“Manolo lives for beauty. He is the Proust of shoes,” states André Leon Talley former Vogue editor at large in an interview with The New Yorker. High praise indeed, but as the designer of some of the world’s most covetable footwear, Manolo Blahník, is deserving.
Blahník is a craftsman with intimate knowledge on the geometry of a shoe, in particular the precision and balance required of a high heel. Blahník carves each prototype heel—the process begins on a machine and is then completed by hand with a chisel. Once the design is perfected, Blahník hands the shoe over to his team of artisanal craftsmen.
Born in 1942, Blahník grew up on a banana plantation in Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canary Islands. Through trial and error, he found his way to art school in Paris, and in 1968 to London. Believing his career was in set design, Blahník travelled to New York in 1970. His friend Paloma Picasso arranged an interview with Diana Vreeland, the then-editor in chief of Vogue, where he showed some of his drawings for stage sets and costumes. Vreeland was impressed by the shoes and encouraged him to pursue a career in shoe design.
Blahník opened his first store in London’s Chelsea district in 1973. By 1977 his shoes were sold through Bloomingdales. Today Blahník’s signature style stiletto heels—BB Pump, Hangisi Pump, Swan Pump, Campari Pump, Chaos Sandal—are instantly recognisable, highly desirable and worn worldwide with no age restrictions. “It’s not about age, it’s about attitude! You just need the right style and have the right composure,” claims Blahník during our interview.
Drawing every shoe himself, Blahník understands the intricacies of every design. A vast array of materials are used: satins, silks, brocade, crystal, lamé, sequins, rhinestones, buckles, beads, neoprene, rawhide, lace, mesh, and for a few lucky customers, diamonds, emeralds and rubies. They weigh next to nothing, and are meticulously handcrafted to ensure quality and longevity. Famously, Madonna has declared “Manolo Blahník’s shoes are as good as sex. And they last longer.”
“Shoes, help transform a woman,” explains Blahník. High heels in particular perform many miracles: they can make or break an outfit; add height; and inspire confidence—they say a lot about a person. It really is no surprise that Blahník has amassed a cult following worldwide. The secret to his success could be attributed to the empowerment women feel when slipping on a pair of Manolos.
Manolos are so well known that they are now commonly referred to as a noun. This status can be attributed to the insanely popular American television series, Sex and the City. Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, has her answering machine message relay “It’s Carrie. I’m shoe shopping.” In one episode, Bradshaw is exploring the magazine fashion closet when she squeals, “Oh my god, do you know what these are? Manolo Blahník Mary Janes! I thought these were an urban shoe myth!” The pièce de résistance is when Bradshaw is mugged and pleads with her villain “You can take my Fendi baguette, you can take my ring and my watch, but please don’t take my Manolo Blahník’s.” Sarah Jessica Parker is a staunch supporter and wears the brand almost religiously. The power of this brand endorsement brought the name Manolo Blahník to a mass audience. “I am incredibly grateful to Ms. Parker, she gave me an incredible push all over the world,” says Blahník.
Last year, Blahník and Rihanna collaborated on two varied collections: Denim Desserts and Savage. Rihanna, known as much for her edgy personal style as she is for her music, exclaimed “I have always loved Manolo Blahník’s. Mr Manolo’s shoes are the most luxurious and timeless shoe there is! His designs make women feel incredible when they wear them, so to be able to collaborate with him and combine our sensibilities has been a dream come true!” Blahník is also enthusiastic about the project and said “working with Rihanna has been amazing and her drive, passion, creativity and style have been reflected in the designs, with fabulous results”. The Denim Desserts collection was a limited edition of six designs. One example of the jaw-dropping designs they produced, is the high heeled denim boots that soar to the tops of the wearer’s thighs and belt around the waist. It’s a style that’s true to the singer’s aesthetic. Of course, Rihanna sported hers out in the streets with little more than a t-shirt, proving that confidence and her approach to fashion go hand in hand. “She moves beautifully and has a good heart,” said Blahník.
Perhaps Blahník’s ability to adapt to current trends while still maintaining a strong sense of brand identity is exactly what keeps his loyal followers coming back for more. Last year also saw him team up with Vetements. Demna Gvasalia, of the cult label said to Stephanie Hirschmiller that “Manolo Blahník is one of the world’s most famous shoe designers. His shoes can be found all over the world and are a staple piece for film stars, editors and women who trust the perfect quality of the brand.” Blahník’s iconic Hangisi satin pump was mercilessly reconstructed. Many of the designer’s most recognisable styles were also reinvented. There were silk slingbacks with their backs folded down; jewel toned thigh high satin boots; satin ankle boots ‘autographed’ by Blahník, amongst other awe-inspiring creations. Unsurprisingly, the shoes sold out quickly.
2016 heralded another major milestone—the 30th anniversary of the Carolyne slingback. Considered one of the brand’s most successful shoes, it sold out immediately on debut. Named after New York socialite Carolyne Roehm, the shoe is timeless. The heel has been tweaked once or twice in its three decade reign, but the overall look has not changed—because it just works. Roehm on her website states “I still own and wear the style. Now, that is great design—CLASSICISM defined.”
Anna Wintour, also a fan of the brand, had a style created for her in 1994. Wintour buys multiple pairs of the nude slingbacks every season, and the ‘beige’ is adjusted to work with her skin tone. It is all about personal style, though in Wintour’s case, it is also a powerful statement. “If it’s comfortable, then it adds importance, of course! It also gives a sense of continuity. Why change when you know what you want?” states the designer enthusiastically.
When asked if there was an ideal woman, a muse for his shoes, Blahník claims “Not at all. I like certain ordinary people the most! I see an anonymous person walking in the street looking incredibly powerful simply through the way they move.” But he does seem to have a preference—Naomi Campbell, Lucy Birley, Bianca Jagger, Katharine Hepburn, Kate Moss—are some of the many strong, independent women he has credited in his book Manolo Blahník: Fleeting Gestures and Obsessions. “In a world almost extinguished of manners, appearance, and elegance—not to mention grace—these women, who typify all these qualities, have been inspiring me forever, and continue to do so.” The two women who have influenced him the most though are “My mother first and then, Mrs Vreeland. I owe everything to them!”
The work of British sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore have inspired Blahník. All three are intrigued by the beauty of shape and place it on a pedestal. Shoes take on a life of their own, they are objects—objet d’art for some. “I love the way you can see people walking in shoes, how they decorate feet. They bring a refreshment to people’s lives. They’re entertainment for women—or their husbands,” the designer told Alison Beard. Shoes are really so much more than a foot covering. They tell stories of function, necessity, frivolity and so much more.
When designing a collection, Blahník creates for himself a story—a mystery woman and scenario. The dream situation infuses itself into each and every drawing, giving it character and creating that little bit of magic—each shoe telling its own story. Vreeland (thankfully) immediately recognised this talent and magic, and for that the world is truly grateful. We can only hope that Blahník has many more stories to tell.
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