Designers don’t come more legendary – or more iconic – than Manolo Blahnik, the prolific footwear auteur who has had women everywhere under his spell for nearly five decades. To meet him is to understand why…
THE PHRASE, “THEY don’t make them like they used to,” could well have been invented for Manolo Blahnik. For a start, the septuagenarian designer barely needs an introduction, arguably the most famous shoemaker in the business, if not the most loved. And it sure is easy to love him – and not only for the wonders he can fashion from a crystal buckle and a ream of jewel-tone crêpe de Chine. This is a man whose wonderful, candid, larger-than-life eccentricity envelops you like a hug, whose presence is so magnetic and cheerful that you never want to leave it, and whose laugh, wicked wit and accent – an impossible-to-pin-down mixture of aristocratic English and Spanish, the result of his upbringing on a banana plantation on the Canary Islands – just compounds it all. In fact, if Mr Blahnik didn’t exist, you would struggle to make him up.
To meet him, then, is to immediately understand his shoes. After all, this is not footwear that has ever marched to the beat of anyone’s drum apart from Manolo’s – avoiding trends, and far more concerned with the more noble and enduring pursuit of beauty. “I’ve never followed fashion,” he told me the first time I interviewed him, a few years ago. “It’s one of my biggest problems, but it works because I’ve never done what others have!”
That he hasn’t. For nearly half a century, Mr Blahnik has spun forth cantilevered and contorted creations that are inspired by nothing but his own magical imagination, each one looking like a rainbow confection from some kind of glorious fever-dream. “I make shoes so that people can just transport themselves into a sort of reverie,” he tells me during our chat this time, ever the whimsical artiste. After all, who needs trends when there’s fantasy to be had instead?
In this vein, it’s a case of once a rebel, always a rebel. And Manolo is still very much surprising us all – not least of which with his latest collaboration with urban renegades of the moment, Vetements. Creating a series of satin kitten heels and sky-high-thigh-high boots for the brand, it is a fitting but nonetheless curious partnership with a label as known for going against the grain as he is – albeit normally at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum.
But still. Isn’t it great to know that, even at 74, the same iconoclast who put rubber instead of steel in the shoes he made for Ossie Clark’s 1972 show – the press remarked on how the models “moved so differently” – still has the verve, and the compulsion, to surprise and delight? “I’m going to carry on working till I drop,” he tells me matter-of-factly, but still unable to hide his unmistakably theatrical lilt. “I will be independent till I die. I love what I do, and I wish that for everyone. I adore it. And I’m lucky because I found that out when I was young. In the end, it was Mrs Vreeland who found it for me, and I really have not enough words to thank her,” he sighs.
Manolo is prone to talking at such speed, regularly punctuated with excitable falsetto, that you’d be forgiven for thinking many of his comments are merely throwaway. This topic, however, he really takes his time over, words heavy with sentiment. After us chitchatting about Korean cinema – he highly recommends I watch all of Kim Ki-duk’s back catalogue – giggling about La La Land – “If I see any more of this Hollywood trash I’ll vomit. La La whatever – I walked out!” – and gently lamenting the youth of today – “A girl in my office asked me the other day who Brigitte Bardot was. I could have strangled her!” – things have all of a sudden got a bit serious. And that’s fair enough. Mr Blahnik is, after all, thinking back with reverence to the legendary woman who set him on his shoe-making path to begin with.
With a career that spanned five decades, Mrs Vreeland is widely considered the original fashion editor, almost inventing the role. Eminently quotable, totally bonkers and as influential as they come, Blahnik met her in 1970, when she was the Editor of American Vogue, famously telling him, “Young man, make things, make accessories, make shoes.” So he did.
“Paloma Picasso introduced me to Mrs Vreeland. She’s like my sister,” he says of Pablo Picasso’s daughter. “I’ve known her since we were children. She genetically inherited something from her papa and mama, but she also had something different.” He continues, “I adore Mrs Vreeland,” talking about her as if she’s sitting in the next room, alive and very much kicking. “She’s infront of me every day. I have pictures of her… she’s my darling godmother in a sense,” he says tenderly of the formidable icon to which he – and we – owe so much. “She was both empowered and in power since she was born. She was powerful from when she was a little child,” he explains.
Understandably, the universe found a way to draw these characters towards one another, proving that birds of a feather do indeed flock together. After all, Manolo’s secret weapon – aside from a collection of impeccably tailored double-breasted suits – is his ability to speak to women, through his shoes and beyond. No wonder he’s spent his life surrounded by grand dames and fashion legends – from Vreeland to Picasso, Lady Di to Kate Moss.
“I’ve had so many muses; women I love who have been my inspiration for years – Anna Piaggi, Mrs Wintour, Tina Chow…” he lists, unable to recall them all. So do they all have something in common in order to be ordained with this accolade? “Yes – the way they move their neck, their hand, their face… it’s the gestures. But they also all expressed – through their thoughts and dresses – that they really couldn’t give a damn about the distinction between men and women,” he says. “They didn’t care about it – they just did what they thought was great and they did it beautifully. And they will be remembered in years to come as great, empowered women.”
On this topic – something Manolo has been praised with enabling via his heels – he muses, “Empowerment is a very difficult word because women are more powerful than men these days. Men are just facsimiles. They’re a copy of what they used to be.” When pressed on this, he explains, “I don’t like men at all. Men nowadays are hideous. They’re just horrible, hairy, they smell bad… I prefer women. They’re superior to men, in fact.”
It’s impossible not to smile and – let’s be honest – not to agree, either. Mr Blahnik, as expected, is as feminist as they come. It seems a good time to ask if he attended any of the Women’s Marches that stormed the globe. “The future is female,” I tell him, quoting many a placard. “Oooh I love that!” he squeals, “And it was wonderful to see those marches. It was one of those reactions that you need from time to time. This is what I’m saying… men better watch it, because women are coming to get it. And in every way – in films, in writing, in politics… what I like very much is real women, up there, doing things, working, and pushing men out of their place!” We know what we’ll be wearing on our feet to do it, Mr Blahnik…