Well heeled: A rare audience with Manolo Blahnik

Interview,Carola Long
Saturday 27 September 2008 00:00

Manolo Blahnik tumbles into the room wearing an extremely dapper royal-purple suit, purple and yellow knitted tie, orange suede shoes and black circular glasses à la Le Corbusier. He stretches out his hand, and when I shake it he squeaks in pain, shaking, then retracting it. Have I accidentally crushed the phalanges of the world's finest shoemaker with an overly firm grip? Thankfully, no. He has had a sudden attack of cramp. This is the result, he explains, of just having flown in from Spain the previous evening; he is very tired, he says, and a bit disorientated.

As Blahnik talks, he makes the exaggerated facial expressions of a silent movie star, arching his eyebrows and clasping and waving his hands, yet he is anything but silent. He talks intelligently, but also with the manic quality of tiredness. Later, when he sits for a photograph, posing primly like Maggie Smith (his comparison), the photographer can barely capture him in repose between the avalanche of anecdotes about how Catherine Deneuve twitches her lip before pictures or how Marlene Dietrich turned up on Helmut Newton's doorstep, naked under a trenchcoat, asking to be photographed.

"I get more tired by travelling than anything," says the 65-year-old designer. I feel weary just hearing about his next engagement – a string of personal appearances in department stores across America, "Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago..." Blahnik lists them while rolling his eyes mock plaintively. After these he will go to LA to accept his Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award on 25 September, which will honour his contribution to fashion and entertainment with a pavement plaque, alongside ones for Giorgio Armani and Tom Ford. "I am pleased with the award," he says, "but I have only collaborated on three movies in my bloody life! The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve, Marie Antoinette [directed by Sofia Coppola] with this wonderful woman Milena Canonero [the Oscar-winning costume designer]. Then I have done these things with Sex and the City – this is my only experience in movies."

However, these projects have increased Blahnik's star status in America, and he admits that "there is a film in America of people standing in line for hours to meet me, it sounds awful to say that but it's true. Sometimes I feel like a peach or a tomato on a fruit stall in Portobello Market, but when I am there I enjoy it." He has crazy stories about his experiences on tour. "Once, this woman said, 'Would you sign my leg? I want you to do it prettily in a really fine line.' So I autographed her leg. I was signing books at the same time and five hours later I had forgotten her because I was so catatonic with tiredness, and then suddenly she came back in with a tattoo of the signature. It was so shocking, that she had gone through this physical pain."

It might be an extreme example, but it's a sign of the cult following that Blahnik has attracted throughout his career. He was born and raised on a banana plantation in Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canary Islands in 1942, to a Czech father and Spanish mother. His mother, who is now 95, loved shoes, and learnt to make her own designs – and now he thinks about it, perhaps he gets his attention to detail from her (as she recently imparted the X-ray observation that Gordon Brown has hands like a butcher). Certainly, Blahnik was inspired by the imported and always slightly out-of-date magazines he read there – Life, Time and Vogue. His parents wanted him to become a diplomat and enrolled him at university in Geneva to study politics and law, but after a term, he switched to literature and architecture. In 1965, he left for Paris to study art and worked at a vintage clothes store called Go. After a few years there, he moved to London where he worked as a PR and buyer for Joan Burstein, who owned the Feathers boutique (and now owns Browns). Next he considered becoming a stage set designer and took a portfolio of drawings to New York in 1971 in the hope of fulfilling his aim. His friend Paloma Picasso introduced him to Diana Vreeland, then editor of US Vogue, who told a deeply intimidated Blahnik to "do things. Do accessories. Do shoes."

Back in 1970s London, man-about-town Blahnik began designing shoes for Ossie Clark; they looked ravishingly exotic – one pair had cherries entwined around the ankles – but were decidedly wobbly until he honed his craft and found a skilled manufacturer. "If you're buying [his] shoes, employ a sense of humour," warned British Vogue. In the same decade he bought out the shoe shop called Zapata on Old Church Street for which he had been designing. The shop attracted glamorous customers – from Jane Birkin to Lauren Bacall – and it now bears his own name. He gradually broke into the US by creating a collection for Bloomingdales in 1978 and opening his first US store – on New York's Madison Avenue – the following year. The US is now his biggest market, and an American buyer once told Blahnik's shop manager that there is an ABC of what always sells – Alaia, Blahnik and Chanel.

It was in the mid-1980s that the fashion department at Vogue, where Anna Wintour was the editor and wore Blahnik's shoes, coined the abbreviation "Manolos". In 1991 Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell dropped by his shop to buy a pair of heels and a pair of flats each, "for racing between shows", and in May that year Marge wore a pair in The Simpsons. In 1994, Blahnik's shoes received one of their greatest moments in the limelight when Princess Diana teamed a black grosgrain pair with a cocktail dress for a party at London's Serpentine Gallery. It was the same night that Prince Charles (by whose side she generally wore flat pumps) admitted his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles on national television. However, it was international television, in the form of the HBO series Sex and the City, that really catapulted Blahnik to fame, with one particular episode summing up Carrie Bradshaw's obsession with the label. Taking a wrong turn, Carrie is confronted with a mugger. "Please sir," she implores. "You can take my Fendi baguette, you can take my ring and my watch, but don't take my Manolo Blahniks."

"They kept screening that episode on a loop at my retrospective at the Design Museum," he says. It's clear he isn't entirely enthralled by the SATC phenomenon, even if it has boosted his appeal. "I feel ambiguous about it," he says. "In America it has given me this kind of icon, Madonna kind of thing which I am really not. I never wanted to be the most famous, the most beautiful, the most extravagant. This kind of thing has almost forced me to be more detached from the machine of celebrity. I am not a movie star or a football player, I just do my thing. If I sell, good, if I don't, well I try to do something about it."

While Blahnik is being photographed, a flustered man knocks at the boutique door. He is clutching an internet printout and sheepishly asks for the so-called Something Blue shoe – a bestselling replica of the blue, jewelled court Blahnik designed for the pivotal proposal scene in SATC. The man is ushered to the back where he purchases the shoes as a present for his wife.

One thing Blahnik says he won't do to expand his business is to sell it. "I have never been tempted," he says. "When I worked with John [Galliano] on shoes for the Christian Dior couture shows, it was extraordinary because his mind is like wildfire, but it's difficult to work with the machine [Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the group that owns Dior]." Blahnik, who has no formal training, doesn't even have a design team – it's just him and the people who help him realise his drawings in small, family-run factories in Italy. "I think I am one of the smallest surviving brands," he says. "This world of money is not my thing, although I know the factories would be happy. As long as I have this tight group of people working the way I want, it's fine."

The brand might not be huge, but Blahnik's influence is, particularly this season after a period of being slightly outside high fashion's limelight. Thanks to him, the idea of the artisan shoe designer has had a revival. He paved the way for now established designers such as Christian Louboutin, and up-and-coming names such as Rupert Sanderson, Jonathan Kelsey and current hot favourite Nicholas Kirkwood. Sometimes he is "happy that I am the father of this renaissance, this shoe designers' resurrection, but there are too many around, and at the same time I am annoyed because I see my things all the time but revamped in some kind of weird way. I wouldn't say copied," he adds, "but I do see people doing my shoe, you know, very pointy, maybe they have just seen them somewhere and they don't know." Certainly Blahnik's quintessential style – pointy toe, slim, elegant heel – is having a resurgence at Balenciaga, Lanvin and McQueen this season. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous jolie laide look with clumpy heels and truncated toes, is starting to look stubbornly cumbersome beside Blahnik's flights of cordwaining fantasy, his flair for capturing femininity and elegance without appearing fussy or bland, and his talent for creating modern experimental shoes while retaining a signature style, often redolent of the 18th century. He doesn't care about trends, never has, never will apparently, and combines diverse sources of inspiration rather than having a coherent theme. Of the students he sometimes sets projects for at the Royal College of Art, he likes the ones with the most eclectic, "feverish imaginations" and is keen for me to mention James Nisbet, who now works for Stella McCartney.

Blahnik shows me two of his own latest creations: a pair of fine-heeled grey boots covered in metal discs has been inspired by the Crusades, and are reminiscent of chain mail, while a pair of ankle boots with a leather grille around the ankle is "a cross between a ribcage and one of those horrible plants you have in hotel entrances in Hawaii, really common plants. No not an aspidistra, urgh! Every Victorian house had an aspidistra, urgh!" Aspidistras are just one of the things Blahnik expresses a comedic dislike for, along with platform shoes and noise. Every time a phone rings or a siren wails, he announces that he is being persecuted.

Blahnik's stilettos aren't exactly as cosy as a pair of trainers (the designer's bête noire) but they are sculpted and architecturally structured to be as comfortable as possible. While I was waiting for him, I tried on a pair of pale, silvery-blue court shoes with an ornate buckle and super-high heel, and they cosseted the foot perfectly. As Blahnik observes, if his shoes weren't comfortable no one would buy them. Part of his appeal is making footwear that women can walk – or rather glide – in, rather than having to stand like statues, as some shoes make their wearers do. Blahnik might be known for his heels – British Vogue's editor Alexandra Shulman once said, "If God had wanted us to wear flats he wouldn't have invented Manolo Blahnik" – but the designer does design flats, and believes they can be just as alluring. "Flats make you even more cat-like," he says. "Think of Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman: when she dances in flat shoes you have never seen anyone exude that kind of sex without having to do anything." He also used to make dainty, flat pumps for Diana Vreeland, with whom he became friends. He says his only illegal acts in his life were taking her favourite Devon cream over to America by plane, unaware that fresh produce was forbidden.

It was Vreeland who advised Blahnik to "do something that brings you joy," he recalls. Clearly the designer is passionate about his craft, and happiest when working. He says, "it's making the shoes that I like best ... the two or three days waiting for the sample I get really high. It's tough and I don't sleep at all, but I like the moment of creating – actually I hate that word, I like doing it." He finds it hard to sleep most of the time anyway – on a typical evening he will read until 2.30am or so, and at the moment is engrossed in a book about the Opus Dei sect. He lives alone, and the question of partners sets him off again: "Are you out of your mind? I love conversation, but I don't think I could have a relationship with anybody."

By way of changing the subject, he looks down at his tangerine suede shoes and says, "I was going to wear them to collect my Walk of Style award but now I think they look weird." Is he excited about the accolade? "I like the idea of the bit of pavement, but I won't relate to it. I thought I was going to be excited the first time I saw my name on a pair of shoes but I wasn't." Fortunately for him, stylish women the world over are very excited by the sight of a pair of elegant shoes bearing the words Manolo Blahnik.

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