Working alone without assistants or apprentices, MANOLO BLAHNIK (1942-) is solely responsible for the design of every one of the thousands of shoes that bear his name. He has dominated shoe design since setting up in business in London in the early 1970s.
When Carrie Bradshaw, the shoe-loving central character of the HBO TV series Sex And The City, took a wrong turn after lunch in SoHo she found herself on one of New York’s grungier side streets and face-to-face with a mugger. “Please sir,” she pleaded. “You can take my Fendi baguette, you can take my ring and my watch, but don’t take my Manolo Blahniks.”
Unfortunately for Carrie, the mugger did just that and ran off with her favourite pair of strappy sandals. Thanks in part to Sex And The City Manolo Blahnik has become one of the handful of designers whose name is synonymous with their product. In his case it is his Christian name, because “Manolo” is now used as slang to describe very expensive, very beautiful shoes: even by the millions of people who have never actually seen a pair of Manolo Blahniks and could not dream of spending $300 or $400 to buy them.
This achievement is all the more remarkable given that Blahnik, like an old school haut couturier, is solely responsible for the design and prototype of every shoe that bears his name. Working alone without apprentices or assistants, he sketches his shoes, chisels the wooden lasts on which they are moulded and sculpts the heels. He then supervises their production and even sketches the illustrations for his advertising campaigns. He has achieved all this without any formal training in shoe-making. “I didn’t need it,” Blahnik told his friend Michael Roberts only half-jokingly in the late 1970s, “because I’ve got the best taste in the world.”
Born in Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canary Islands in 1942, Manolo Blahnik was brought up there on the banana plantation owned by his Czech father and Spanish mother. He and his younger sister Evangelina were educated at home rather than being sent away to school. “Our property had no neighbours apart from my grandfather’s house,” he recalled. “It was just bananas, the sea and us….a sort of paradise.” The family often travelled to Paris and Madrid, where his parents ordered clothes from his mother’s favourite couturiers, like Cristobál Balenciaga, and his father’s tailor. Sometimes his mother improvised and she persuaded the local Canary Islands cobbler to teach her how to make Catalan espadrilles from ribbons and laces. Manolo loved to watch her making them. “I’m sure I acquired my interest in shoes genetically or at least through my fingers, when I was allowed to touch them as they were made,” he later claimed. She also subscribed to fashion magazines, such as US Vogue, Glamour and Silhuetos, which would dock at the Canary Islands months after their original publication having been shipped from Cuba and Argentina with the children’s comics.
Hoping that Blahnik would become a diplomat, his parents enrolled him at university in Geneva to study politics and law but after a term, he switched to the more congenial subjects of literature and architecture. In 1965, he left Geneva for Paris to study art and made ends meet by working at GO, a vintage clothes store on rue de Bonaparte near Saint-German-des-Près. After a few years in Paris, his father suggested that he moved to London and enrolled him at a language school to perfect his English, but Manolo spent most of his afternoons in Leicester Square cinemas watching film after film.
After eking out a living in boutiques and from occasional design jobs, Blahnik toyed with becoming a stage set designer and took a portfolio of drawings to New York in 1971 in the hope of drumming up work there. Paloma Picasso, a friend from Paris, arranged for him to meet Diana Vreeland, the editor of US Vogue. When she looked at his drawings, Vreeland exclaimed: “How amusing. Amusing. You can do accessories very well. Why don’t you do that? Go make shoes. Your shoes in these drawings are so amusing.”
Back in London, he began designing men’s shoes – vividly coloured versions of the vintage co-respondent shoes he admired in old movies – for Zapata, a boutique on Old Church Street in Chelsea. Blahnik also visited the factories during production to learn about the process. He found men’s shoes rreatively limiting: “What can you do with a proper English brogue? They can’t really be improved upon without introducing the sort of fashion element I really don’t like in men’s clothing.” In 1972 Ossie Clark, the flamboyant fashion designer, asked him to design the shoes for his next collection. The shoes looked extraordinary – one pair sported red cherries entwined around the ankles and a vertiginous heel – but were structurally perilous. “I forgot to put in heels that would support the shoe, when it got hot the heels started to wobble – it was like walking on quicksand,” he remembered years later. “If you’re buying (his) shoes, employ a sense of humour,” warned British Vogue.
By then, his shoes at Zapata were sought after by Vogue editors, such as Grace Coddington, and hip young actresses like Marisa Berenson, Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling. Even vintage Hollywood stars like Lauren Bacall popped in. Blahnik hunted for a reliable manufacturer to correct his technical shortcomings and found one in Walthamstow, north east London. Gradually he learnt the craft of shoe-making: “It took many years to realise how to do shoes how to make them lovely and arty and technically perfect.” Much as fashion editors loved Blahnik’s shoes, he was portrayed in their magazines more often as an handsome, cultured man-about-town than as a designer. In 1974, he became the first man to appear on the cover of British Vogue – photographed in a passionate clutch with Angelica Huston by David Bailey.
Blahnik borrowed ￡2,000 to buy out Zapata’s owner and to make the business – and its Old Church Street shop – his own to run with Evangelina. In 1977 Michael Roberts described a visit there: “Customers constantly reel back as the designer dashes about, chivvying his assistants, commenting on the latest Vogue, and speaking volubly on the telephone to his friends, from pal Bianca Jagger to his mother.” He continued to collaborate with fashion designers including Jean Muir and Fiorucci as well as Ossie Clark. Slowly he 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 next year. It was not until the early 1980s that his US business really took off after he brought in George Malkemus, a young copywriter in Bergdorf Goodman’s marketing department, to run it leaving he and Evangelina in charge of the European business.
By then, Blahnik had settled upon a successful formula for his collection: a combination of “occasional avant garde looks for the affluent few” and “good solid looks that will wear forever.” Both were – and continue to be – inspired by his eclectic passions: from favourite Visconti and Cocteau films, and grandes dames like Elizabeth of Austria and Pauline Borghese; to the paintings of Velázquez, El Greco and Zurburán, and the work of the couturiers he most admires such as Cristobál Balenciaga, Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
Like all truly talented designers Blahnik had the ability - even at the start of his career - to stamp all his work with a distinctive signature style. Yet he was also stylistically innovative. In the 1970s, when mainstream shoe styling was still dominated by clumpy platforms, he revived the sleek stiletto heel, which has since become a classic. Later he refined the rustic Mediterranean mules that he remembered from his childhood into an elegant shoe which is now a staple.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Blahnik concentrated on mastering the techniques of shoe-making by finding the best possible factories to work with and studying them carefully. He also made the most of his collaborations with fashion designers, notably Calvin Klein, an experience which taught him a great deal about designing for a broader market, and the younger designers, Isaac Mizrahi and John Galliano.
By the late 1990s when the fashion writer and historian Colin McDowell observed Blahnik at work, he had been in command of his craft for years. The process of creating a Manolo Blahnik shoe begins with Manolo sketching it at home in Bath, his London office or one of his northern Italian factories with a Tombo Japanese brush pen in three minutes of “firm, assured hand movements followed by precise, sharp little jabs as the details are fitted in”. He then takes up to a day to carve the last – usually from beechwood – and then sculpts the the heel, which is carved first on the machine, then chiseled and filed by hand. When Blahnik is satisfied, an aluminium mould is made of the last and then the plastic last from which the shoe will be made.
“I have the advantage of study,” he told Colin McDowell. “I’ve been studying the art of the shoe… for over twenty years. I know every process. I know how to cut and cut away here (the side of the shoe) and still make it so that it stays on the foot. And the secret of toe cleavage, a very important part of the sexuality of the shoe. You must only show the first two cracks. And the heel. Even if it’s twelve centimetres high it still has to feel secure – and that’s a question of balance. That’s why I carve each heel personally myself – on the machine and then by hand with a chisel and file, until it’s exactly right.”
1942 Born in Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canary Islands to a Czech father and Spanish mother. He and his younger sister Evangelina spend their childhood there on the family’s banana plantation.
1965 After studying literature and architecture at the University of Geneva, Blahnik moves to Paris to study art at L’école des Beaux-Arts and L’école du Louvre.
1968 Moves to London, where he works in a fashion boutique, writes for Vogue Italia and becomes part of the fashionable art scene.
1971 Visits New York with a portfolio of drawings and set designs which he shows to Diana Vreeland, then editor of US Vogue. Spotting a sketch of a fantastical shoe which crept up the ankle entwined with ivy and cherries, she suggests: “Go make shoes.”
1972 Having settled in London, he designs and makes shoes for Zapata, a Chelsea boutique on Old Church Street. The fashion designer Ossie Clark invites him to create shoes for his runway show.
1973 With a ￡2,000 loan, Blahnik buys Zapata from its owner. Women’s Wear Daily describes him as “one of the most exotic spirits in London” who created “shoes which were, if not wearable, then certainly newsworthy”.
1974 Posing with Angelica Huston for photographer David Bailey, Blahnik becomes the first man to appear on the cover of British Vogue.
1978 Launches a collection for Bloomingdales, the US retail chain.
1979 Opens his first US shop on Madison Avenue, New York.
1980 Designs shoes for the US fashion designer Perry Ellis.
1982 George Malkemus, a young copywriter in Bergdorf Goodman’s marketing department, becomes his US business partner. Malkemus renegotiates Blahnik’s existing US distribution agreements.
1984 Designs shoes for Calvin Klein’s ready-to-wear collections.
1987 Wins a special award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in the US.
1988 Starts a collaboration with the US fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.
1991 Opens the first Manolo Blahnik store in Hong Kong.
1992 Starts a collaboration with fashion designer John Galliano by creating shoes for his signature label.
1994 Works with the US fashion designers - Bill Blass, Caroline Herrera and Oscar de la Renta - in New York.
1997 Creates the shoes for John Galliano’s first couture collection for Christian Dior.
2000 The popularity of the HBO TV series Sex And The City makes Manolo Blahnik a household name in the US.
2001 Given an Honorary Doctorate at the Royal College of Arts, London. Awarded La Aguja de Oro (The Golden Needle) in Spain and made an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry in London. Designs shoes for the US designer Zac Posen.
2002 Awarded La Medalla de Oro en Merito en las Bellas Artes by Juan Carlos I, King of Spain.
2003 Manolo Blahnik becomes the first shoe designer whose work is celebrated in an exhibition at the Design Museum.
2006 Blahnik develops a 'heel-less' shoe balanced on an S-spring.
Manolo Blahnik, Colin McDowell, Cassell & Co, 2000
Manolo Blahnik: Drawings, Anna Wintour, Michael Roberts and Manolo Blahnik, Thames & Hudson, 2003
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain