Raised on a banana plantation in the Canary Islands, the exuberant designer of iconic women’s shoes remains as joyful as ever about the possibilities of his art.
By Mike Albo
IT’S ALMOST TOO EASY TO TALK TO MANOLO BLAHNIK. You might expect this legendary designer to be superior and officious, but when I call his number the day after his 68th birthday, he answers on the second ring and chats enthusiastically while tinkering in his studio. Like Valentino, Lagerfeld and Lauren, Blahnik is one of the last living lions of style. He shows up for work every day and still designs every shoe in his collections, first drafting them on paper (his drawings alone are works of art) and then sculpting the prototypical lasts out of beechwood.
Born in 1942, Blahnik grew up in Spain’s Canary Islands. He went to study art at L’École des Beaux-Arts and L’École du Louvre in Paris, and then settled in groovy late-’60s London. On a trip to New York in 1971, he met with legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who saw his sketch of a stiletto with straps like green vines and cherries crawling up the ankle and suggested he go make shoes. Blahnik returned to the U.K. and began designing men’s shoes, but it wasn’t until he designed a line of women’s shoes for a fashion show of the British designer Ossie Clark in 1972 that he really hit his stride. Blahnik opened his fi rst U.S. shop in 1979, designing for giants like Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein and Bill Blass, winning an honorary doctorate at the Royal College of Arts in the process. Years later, Carrie Bradshaw went clacking down the street in his stilettos and turned him into a household name. Talking to him, it’s easy to imagine Blahnik rushing around his space, continuing to work on his next fantastical stiletto. He has a warm, musical voice, and he floats from subject to subject with the same joy and youthful curiosity that has informed his work from the very beginning.
HEMISPHERES: First of all, happy birthday! What did you do to celebrate?
BLAHNIK: It was very quiet. When you reach a certain age you forget about your birthday because you don’t want to remind yourself all the time that your body is getting tired.
HEMISPHERES: You don’t sound tired.
BLAHNIK: Oh no, I am very lucky to have my health. HEMISPHERES: What do you do for exercise?
BLAHNIK: I find it horrendous to do exercise. I can’t stand going to the gymnasium. I would be very unhappy in Greece in the old time before Christ—every day three times to the gymnasium! But I do like to swim. I knew how to swim before I could walk.
HEMISPHERES: In college, you fi rst studied literature and art, then you went into scenic design and ended up becoming a master of shoes. Do you ever think you might have done something else?
BLAHNIK: Things happen to me by accident. But now I love what I do, and I can’t live without it. I wouldn’t design dresses. I hate dresses! You have to design and then put it on a model or mannequin. I don’t like things that don’t have shape. I like objects, and shoes look like objects to me.
HEMISPHERES: Was there ever any part of creating shoes that you had a hard time perfecting?
BLAHNIK: I started making them with no idea of how to actually do it. A friend of mine was friends with [English designer] Ossie Clark, and he asked me, “Would you like to do shoes for my show?” The first shoes I made for that show were made of white rubber. I forgot, and they forgot, to put steel inside the rubber, so the shoes were very compromised, as you can imagine. The models walked very strangely. It was a mistake, but it looked very interesting, to me at least. It took me fifteen years to really understand shoemaking, and I’m still learning.
HEMISPHERES: And you still do all the initial work?
BLAHNIK: I do. I like to create a very complicated shoe that looks simple. I get excited when I come to the factory. I could be there every day. I don’t like all the other stuff, having to meet people, sales meetings…
HEMISPHERES: Talking to reporters…
BLAHNIK: Ha! No! I am enjoying this conversation! It’s funny how you are there, and I am here, and we have never met, and we are chatting.
HEMISPHERES: You made a statement about toe cleavage that has become an industry rule—a shoe must show only the fi rst two cracks.
BLAHNIK: Yes. A little tiny reveal. I think it’s more exciting and sensual. I enjoy a pump more than a sandal. With a sandal, it’s all there. With a pump, you just imagine things. Before me, there was no toe cleavage at all. I don’t want to date myself, but it was all opera pumps, not very open. I gave some kind of lightness to it.
HEMISPHERES: Tell me about your early exposure to fashion. BLAHNIK: The Canary Islands—it was very far away. There was no TV, only books and magazines. I grew up with images—reading Vogue, with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Those people were my visual education. Of course, everything came two months late.
HEMISPHERES: Your mother was very encouraging.
BLAHNIK: My parents read to us every night—from trash like Gone with the Wind to classics like Cervantes or Balzac. I could write at a very young age. It was mad the way we grew up. They were always encouraging us to paint—to do this, to do that. My mom used to do things like paint and sculpt. I adore my mother still. She passed away two years ago, but she was a reference point in my designs. I would always say, “My mother would like that.”
HEMISPHERES: How do you stay so joyful?
BLAHNIK: Work. I work more than I did thirty years ago. I feel absolutely responsible for all these people. So if I don’t work hard all these people will suff er.
HEMISPHERES: Do you follow pop culture at all? Any reality shows or bad pop music you are obsessed with?
BLAHNIK: Everything is trashy now, so it’s very difficult to choose. I used to love Hollywood, but not now. No one is powerful. The last star who was powerful was Julia Roberts. The other day I saw a girl, very pretty, short with black shoes. I said, “You look like Audrey Hepburn,” and she said, “I don’t know who that is.” I asked, “Don’t you know Sabrina? Love in the Afternoon? Breakfast at Tiff any’s?” Nothing. My hands were almost ready to push her. My staff gave me an iPad, but I’m not mad about technology. I love old-fashioned things: books, magazines. The only time I use technology is to buy movies.
HEMISPHERES: You fi nd a lot of creative inspiration in old fi lms. BLAHNIK: The most beautiful thing in America is the movies. It seems sad that schools aren’t teaching fi lms as part of American education. Did you know last year in New Zealand they discovered a huge archive of old silent fi lm prints? It’s an amazing find: a lost John Ford, early Vola Vale, actresses like Mabel Normand whom nobody knows about! Films are my life. I adore films. It’s my diet, my nourishment. I get enormous pleasure from them. Also books. I have all these books behind me right now on shelves! Very soon my family will have to come move it all to the country house, because I cannot breathe anymore. There is all this dust. Books everywhere. If there is a moment and I’m rushing and everything collapses, it will be a catastrophe.
HEMISPHERES: I’ve always wondered: Do you ever try on the shoes you design?
BLAHNIK: Oh goodness, immediately, yes! If it’s wrong, I can detect it in seconds!
MIKE ALBO is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently wearing Adidas.