LONDON – Size matters for Britain’s first family of footwear, but for the maverick Blahniks, bigger is not necessarily better.
It’s been an extraordinary 12 months for the family-owned company — ranging from a handbag launch to one-off collaborations with Rihanna and Vetements, the launch of an e-commerce platform with Farfetch, a second London store opening in Burlington Arcade, and a deal with Bluebell to expand in the Far East.
There’s a Michael Roberts documentary in the works about Manolo Blahnik’s life, a global touring exhibition set to launch next year in Venice and a lineup of stores opening in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
While growth is certainly on the agenda, Kristina Blahnik said she’s not interested in minting money, selling any stakes in the company or even in expanding into a variety of product categories.
Unlike some other footwear companies, there isn’t going to be a fragrance, nail polish or sunglasses. “Nothing like that,” said Blahnik, Manolo’s Cambridge-educated niece, a former architect who took over as chief executive officer of Manolo Blahnik International in 2013 after joining the company seven years ago.
“We are about optimizing — not maximizing — our situation,” she said firmly.
It’s a bold vision given the competition that’s mushroomed in the luxury footwear category — both from younger, independent designers and the big brands — since Blahnik opened his first boutique on Chelsea’s Old Church Street in the early Seventies, drawing customers including Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin.
Preserving the family legacy is the priority for Blahnik, the daughter of Manolo’s sister Evangeline, as is protecting her uncle’s creativity.
“I walked into something that my mother and my uncle built from the ground on their own, at a very gentle, organic, natural pace. The roots of this tree are so deep and they are something that we need to protect. Making those roots grow wider and wider isn’t an intention. Manolo does one thing beautifully, and that is what we want to keep nurturing,” Kristina Blahnik said during an interview at the Georgian townhouse in London’s Marylebone, the brand’s new headquarters.
It was Diana Vreeland who suggested to Blahnik that he channel his creativity into shoes, and he would quickly begin working with designers such as Ossie Clark, Jean Muir and Zandra Rhodes before setting up on his own. He famously bucked the Seventies trends of wedges and platforms, preferring delicate stilettos and designs inspired by the classical architecture he has always loved. Indeed, the designer refers to Taormina’s Greek temple ruins as “one of my mad obsessions.”
The Canary Islands native, now 73, is a brand name whose square buckle Hangisi stilettos are as recognizable to many as the Acropolis. As intellectually curious — and energetic — as a magpie and burning with creativity, he has no intention of slowing down.
Last September, the designer published a book with Rizzoli, and the same month he was honored in New York by the Couture Council Artistry of Fashion for his longstanding dedication to craftsmanship and design. The 2017 touring exhibition will cover 45 years of Blahnik’s work, and will travel to at least seven countries, including a stop at The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Although business has been healthy, the brand over the years was often overshadowed by flashier, louder-shouting competitors while sticking to its discreetly British sensibility. Ed Burstell, the managing director of Liberty, said that when he moved to London in 2008, he thought it was odd that Manolo had only one point of sale in the city — the Old Church Street store.
So in 2010, he opened a Manolo pop-up shop and soon after Liberty became the brand’s first London stockist. Burstell said the collection is “consistently our number-one performer” in the shoe department. “Only a genius can sustain a design aesthetic that is continually modern, continually fresh and continually relevant,” he said.
Kristina Blahnik, he added, has done an admirable job of plotting the company’s growth.
It looks as if she’ll be doing that job for a while as Manolo has no intention of retiring: Although the statuesque younger Blahnik has known the footwear business all her life, it wasn’t her initial career path.
After studying architecture at Cambridge University, she co-founded a firm called Data Nature Associates, working on residential, commercial, retail and exhibition projects for more than a decade. She designed eight Manolo stores worldwide — and continues to work on them with her former business partner Nick Leith-Smith. (The firm is now known as Nick Leith-Smith Architecture and Design).
When she talks about growing the company, she thinks in terms of a building site. “If you keep your foundations very narrow, and build them very deep, you will be able to pretty much ride any earthquake that can happen.”
It’s the very opposite of the luxury brand formula, which is to expand, ramp up revenues and then sell or go public.
And while the commitment is to focus on the footwear segment, Blahnik believes it’s important for the company to stretch in a variety of creative directions, via collaborations with other brands and designers — whether or not they’re destined to be money-spinners.
The Rihanna capsule collection came about after the designer met the singer at the British Fashion Awards in 2014. She later flew to London to see him and “they started sketching and talking. It was purely a joyous venture and it couldn’t have any underlined goals or targets,” said Blahnik.
The result was a limited-edition collection of thigh-high boots, open-toe sandals and pumps so in-demand they caused the dedicated microsite to crash several times with traffic volumes that Blahnik said no one was expecting.
With Vetements, Manolo was one of 18 brands working with the designer Demna Gvasalia on the spring/summer 2017 show in June. The two toyed with a Manolo classic — the Hangisi sparkly satin buckle shoe — transforming it into slingbacks, a court shoe, ankle boots and thigh highs with frayed edges and unfinished closings.
The shoes will be sold in limited edition co-branded packaging and be available from select retailers and online at manoloblahnik.com.
“Unexpected things arriving are such a joy to us if they feel right. As a company we very much think outside the box, so we are open to any fun suggestions that trigger a creative moment,” she said.
Blahnik is taking a similar approach to online retail and social media, where her goal is for her uncle’s creativity to sing. In March, the brand opened its first mono-brand e-commerce platform in partnership with Farfetch.com.
She said about half of the website sales come from Manolo’s most fashion-forward creations rather than the classics.
“Generally, online, there is a very safe offering. You see it in the multibrand online platforms. Multiple times, we’ve considered taking out the classics altogether so it is just about the [latest] collection,” she said, adding the site is about having “a clean, beautiful canvas against which Manolo’s shoes jump out of the page.”
The brand is taking a different approach with the Burlington Arcade store, its second London unit, which opened earlier this year in Mayfair. That store is all about a broader offer, here-and-now consumer needs, and in-season shopping.
It is co-merchandised, with men’s shoes in “women’s” materials and vice-versa. The designer re-launched his men’s collection in January 2015. Blahnik said Burlington Arcade is also meant to serve women who have begun to buy themselves smaller sizes from the men’s collections — a trend that the company has been more than willing to accommodate.
The 1,000-square-foot Burlington store, which opened more than 40 years after the Old Church Street original in Chelsea, is also meant to be more in tune with the seasons and the weather.
“It is an important conversation that Burberry started very clearly, one that a lot of people are listening to,” she said, referring to Burberry’s decision to tear up the traditional seasonal calendar and show see-now-buy-now collections, with the first effort bowing Monday in London. “We very much came from that place from mid-last year when we first started the Burlington conversation.”
Lastly, Burlington is meant to be all about nurturing a relationship with longtime customers and new ones, too. “When they come there, they hear the story about Manolo’s passion and how he designs, the little bit of his spirit that goes into every design. They have that moment of exhaling and just relaxing.”
The Burlington store is only the first of several recent ones, though. In July, the brand opened a 753-square-foot space on Selfridges’ second floor, near the Shoe Galleries.
In May, the brand also revealed a deal with Bluebell Group that will see it expand in Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. Three shops opened in Japan this summer, while a Malaysian unit is opening this fall, with others to follow in 2017.
The brand has nearly 300 points of sale in 33 countries, spread between standalone stores, shop-in-shops and retailers worldwide. The large U.S. business continues to be managed by longtime licensee partner George Malkemus III, whose title is chief executive officer of Manolo Blahnik USA.
For Blahnik, an aesthete down to his wingtips, having Kristina around is a boon. The relationship with his niece, he said, is all about balance.
“I look after the creative and she looks after the numbers. Kristina is incredibly organized. We’re very different that way — I hate a ‘meeting’!” He added: “As a family company it’s important to me to have family running it.”
Although the brand does not disclose any financials, the latest available filing at Companies House, the official register of U.K. businesses, shows revenue of 9.4 million pounds, or $15.5 million, in 2014, a 36 percent increase on the previous year.
Profit for the year ended Dec. 31, 2014, was 4 million pounds, or $6.6 million, 60 percent higher than the previous 12 months. All figures have been converted at average rates for 2014.
The numbers, however, are not as important as the legacy.
“Only a tiny part of this is the actual financial security, which we are very fortunate to have,” said Kristina. “We are protecting the legacy. He is immortal and he will never loose the pen from his hand.”