NEW YORK — Late this spring, a successful New York personal shopper was making her way out of the semiannual Manolo Blahnik sample sale, her bag overflowing with slingbacks and stilettos, when it occurred to her that arriving two hours early was no longer necessary. “It wasn’t that crowded this year,” she said with a shrug. “Maybe people were traveling.”

Or maybe not. These days, the social set seems to be doing a lot more credit card damage at Christian Louboutin than at Manolo Blahnik, and a bevy of A-list actresses are making the same shift. Chalk it up to overexposure or blame it on the demise of “Sex and the City,” but for whatever reason, Manolo Blahnik seems to have lost some of its luster among devotees of the cutting edge.

“There will always be a couple of great heels from Manolo that grab you,” said Bettina Zilkha, the author of “Ultimate Style.” “What’s changed is that it’s two or three pairs a season now instead of the 15 to 17 you’d find a couple of years ago. With Louboutin, you walk into his store and there’s just tons you can choose from. You try them on and find yourself going, ‘Can I really walk in these?’ Who cares? Why not?”

Power publicist Peggy Siegal, who counts herself among the recent crop of Louboutin converts, said, “I have no idea where this guy came from. I can’t even pronounce his name. But this year I just started buying them. What’s that expression? If it speaks to you, buy it? Well, they speak to me.”

Siegal is particularly enamored of Louboutin’s trademark fire-engine red sole. “It’s so cool,” she cooed. “You cross your legs and everybody immediately knows you’re wearing a Louboutin.”

The ever-chic Sally Albemarle put it this way: “I own more Louboutins than Manolos. I guess that speaks for itself.”

To some degree, the shift among the fashion cognoscenti is a testament to Blahnik’s ever-ascending star. Nothing, after all, says you’ve hit mass saturation quite like a group of fashion snobs saying they’ve gotten bored with you. Thanks to his on-air spokesmodel, Carrie Bradshaw, and a client list that seemed to include every eligible actress in the Academy, “Manolos” became a brand like Coca-Cola or Nike, or, as Nina Griscom put it, a “cultural word.” Women fell in love with Blahnik’s shoes because they were so expensive-looking and so sexy, and they seemed to leave room for the possibility that the woman wearing them could be a Fortune 500 chief executive officer — or the call girl of one.

This story first appeared in the July 14, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Louboutin’s aesthetic has always been a little quieter. His shoes purred instead of hissed, and the fashion press was a little indifferent to him. But now, with mass retailers like Steve Madden and Aldo and even some well-known luxury brands knocking off Blahniks left and right, he has become somewhat a victim of his own success. As Griscom said, “The problem is that everyone is doing shoes like Manolo. He invented the rhinestone encrusted stuff and the clasps around the ankle. But you see it all over the place.”

None of this is to say that Manolo’s business is suffering. Perhaps the most amusing part of the Manolo backlash is that his own business is healthier than ever — continuing to expand in the midst of a giant knockoff revolution.

George Malkemus, president of U.S. operations for Manolo Blahnik said, “There are always going to be waiting lists for things like Vuitton bags, Balenciaga bags, and Christian Louboutin espadrilles,” in reference to the platform wedge that he admitted has become “the shoe of the season.”

“That,” he said, “is not our route. We don’t do fashion. We’re for the woman who has house in Gstaad, Connecticut and in Palm Beach. Her allegiance is not shifting.” For example, he said, “Jackie Kennedy would not be wearing Lanvin today. It’s too obvious. There are women who would walk into a party in those Roger Vivier heels with the rose who wants everybody to say, “Oh, she’s wearing Roger Vivier.’ I thought those were ridiculous; it was such an obvious cry of insecurity.”

Ouch. Still, the growth of Manolo’s business does come at a time when fashion editors have begun to complain that the London-based shoemaker’s designs have failed to evolve as fashion has moved away from the slick, smoky-eyed Gucci girl toward a more whimsical consumer whose closet is stocked with quirkier brands like Chloé, Azzaro, Balenciaga, Prada and the aforementioned Lanvin.

“There’s been a buzz recently that Manolo’s lost his edge,” said one high-level fashion editor, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “Women are still buying his shoes, but all the magazines are filling the pages with what the celebs are wearing, and right now, that’s Louboutin. He makes beautiful shoes and he’s friends with all the right people.”

Among those people are the designer Diane von Furstenberg, Vanity Fair fashion director Anne McNally and downtown socialite/artist Anh Duong. His celebrity acolytes include Nicole Kidman, Ellen Barkin, Kirsten Dunst and Angelina Jolie, who has been known to take the loaner shoes after photo shoots.

Von Furstenberg — who has known Louboutin for 15 years and has traveled with him to Egypt and Morocco — thinks Louboutin’s shoes look “younger and hipper” than Manolo’s, but cautioned there’s room at the top for both.

“Manolo is equally a magician,” she said. “They are the only two. Everyone else comes way later.”

That opinion was seconded by others in fashion, who argued that there’s a real difference between no longer being at the cutting edge of fashion and being out of style. Retailer Tracey Ross put it this way: “I think [Louboutin’s] stuff is a little more hip, fresh and new, but you still can’t go wrong in a pair of black Manolo alligator pumps, which I bought this season. He’s like Chanel.”

And Griscom, who recently bought a pair of Manolo pony skin flats, concurred: “The fashion crowd will go back to Manolo because there’s great range and design, they’re comfortable despite the implications of the height, and they can be whimsical, humorous or serious. I don’t see that breadth in any other company.”

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