sleeps between 100 per cent linen sheets. "I get them from the same place the Pope gets his." Manolo must protect himself from ugliness at all times. (It's terrific he is being so nice to me.) Inspired by his mother, no doubt, he started making shoes as a very young boy. He would capture lizards, then make miniature bootees for them out of sweet wrappers. "I like best the foil from the chocolate bar with the rice crispies in it." Nestle Crunch? "Yes, I sink so. Beautiful quality foil." Did the lizards like his shoes. "Yes! And they look so sweet." Could they walk in them. "I didn't do the heels then." He has always had a thing about feet, too. "When I was 10, my mother take me to the Louvre, and I go round and kiss all the beautiful feet on the beautiful statues." A good foot is a clean one, he says. He does his own on a Sunday, in his afternoon bath. "I scrub, scrub, scrub, then do the nails." The nicest feet he's ever seen? "Raquel Welch has amazing, beautiful, clean tidy feet. Madonna also has a very groomed, pretty footsie." Have you ever encountered smelly feet? "If I did, I would faint!"

He was a bright boy. He read a lot as a child - adored Blyton and Dickens - and still reads a lot. He suffers horribly from insomnia and sleeps only two or three hours a night, so reads between his linen sheets. We have a good talk about books. He liked Martin Amis until recently. "I like London Fields very much but after that ... no." He gives me the names of some Latin American authors I should try. He has a good mind but, no, doesn't hate the air-kissing world of fashion. It is fun, he says, plus he never has to do a great deal of it. When he's in the shop, yes, but aside from that, no. He has a house in Bath, a flat in London and travels endlessly. Where is he happiest? In his factories in Italy, he says, sitting on the benches with the workers, hand-sewing or stretching leather, doing what he does best. Is he ever lonely. "No. Never. I am happiest man alive!"

He studied languages at Geneva University and worked for a while as a UN translator but hated it. He thought he might become a theatrical set designer. He sketched some sets for A Midsummer Night's Dream which, during a holiday in New York he managed to show to Diana Vreeland, the then editor of American Vogue. She said Manolo, your sets are okay, but the little shoes on the figures, they are divine. And that was that. "After that, I come to London, and I buy some cork from Camden market and I put on top some extraordinary patent leather in electric blue, electric green and disgusting pink, and Molly Parkin, she buy them from me." Molly Parkin was featured in the Sunday Times wearing them. After that, Vogue called. And where Vogue calls, everyone else follows. His first mega-famous client? "Bianca Jagger. Oh, so exotic. Like a little bird. She is rather serious now, no?"

Back to the shop where, yes, I get to play shoes again. Baby-pink suede ones. Even iguana ones. But the daintier and strappier the shoe, the more my ankles look like lassoed salamis. Manolo says I can choose a pair to take home. "Pleeeeeze, take whatever you like," he offers. Amazingly, I decline. But he's been so charming, it would seem rude and grubby somehow. We air-kiss our goodbyes. He doesn't try to flog me any Scotchguard. Not Saxone, like I said.

When I got back to the office and told Tamsin Blanchard, The Independent's fashion editor that I declined a free pair of Blahniks, this is what she said: "Are you mad? So what that you couldn't walk in them? You could have given them to me. You are monstrously selfish and I hate you."

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