“Everybody says the same thing, that this milestone is quite extraordinary. It seems to me like 50 days or months. I’ve been having such a divine time — bad times, too. In my mind, 50 years is a lie.”
Manolo Blahnik is Zooming in from his Bath, England, home, and the 78-year-old shoe legend is feeling particularly energized after receiving his coronavirus booster shot on this late October day.
Off camera and masked up, Blahnik — who’s working alongside eagle-eyed house historian Jamie Prieto — frets about his voice, clearly frustrated about having to talk through a computer screen.
The charismatic designer, reluctantly, has spent nearly two years online now — using technology to work with the factory on crafting his collections, since in-person visits haven’t been possible due to “this terrible disease.” “It’s so rewarding to talk to them — they know how I cut, they know how I put the colors [together]. They’re my best people. They’re artisans, and I love them. The factory is the only place I’m really happy. I could be there from 8 in the morning until midnight, which I have been, many times,” he said.
While he’s clearly eager to get back to Italy, Blahnik said he’s learning to adapt to uncertain times and relishes his solitude. “I went to see people in the place I got the vaccine, and it was very strange. I feel quite happy being alone. But I’ve learned to be patient and more tolerant, somehow. Mind you, I had fights today already, but anyway!”
His attention shifts to the black-and-white photos scrolling on the screen, and Blahnik is immediately transported back to 1970s London. “It’s funny, the ’70s are absolutely much more clear than the ’80s,” he says, as he begins to recount his adventures as an emerging talent and man about town.
“Ah! This is me in Bath in 1979.”
“I see a picture of Paloma [Picasso] looking very young, and me with no glasses.”
“The other one on the left is from [my first store] on Old Church Street. That was the very very beginning. I didn’t have anything to put in the shop!”
From there, the conversation took off. For the next hour and 20 minutes, Blahnik opened up about five decades of hilarious antics, exhilarating friendships, unforgettable runway shows and, above all, masterful shoes.
Here, through never-before-told stories and past anecdotes from the FN archives, Blahnik, in his own words, takes us on an incredible journey through the decades.
After a Fateful Meeting, the Big Debut
“It was new for me, this notion of shoes. It happened by mistake.”
After initially studying international law and interning at the United Nations in Geneva, a young, curious Blahnik moved to Paris in the late 1960s to learn about art and set design. Soon, he was firmly entrenched in the city’s cultural scene and surrounding himself with an eclectic group of friends.
But he didn’t have much of a life plan.
Then, everything changed. During a trip to New York in 1970, Paloma Picasso introduced Blahnik to Diana Vreeland, the legendary fashion editor. “Before our first meeting I was absolutely terrified as I knew she was such a legend and such an authority on fashion, [but] without her, I simply would not be where I am today. I remember she used to have these amazing fake python boots that I thought were divine,” he recalled.
Upon seeing Manolo’s sketches for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Vreeland zeroed in on Hippolyta’s high-heeled sandal decorated with ivy and cherries and told him: “Make shoes.” That was the push he needed — and a year later, Blahnik left his job at fashion boutique Feathers in London and created his very first collection.
On the Runway at Ossie Clark
Already well connected, the designer developed his inaugural collection in 1971 for the most prominent British fashion designer of the time, Ossie Clark. “It was very successful because everybody who was somebody in London was at the show at Royal Court Theatre: [painter] David Hockney, [photographer] Eric Boman and [designer and photographer] Cecil Beaton,” Blahnik remembered.
His show-stopping ankle-tie platform with a chunky high heel got everyone talking. There was just one problem: The designer, who had no formal shoe training, had forgotten to secure the rubber heel with steel. “At the end of the show, Cecil said, ‘Oh my dear, this is a new way of walking.’ The girls walked very strange, like insects.”
Old Church Street
“A friend of mine called Peter Young found the place. He was great, and [went on] to win Oscars for ‘Batman’ and all these movies. He said, ‘There is a wonderful place, and it is outside of everything and there are no shops on the street, only a pastry shop. I loved it and I took it, not thinking that I didn’t have any people, customers, nothing. We would have friends come in the afternoon and have tea and cakes from the shop next door. There used to be a wonderful girl, Amanda Grieve, who came in all the time. Later on, she was Amanda [Harlech] and became important. All the girls came in…and this is [when] I became known a little bit.”
His Daily Routine
“I don’t even know how I managed to survive. I used to live in Notting Hill and cross the park on a bike. Can you imagine? I would come to the shop every day. We used to open at 10 o’clock. I ate some cookies at the pastry shop and then we would call Italy and get the shoes done.”
A New Love for Old Hollywood
When he wasn’t partying, Blahnik spent his evenings at the British Film Institute with his girlfriends. He was mesmerized by 1930s Will Rogers cowboy flicks, Gary Cooper’s silent movies and Kay Francis films. “My education was those movies during those 10 years in the ’70s.”
1980s: Falling in Love With New York
Glory Days With Perry Ellis
“My darling Perry Ellis, I adored him. He was the person who really introduced me to America.” Starting in 1980, Blahnik began designing shoes for Ellis’ captivating runway shows, which were the toast of New York fashion at the time.
“Working with him was absolute heaven, and his shows were the most beautiful. Perry was fabulous, My God, he was talented. It was so exciting to go to the studio and see all of those models, those pretty boys, pretty girls. It was a beautiful time. To me, he typified America and [embodied] freedom, creativity, intelligence. I remember the best music was at Perry’s show — The Cars, all the fashionable bands at the time. Margaux Hemingway was fabulous. Everybody was there.”
“I never thought about what Seventh Avenue was. There was a certain kind of spontaneity. It was not like now when everything is about money. There was a freedom. Now you have it in the hands of big conglomerates, the musical chairs of fashion.”
A New U.S. Partner
As he started to spend more time in the States and aspired to build a real business there, Blahnik got a call from Bergdorf Goodman’s then-fashion director, Dawn Mello, who encouraged him to meet George Malkemus. The two young men bonded over their love for Scottish Terriers. Their union became official in 1982 and lasted for four decades. “It’s a balance thing for us,” Blahnik said in 2009. “George is a very good businessman. He’s patient. I am not. George is very constant. You can count on him.”
The ’90s: “I Was Working Nonstop”
“I know the United States so well because I traveled all the time to do personal appearances. And it was extraordinary…seeing these power women. We had queues for days and days. In San Francisco once, at Neiman Marcus, people [lined] up all around Union Square for seven hours. I find that strange, thinking about it now. But it happened to us.”
Working With the NYC Rtw Stars
“Oh my God, I loved to work with all of the legends. I wanted to work with Mainbocher, but alas, he was not alive. Bill Blass was my dream. He was such a gentleman with such divine taste in everything. Have you ever seen Bill Blass’ apartment? I’ve never seen such a beautiful [place]. And he was an American boy [from Indiana]. It doesn’t matter [where you are born]. If you have it, you have it. And he did have it. And he knew what women would wear. He did two or three dresses for my sister. And Geoffrey Beene: My God, those fashion shows were insanely beautiful. At the time, all of those show-business people went to Halston, and the ladies use to go to Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. And then, Carolina Herrera. She was becoming very, very good when she started to do dresses for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.”
A Forever Friend
As their stars rose, close friends Blahnik and Isaac Mizrahi were inseparable — and they paired for several memorable catwalk collections. “I adore Isaac, he’s fantastic, and at the time he was an incredible force in fashion in New York. The first time I did shoes for him they were desert boots, and I did them in every single color out there. It was very successful.”
Blahnik’s most famous design for Mizrahi was best known as the “Pilgrim” and first developed in 1991, when Mizrahi requested a sexy style with a pilgrim buckle. Manolo delivered the perfect slip-on silhouette.
The Louis Vuitton Shoe Trunk
“Hedi Slimane was my assistant for the project. [When I was making the piece], I thought about Doris Day movies. It was very pretty and I still have one somewhere. I gave one to my sister and one to the Princess of Wales I think. It was extraordinary work, and that boy, Hedi, was very good.”
Adventures With John Galliano
“The beginning of the conversation would go like this: John would say, ‘I’m doing this collection on Russian princesses running through Europe with a few things in their hands. What do you think are the shoes they would wear [if they] stopped in Berlin, stopped [somewhere else] and then arrived in Scotland? These were the kinds of ideas that John would give you. And then you would just send some drawings that you thought she would be wearing in her exhausted life, running from Russia to Scotland. Can you imagine? And these are the tricks that work for me, that make me creative — and he liked what I did. We worked [many] years together, and then at Dior. They wanted money, money, money at the end. I [look at] those Dior dresses he did now and they are totally modern, much better than anything else anybody is doing. Carolyn Murphy with those earrings, come on!”
The 2000s: The Ultimate Shoe Star
The Real “Sex and the City” Story
Carrie Bradshaw was robbed for her Manolos. She discovered Blahnik Mary Janes in the Vogue shoe closet. And after her shoes were swiped at a baby shower, Ms. Bradshaw registered herself at the Manolo Blahnik boutique on 54th Street.
During the legendary six-year run of “Sex and the City” that ended in 2004, Manolo and his shoes were almost like a fifth co-star — and his history with SATC actually began with author Candace Bushnell.
“I met her in the shop in London, and then I read the book, and it was fun, a really good time. And [I loved] Patricia Field, the lovely lady who did the costumes. We did have a wonderful time with those wonderful girls. It seems like such a long time ago. I thought, ‘That is New York, the New York I didn’t know.”
A Retrospective at London’s Design Museum
“I did exactly what I wanted in London in 2003. There were too many shoes actually, but I had this incredible luck. The National Gallery loaned me my favorite painting, ‘Saint Margaret of Antioch’ by Francisco de Zurbarán, and I put it with boots I did for Balenciaga and a beautiful Balenciaga dress. I loved it so much. And then Saint Laurent was on the telephone saying to me, ‘Oh, Manolo, anything you like.’ He sent a woman to the studio in London with two dresses from the [spring ’67 haute couture] Bambara collection to go with my African-inspired shoes. I love Africa. It’s always been an inspiration to me since I was a boy, listening to music from Casablanca radio.”
Fantasy Shoes for “Marie Antoinette”
“It was so divine working with Sofia Coppola and [costume designer] Milena Canonero. Sofia loved the shoes so much. My friend Joe, who used to work with me, went to Paris with the shoes and took little things, bits and pieces of silk. The 18th century buckles we found in Bath here. Sofia is very visually intelligent. She is one of the best people in America, someone Hollywood should cherish.”
The 2010s: New Adventures
Kate Moss Walks Down the Aisle in Blahniks
In 2011, when the designer was asked to craft the perfect pair of wedding shoes to match Kate Moss’ John Galliano dress, he was all in. “We finished the shoe and the heel was full of pearls, [placed] one by one,” Blahnik recalled. “And then the day before, she tried them on and she said, ‘Oh, my shoe is catching on the dress. I have to have it with no pearls.’ So we got another version, and [a team member] came back on the last plane from Milan with the new shoes for the wedding the next morning.”
The designer remembered having the “most beautiful time” at the wedding in the Cotswolds, where he was at a table with [actress] Anita Pallenberg and [singer] Maryanne Faithful. “Kate was beautiful, she is still beautiful.
A Major Moment on the FNAA Stage
For FN’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, there was only one choice: Mr. Blahnik. And he accepted it with his signature humor and humility. “I’ve never really thought about my success, but I guess it’s true. I have been going for a while. Suddenly, people seem to really like my shoes again. But you know, those furniture shoes were fashionable for three or four years. I did platforms in the 1970s, so that wasn’t new to me. I’ve never followed trends or gotten into the frenzy of doing the ‘right’ shoes.”
A Star Is Born
Manolo was made for the big screen. His cinematic life was chronicled in his 2017 documentary, “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards.” Rihanna, Karlie Kloss, Naomi Campbell, Iman, André Leon Talley and Rupert Everett all celebrate Blahnik in the film, too, along with designers Charlotte Olympia Dellal, Mizrahi, classicist Mary Beard and many others. “It’s been a great experience, but it’s taking too much of my energy,” Blahnik said at the time. “Dealing with editors and producers has been an absolute nightmare. I don’t want to see my stupid self anymore. People might walk into the theater and say, ‘Who is that freak?’ I asked [close friend and director] Michael [Roberts] to film the back of me all the time, but it didn’t happen that way.”
The same year Blahnik debuted his documentary, he was touring the world with his alluring “Art of Shoes” exhibit. Among his most memorable stops? St. Petersburg. “I had to learn a little thing in Russian, because I think it’s good to do that when you go to a country. But then somehow the people said, ‘More, more!’ And I said ‘I’m sorry, but ladies and gentleman, I cannot do more. They loved it, though. They were clapping — on the huge, huge stairs of the Hermitage.”
A Paris Homecoming
The opening of Blahnik’s flagship boutique in July 19 in the city’s historic Palais-Royale was a particularly special moment for Blahnik, who studied art and set design in the City of Light during the 1968 student uprising.
“I was terrified and watched from the window. It was a huge spectacle with screaming and cars burning in the street. I’d never seen such a thing,” he said. However, his fear soon gave way to excitement, and he took to the streets to join the throng, walking the length of the capital. “It was my reckless youth,” he laughed.
The Quarantine Year
While the world was in lockdown in 2020, Blahnik spent time at his homes in Bath, England, and the Canary Islands. While some rituals didn’t change — he continued to sketch every day and be entertained by his loyal dogs — others did, of course. Instead of staying up past midnight in his beloved factory, the designer resorted to Zoom calls with his team. When he wasn’t working, Blahnik continued to nurture his other passions. “I love to read. I finished ‘Selected Letters of Marcel Proust,’ which was totally marvelous. I am also rereading some of Gore Vidal’s books — he’s my favorite author of all time,” he said. Later in the evening, he watched old movies. “My main diet at the moment is 1930s films: ‘Show Boat,’ ‘Sin Takes a Holiday.’ “I adore them.”
Kamala Harris Takes Office in the BB Pump
In January, when Kamala Harris took the oath of office as America’s first female VP — and the first Black and first South Asian person to hold the second-highest office — she turned to a tried-and-true style from her go-to footwear designer: Blahnik’s black BB pump.
Time and again, Harris has worn Blahnik for the most important events of her career.“What a privilege to serve such a divine woman — she has incredible style, suitable for any occasion. Kamala Harris is a barrier breaker,” Blahnik told FN at the time.
Manolo Takes Madison, Part 2
“My niece Kristina saw the store, and they showed me the pictures, and I said, ‘Oh! I love that shop. I used to go there when I lived at the Westbury hotel.’ I loved the windows. The shop was hideous inside. And then this thing happened, this horrible disease, and we couldn’t work. Nobody could work there.…It was the first shop I did through the internet. I did it on Zoom with a man from Paris, [interior designer] David Thomas. It was finished in April or May, and we opened quickly in June.”
Opening the Archives
“I want this to be a space where others can learn and feel inspired to create. It’s very important to me personally, that even those who can’t buy my shoes are able to feel a connection to [us].”
For the first time ever, Blahnik fans can fully immerse themselves in his enchanting world through a virtual milestone anniversary celebration.
Five unique rooms focused on the themes of artisanry, artistry and family values celebrate top moments past and present.
“I’ve only seen pictures of what is going to be, and it looks very exciting because Judith Clark, [the curator], is fantastic.”