LONDON — It’s an aesthetic match made in heaven: Art, architecture and history buff Manolo Blahnik is teaming with the Wallace Collection, a trove of fine and decorative arts and Old Master works, on a show meant to spotlight some of the designer’s great inspirations, WWD has learned.
When he’s not working or traveling, Blahnik likes to spend time wandering the grand rooms of The Wallace Collection, a few minutes’ walk from his company’s headquarters in Marylebone, taking in paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, Velazquez, Canaletto and Boucher crowded onto the silk-covered walls.
Frans Hals’ painting “Laughing Cavalier” hangs there, as does Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo work, “The Swing,” which shows a little silk slipper flying off a young woman’s foot toward her lover. Built up in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Marquesses of Hertford and an heir, Sir Richard Wallace, the collection is among the most significant bodies of European fine and decorative arts in the world.
“They were the Gettys of the 19th century,” Blahnik said in an interview, referring to the family’s impulse to collect, “and the collection is just extraordinary. It’s like going to a private home, and wonderful in the mornings when there’s hardly anyone there. Who couldn’t be inspired?”
The show, “An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection,” will run from June 10 until Sept. 1. It is a first for the designer and for the museum, which today belongs to the British state.
Dr. Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection, and Blahnik chose 150 styles from the designer’s archive that will be displayed in the various rooms. The footwear will be “speaking to” works of art, furniture, objects and different themes including high Baroque, classical antiquity, the Commedia dell’Arte, Spanish dress, opulence and the natural world.
Blahnik’s opulent designs for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film “Marie Antoinette,” with their feathers, bows and buckles, will share a room with “The Swing” and Boucher’s lavish painting “Mme de Pompadour,” with its layers of rippling lace, waves of crinkled silk and abundant greenery in the background.
In an interview, Bray described Blahnik as “an 18th-century man: He’s interested in everything — in furniture, paintings, gilt bronze, porcelain. He is able to combine all the arts, and his shoes are all a wonderful summation of that.”
Bray added that the show will be an attempt to reenact conversations that he had with Blahnik after they first toured the collection together.
“I was the one following him around,” said Bray, whose specialty is Spanish art and sculpture, and who was formerly chief curator of Dulwich Picture Gallery and assistant curator of 17th- and 18th-century European paintings at the National Gallery in London.
“He has that wonderful energy and creative spirit — it’s like a flame. He made me look at the collection in a totally new way. We looked at the shoes in the paintings, and he made me realize their importance in terms of who was wearing them, and what kind of shoes they were. It became clear that it would be great to reenact our conversations with the actual shoes placed in strategic parts of the collection.”
“It will be amazing to see the Rococo pieces with Rococo-looking shoes. After the French Revolution the pace changed, and [tastes turned] to simpler, more sober forms, and sober black shoes. We’ll be able to create moods with the room in mind, and with the shoes in mind,” Bray said.
The show will also be a window into the imagination of Blahnik, who doesn’t work with mood boards when he designs a collection. “I can’t work like that. Instead, I look around and let what I see percolate. My mood board is in my head, my brain,” the designer said.
Bray said he wants to encourage guests to see art and history the way Blahnik does: “It will be a visual experience, and allow people to break down art history the Manolo Blahnik way. He sees art history everywhere, lives it, smells it, touches it. I think that will be very refreshing for us, and an opportunity for people to reconsider our collection.”
A series of related talks, conversations and events will accompany the show, with Bray discussing Goya’s shoes, and shoes in paintings, and Blahnik in conversation with his old friend Mary Beard, a renowned professor of classics at Cambridge University.
Looking ahead, Bray said he’s open to more exhibitions that can complement the collection, although they’ll have to measure up to the Manolo one.
“I am very keen to keep it highbrow. Manolo is an artist. He draws first, he thinks and there is a process,” Bray said. “I am working with somebody who is on the level of the works we have here, and this might be the beginning of really interesting interactions with the other arts,” such as fragrance or music, he added.
“Perfume is a fascinating art in itself, and belongs to the 18th century, so how do you bring fragrance into the Wallace without making it smell like a perfume shop? Music is something I am keen to push forward, so you can hear the sounds of the periods. People want this to be an experience, a much more overall experience.”