Art of Style

The designer interview: Manolo Blahnik

In a world of breathtakingly beautiful shoes, one name stands above all others – and with very good reason. GILLIAN BRETT talks to the man who made footwear fantasists of us all

Feet first: the designer Manolo Blahnik

There are fashion legends and then there is Manolo Blahnik. With a five-decade-long design legacy to his name, Blahnik is widely considered to be the greatest shoemaker of the 20th and 21st century. When the very utterance of your first name conjures beauty and elicits a sense of desire, you know you’re a success story. At least, you would expect so – Blahnik remains remarkably humble. “I haven’t perfected my craft yet… shoemaking is not that easy,” he assures me, in an accent that reveals half a century of living in England hasn’t diluted his melodic Spanish lilt. I suspect this modesty is a side effect of his notorious perfectionism, and because he remains deeply impassioned about the meticulous craftsmanship of what he does – to this day, he still draws and designs every shoe and bag that bears his name. “You have to have love for what you’re going to do!” he enthuses.

At 77 years old (he’ll be 78 in November), the man himself is just as iconic as his signature silhouettes – slim, often concave heels in demure heights on slender soles with sophisticated finishes. From his small round tortoiseshell glasses and dandyish bow ties to his fabulous double-breasted suits (he favors pastels and bold checks), Blahnik’s image is as much a part of fashion folklore as Anna Wintour’s bob and the late Karl Lagerfeld’s leather gloves. Unfortunately, I don’t have the pleasure of meeting him in person for this interview – the global health crisis has meant we’re speaking over the phone – and I wonder what dapper attire he’s donning as he chats animatedly from his home (an 18th-century townhouse on a royal crescent, which he bought in the ’80s and still adores) in Bath, Somerset. As I ask about his seemingly endless imagination, he reveals that imagining is exactly what he’s doing: “My ‘boundless creativity’ comes from god knows where! Even talking to you now, I’m imagining things, I’m seeing what sort of shoes you’re wearing…” he says. Oh, to be working from home in Manolos.

Lockdown hasn’t been easy for the designer. Having fallen ill with bronchitis last January, he’s had to be extra cautious with social-distancing measures. “I’ve been very, very careful about staying at home – that’s why I’m talking so much!” Indeed, his stories zigzag energetically, each one more entertaining than the last: lunch dates in the ’70s with the late Italian fashion writer Anna Piaggi – dressed up to the nines in a shabby London bistro called The Casserole – tumble into tales of Bianca Jagger wearing his shoes while posing on a white horse in Studio 54 in 1977. “I was always with my friend Tina Chow; we had such a divine time… I miss her tremendously. It was the most extraordinary time of my life in London. Tina was such an inspiration for everything. Tina and then Bianca… Everything was impromptu and spontaneous – they were different times,” he says wistfully. From the exuberance with which he shares his anecdotes, it’s obvious the late ’70s and early ’80s were formative years for him – personally and professionally, although it’s impossible to pin a time period on his design aesthetic.

I was always with my friend Tina Chow… It was the most extraordinary time of my life in London. Tina was such an inspiration for everything

Utterly resolute in his vision, Blahnik doesn’t do trends. And yet he has his finger precisely on the pulse, whether intentionally or not, and is innately drawn to era-defining muses. “I love this girl, Dua Lipa,” he says. “She’s exciting. It’s kind of familiar what she sings and the way she sings – almost like I heard it before in the ’70s or ’80s.” Between 2016 and 2017, he collaborated with R&B royalty Rihanna on a line that included the internet-breaking, thigh-high denim chap boots that Jennifer Lopez wore in the music video for Ain’t Your Mama. “Rihanna was extraordinary because she had incredible ideas – she’d say, ‘I want jewels all up my leg and PVC…’ She’s easy and she knows what she wants, and she will get it; she has an incredible charm. We ended up doing one stripe up to the knee with big chunky jewels and she loved it – so did I in fact. She was fun to work with.”

Collaboration has played a central role in Blahnik’s sartorial biography. Some of the earliest shoes he made were for British fashion designer Ossie Clark’s 1971 show, Quorum Black Magic. “It was incredible but, alas, I didn’t have the technique yet and I didn’t put steel rods inside the heels. Those poor girls were moving around like mad; they couldn’t walk properly. I remember Sir Cecil Beaton saying to me, ‘Is this a new way of walking?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, do you like it?’, and he said, ‘Oh I love it!’ It reassured me, but I thought it was going to be the end of my career as a shoe man.”

Many of Blahnik’s collaborations have been more personal, marking life milestones and important events for his close clients. Such as the pair of Godichefac sandals he customised with crystals and blue insoles for Kate Moss to walk up the aisle in. Throughout her long-standing career, the supermodel and style icon has often been photographed out and about wearing his cult pumps. “I’ve kept all my Manolos from over the years and now they’re all coming back,” Moss tells me. “His Mary Janes were a staple of the ’90s, and I loved what he did with [John] Galliano; they were the dreamiest fantasy shoe.”

Both Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell – seen here with Blahnik at the 17th annual Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards – are ardent fans of the maestro’s beautiful designs
The ‘Eustratios’ point-toe printed leather stiletto pump and ‘Fanku’ point-toe printed leather lace-up stiletto ankle boot

He has worked with many of the fashion greats over the years: Calvin Klein, Azzedine Alaïa, Oscar de la Renta – the list goes on. More recently, he teamed up with one of London’s most exciting emerging designers, Grace Wales Bonner. “I first met Manolo Blahnik at his offices in Marylebone. He is such an expressive character and a deeply aesthetic person. We both share a similar idea of beauty and connected immediately,” explains Wales Bonner. “I love how he connects to ideas of fantasy, romanticism and sensuality, and explores this through footwear. It’s always been exciting to work with him, because anything feels possible. He’s also really interested in the cultural references I bring into my designs… He’s so iconic because he’s found a direct way of communicating through creating beautiful, timeless shoes. It feels like a very authentic expression of his world; it always feels so pure.”

Blahnik’s high praise of Wales Bonner echoes her words: “She’s got a point of view so strong; I love her stuff. She’s a divine girl, so chic, so elegant in the sense of pure; she’ll have just two or three things – a jacket and maybe a tunic and some shoes – and she wears it so beautifully. To me, she’s one of the most extraordinary designers.”

My mother was fabulous; I owe everything I am to her. She died nine years ago, at 99 years old, and I miss her every day because she was so inspiring
Blahnik’s mesmeric illustration of the ‘Fanku’ boot

While he remains a traditionalist in his approach to design, and a lover of classicism, this ability to tap into the zeitgeist comes from an inherent curiosity about the world, culture and the arts. “I like to know everything. I’ve always been like that; my mother was always like that, and my father, too. My mother was fabulous; I owe everything I am to her. She died nine years ago, at 99 years old, and I miss her every day because she was so inspiring. She had an extraordinary mind. Why? Because she was always curious, up to the end… that, I love.”

His mother was Spanish, his father Czech, and he was born in Santa Cruz de La Palma in the Canary Islands in 1942. He grew up on the family’s banana plantation and, as anyone who’s watched the documentary Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards will know, it was here that his obsession with shoemaking began; he recalls shaping candy wrappers into shoes for the small reptiles he discovered in the gardens. He has one younger sister, Evangelina, who was managing director of his eponymous empire from 1981 until her daughter, Kristina Blahnik, took the reins as CEO in 2013. In his late teens, Blahnik went to study law in Geneva, eventually making his way to London in 1969 – via a stint in Paris to try his hand at art and set design – and immediately fell in love with the British capital. It was following an introduction to Diana Vreeland, then editor-in-chief of American Vogue, by his close friend Paloma Picasso that his future in shoemaking was sealed.

Being in my homeland is where I can relax and switch off. Surrounded by nature, and of course my beloved dogs – this is really where I am at my happiest
The ‘Sambona’ square-toe two-tone stiletto ankle boot and ‘Mage_Sil’ round-toe velvet embroidered lace-up ankle boot with curved stiletto heel
The ‘Fombra’ round-toe leather ankle strap stiletto sandal with brass chain detail and heel and ‘Callasli’ leather criss-cross strap slingback stiletto sandal

“Oh, Mrs Vreeland!” he exclaims joyfully. “If she hadn’t encouraged me, it would have been a disaster in the beginning.” While showing her his set and theatrical designs, Vreeland noticed how elegantly he’d sketched a high-heeled sandal decorated with ivy and cherries and said: “Young man, stick to the extremities and make shoes!” He took a hands-on approach and learnt his craft from shoemakers in the best Italian manufacturing studios. Sill famous for his lavish sketches – they are more akin to shoe portraiture than technical drawings – he keeps a sketch pad and a Faber-Castell 3B pencil on a string by his bedside so that if he awakens, struck by an idea, he can immediately draw it. What does Manolo Blahnik dream about? “Usually dogs. But I just think about divine people, women. Once, I was absolutely possessed by Edith Sitwell, and another time it was Lana Del Rey.”

Soon after our call, Blahnik is bound for the Canaries, where six Labrador puppies are awaiting him, alongside his other cherished dogs. Here, he’ll unwind (though work never stops) by walking in the mountains, with his hounds rambling alongside him. A few weeks later over email, he tells me his sunny sojourn is exactly the tonic he’s longed for following months of isolation. “An escape when I needed it most; being in my homeland is where I can relax and switch off. Surrounded by nature, and of course my beloved dogs – this is really where I am at my happiest.”