The shoe designer Manolo Blahnik is in full manic mode. I meet him at his King's Road HQ to discuss his latest project, Blahnik by Boman, a book that is a collaboration with photographer and long-time friend Eric Boman. But having flown in from Dusseldorf the night before for a dinner party honouring Donatella Versace ("I adooorrre Donatella. She is a really loyal person and she knows how to do a mean dress!"), Blahnik has lots to talk about.
Within minutes our chat has careered beyond the straight and narrow and has touched upon the Mercury Prize-winning album by Antony & the Johnsons, I am a bird now ("Love it! Adore it!"), Enid Blyton ("I was a Blyton freak!") and the aforementioned Ms Titbit. Even the combination of lack of sleep, stress and fashion fatigue cannot contain his effervescent mind, which continually bubbles over with brand new notions, leaping from one thought to the next, topic to topic to topic, like some kind of short-circuiting computer game. There are times, in conversation with Blahnik that it is possible to imagine you really do see sparks fly.
Paloma Picasso remembers meeting Blahnik in the introduction she has written to the book. "[He] stood out as a sophisticated, fascinating young man with a mind like a wayward comet, full of fantasy and fun." Aside from his unchallenged position as the world's greatest shoe designer Blahnik is foremost a culture freak. Something that becomes obvious the moment you open Blahnik by Boman, a substantial coffee-table book (a dining table might be required) that positively creaks with the weight of stylistic references.
Cleverly, Boman's still-life photographs are lavishly presented unencumbered by text, while a meandering, free-association style conversation punctuates the pictures. "It's how we speak to each other," explains Boman when I speak to him later. "A scholarly text would be deadly pretentious. The form of the book was established right from the start - never mixing text and picture on the page. The bursts of dialogue convey how our minds work. It's trying to explain our creative processes."
These "bursts of dialogue" are also very funny. "How corny!" is how Manolo refers to an orange spaghetti sandal sitting in a colander of pasta, while a picture featuring a lace-up in a line up of corn-on-the-cob elicits, "The raffia flat is inspired by what some Spanish peasants wear. It didn't sell one pair!"
The running commentary within the book is far from one-sided. At times the back and forth of the repartee flows so fast and furious as to resemble a pair of finely matched fencers. This book is the ultimate in cultural sparring. Cyranna (all Blahnik's shoes are given names), a soft vole brown and dusty pink rosette shoe perches on top of a silver skein of hair on a wig stand, beside a four-poster bed. The text reads as follows: "While filming Barry Lyndon, Marisa Berenson pays a visit to Norma Shearer on the set of Marie Antoinette." Eric: " ... the Queen has ordered all her wigs for Le Hammeau to be built over armatures of chicken wire. She thought it would contribute to the rusticity!"
In one line Blahnik spans almost 40 years of film history, creating a fanciful costume drama rendezvous between two screen goddesses. Within a handful of the exquisite colour plates there are a glut of references: Helmut Newton, Jacqueline Susann (author of Valley of the Dolls), Anita Ekberg, the fashion f
illustrator René Gruau, the cool glamour of nurses ("I was infatuated with one Sister Ruth," muses Manolo, "then one day I saw her in her street clothes and the magic was just gone"), Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev and "a little Lutheran gloom". All this and a style tip on the upkeep of your favourite Manolos. "Stuff your shoes with acid-free tissue paper and they'll keep their shape forever," advises the designer.
The concept for the book followed the box-office success of Blahnik's exhibition at London's Design Museum in 2003. "The thread of inspiration running through Manolo's whole output painted such a strong picture of the person I know," Boman writes in the book. "When I spoke to him about it he told me to start that minute, and do what I wanted - quite extreme for him.He let me just dive in. "At first he had a longing for a book in black and white, but I told him, much as I love it, it would short-change us both, severely limit me expressively, and not give a correct record of his work, where colour is as important as anything else. Interestingly, in retrospect, he never said a shoe was portrayed unflatteringly, other than once he thought a shoe loomed too large in the picture."
Boman recalls only two instances of disapproval: Blahnik nixed the use of playing cards as props, and perhaps, given the present climate, rather shrewdly requested Boman retouch out two lines of icing sugar on a mirrored table next to a white marabou-feathered boot. Kate Moss is indeed one of Blahnik's great friends. Not surprisingly, the supermodel gets a name check. "I could see Kate as Lady Lyndon today," Manolo imagines.
The ease of Blahnik and Boman's working relationship is not surprising as their friendship goes back 35 years to 1970.
"I saw this vision with a beautiful plastic bag in Kensington High Street," explains Blahnik, "and then you didn't see the face because he had this blond thing [indicating a sweeping fringe across his face] that was, you know, too much!"
"I was waiting for a bus and an eccentric looking person, even for the time, came running across the street, darting traffic left and right, and started talking to me," remembers Boman. "That was Manolo!"
Both men were foreigners (Blahnik from the Canary Islands, Boman from Sweden) in a city pumping with energy and wild creative types. Soon the pair met Paloma Picasso, Eric met Peter Schlesinger (a muse of David Hockney) and the fun began. Blahnik remembers going to see The Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park in his lunch hour.
"The creativity? Oh, yes. OH, YES!" he says as if auditioning for the Meg Ryan role in When Harry met Sally. "London was new to us and exotic." Blahnik now lives between a flat in London and a house in Bath, Somerset. But what originally inspired him to make his home here? "Are you kidding? England was always in my mind. I was an Enid Blyton freak. And Great Expectations. I read the book then I saw the movie. It's heaven. I knew all the dialogue. And I adore those popular 19th-century novelists. Really camp. Big stories of families, children born out of wedlock, the war. I adore things like that. I love big canvasses." A particular favourite literary work is Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover: A Romance.
Blahnik's own story is just as fascinating as one of those melodramatic novels. Born in Santa Cruz de la Palma, in 1942, to a Spanish mother and a Czech father he was educated at home on the family's banana plantation before travelling to Geneva to study international law and literature, then Paris to study art. By the end of the 1960s he had arrived in London and was working as a buyer in a boutique while moonlighting as a "face" on the fashionable London art scene.
At the start of the 1970s, along with Boman and Picasso, the trio headed for New York. It was there that, as fashion legend would have it, he met Diana Vreeland, in her last year as editor-in-chief of US Vogue, who upon seeing his sketches barked, "Do accessories! Do shoes!"
"It was a set of accidents," says Blahnik. "A friend of mine had this flower shop that sold boots, he was Peter Schlesinger's friend and so I got involved with the shoes but I didn't have a clue. My mother was incredible, she used to design her own things. I think it must be a kind of genetic thing."
With a new-found confidence Blahnik headed for Walthamstow in north-east London, where he worked with the craftsmen at the Turner Brothers footwear factory to develop his craft. "I love Mr Turner," says Blahnik fondly, "he did the most divine, the most beautiful samples for me when I started."
Blahnik was soon caught in a whirlwind of good luck. Trendy restaurateur Michael Chow asked him to create a collection. He designed the Japanese-inspired Brick, a bright green and black patent leather and cork shoe that looks, well, like a brick with a strap attached.
In the book, Manolo explains: "I feel superstitiously protective of this Japanese clog. It was the first thing I had published. Molly Parkin [the writer and style guru] did it. A double page!" Boman then adds: "That's typical - she gave me my first break, too."
"Everybody helped me," says Blahnik. "[The fashion artist] Michael Roberts, Grace Coddington, Miss Miller [Beatrix Miller, then editor of Vogue]." He was soon the toast of London, elegantly draped across the gossip columns of Ritz magazine and even appearing on the cover of British Vogue with actress-then-model Anjelica Huston. He was designing shoes for the capital's hip-and-happening designers, including Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes and Jean Muir. In 1973 he opened a tiny store in Old Church Street in Chelsea (he is still in residence today) and began to build his business. By the end of that decade he had opened his first boutique on Madison Avenue in New York and by the end of the 1980s had gained a hardcore of female customers (and some men too) desperate for his highly individual, highly priced shoes.
"Women go crazy for his shoes because when they step into their high-heels they feel they are being elevated to semi-goddess status," says Paloma Picasso in her introduction. But it was in the late 1990s that Blahnik's own celebrity went over ground with the arrival of the Sex and the City TV series. It has been said that Blahnik's shoes were the fifth character of the show, sharing the spotlight with Sarah Jessica Parker and her trio of friends. There was even a storyline written about them when Carrie Bradshaw (Parker's character) is mugged. "Give me the fucking Manolos," her assailant snarls. Although the exposure gave Blahnik more free prime-time advertising than he could ever wish for, catapulting him into the mainstream, he is weary of the whole business.
"Oh, do we have to talk about it?" he says. "The whole thing's dead now but I'm telling you it almost killed me! It was too much. I'm not easy with this kind of notoriety. I never was and I never will be. I've never been comfortable with this kind of thing: [funny American accent] 'Hi, Manolo, how you doin'?' Or the customs people saying: 'How's business?'"
He does, however, have nothing but good things to say about Parker, who even helped him get the footage from the hit show for his exhibition. He is equally fond of another American idol: Madonna. Isn't it interesting, I suggest, that being known by a single moniker, he is just like the blonde ambitious one.
"Are you kidding? I wish I was Madonna!" he says. "I have an incredible debt to Mrs Ritchie, because she said something divine that is going to be on my tombstone. She said my shoes are 'as good as sex and they last longer'."
Despite the worldwide acclaim and sometimes ugly clamour for Manolos, Blahnik has cleverly kept his business small. It is a family concern he shares with his sister Evangeline. "It is a luxury for me in the sense that it's all my own decisions. It's all my responsibility," he says.
Although he has been approached many times by large luxury goods companies looking to acquire his successful brand, Blahnik has always declined. "I've been very lucky that a little voice just kept saying, 'Erm, no'. I'd rather struggle if it means we're able to do what I want to do. If I want to do shoes like Radclyffe Hall, I do Radclyffe Hall. If I want to do Catherine of Russia, I do Catherine of Russia. This is a great freedom."
It is this creative freedom that is so brilliantly celebrated on the pages of Blahnik by Boman. Because of the prohibitive cost it is unusual to find many books featuring specially commissioned photographs, yet, encouraged by Blahnik, Boman met the challenge in his own idiosyncratic way. "Photography has become synonymous with carting hordes of people and equipment from place to place, so-called 'stylists' bringing in masses of rented props," says Boman. "What appeals to me about still-life photography is that it can be between me and the subject through the camera. This book was made in total solitude, at home, with bits and pieces that I had around the house."
And what are the stand-out photographs for Boman?
"I have favourites for various reasons, often to do with the process," he says, "making peacock tails and artificial redcurrants and other things not normally considered part of picture taking." He picked a flat, red, yellow and black shoe from 1981 because it reminded him of the artist Alexander Calder. "When I put it next to the postcard I've had on my bathroom wall for 20 years, it came alive!"
Others, he loved because of unexpected connections with Blahnik. "I'd be guided by some spirit, and do a picture that worked for me as an image, like the satin shoe with the marcasite fringe that hangs on an upside down book of photographs of the gothic cathedral in Prague. Visually it worked, the Prague connection made sense, but I had no idea that Manolo's father sang in the choir as boy."
The imagery is truly disparate, from a lettuce green suede shoe with lettuces to a furry mule caught in a mouse-trap. References to female icons span Kay Kendall to J-Lo. There is the photograph of a black satin shoe with a chiffon veil that alludes to Jackie Kennedy. Manolo comments: "The widow shoe - it depressed everybody."
For all his soigné elegance, from the top of his slicked-back hair to the soles of his cream and tan co-respondent's shoes, Blahnik could certainly never be accused of being a cultural snob. At one of our earlier meetings he is excited by a website he has just discovered dedicated to The House of Manolo Blahnik, a collective of African-American and Latino gay and transgender drag queens. "Have you seen this? Can you imagine? I was shocked. This is divine. You have to have a sense of humour. I love it!" he explodes with all the gusto of a child pulling at his mother's apron. Blahnik, however, does not seek to bring attention to his own life, but instead wishes to bring a vast array of inspiration to yours.
"Manolo and I became friends because we found we had much in common," says Boman. "We had passionate loves and hates, often for the same things, switching languages mid-sentence as the subject warranted. This we have kept up for 35 years! The book really is about that friendship.
'Blahnik by Boman' is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £48, on MondayReuse content