(Note: You can read the first part at Kero’s Celebration. All photos were taken during the Stylista Event at Dubai Mall))
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.”