BLAHNIK WALKS AMONG HIS FAITHFUL

Byline: Holly Haber

DALLAS — From Beverly Hills and Bergdorf Goodman to Dallas and suburban New York, “Blahniks” literally walk out the door.
That was the itinerary for shoe designer Manolo Blahnik as he made his way around the country recently on his annual pilgrimage to several doors of Neiman Marcus, his biggest client.
Blahnik made the trips from his home in bucolic Bath, England.
His itinerary began in Beverly Hills followed by his first trip to downtown Dallas and a stop at the White Plains store in New York, all top Blahnik doors. Then he visited Bergdorf Goodman to unveil his renovated boutique there, where he was greeted by lines of people and one woman who even brought the dog she had named for him.
While Blahnik’s publicity material suggests the designer is an expert about the relationship between high heels and sex, he scoffed at the notion.
“High heels are so overrated as the focal point of my work,” he asserted. “I do all kinds of heels. I can see the intimate relationship between shoes and sex, because when you put [on heels] most women walk differently. There is an element of theater. Some women are enhanced. It makes you immediately sexy.”
Blahnik said his design strategy is to make only subtle changes to the styles and keep comfort paramount.
“I give every shoe to three ladies at the factory to try, and they have short stumpy feet, not beautiful long American feet. They tell me, ‘This hurts right here.’ I know right away if they will work,” he explained. “I have people who tell me $400 is obscenely expensive, but it’s my work. I do everything by hand — cut the pattern, make the last. It might take me a month to get a little thing right. It’s all made by hand, and it takes a long time.”
Perched on a sofa and cushioned by a pillow printed with a Blahnik sketch, one Neiman’s client, Marie Young, tried a pair of two-strap high-heel mules sparkling with jeweled vines.
“They’re just too fabulous to go without,” she declared. “It’s once in a lifetime — well, here it’s once a week. My husband likes to go to the [Blahnik] boutique in New York with me and watch the women. They say, ‘Oh, it’s so expensive but I’ve got to have it!”‘
But anyone who assumes he only cares about dressing socialites and celebrities would be wrong. Dallas-based hair accessories designer Eve Reid stood in line for Blahnik to autograph her shoe.
“With my first paycheck, I bought a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s at Saks,” she told the designer. “Now I have 12 pairs.”
“Bless you,” responded Blahnik, dapper in a chambray blue suit with tan suede bucks made by one of his factories. “These young professional women — these are the clients I love the best.”
Blahnik’s bewitchingly sexy shoes inspire such passion among his clientele that they are happy to wait in line to have the mule master scribble his signature on the sole of their shoe. Such dedication, Blahnik said, is beyond anything he ever imagined.
“It mystifies me,” said the designer before his appearance in the shoe salon of the Neiman Marcus downtown flagship. “I’m still surprised. I don’t know if it’s the look or the quality, balance and the best materials. And after all, they are feminine.”
Femininity aside, the shoes racked up sales in excess of $400,000 at Neiman’s Beverly Hills on Sept. 22 followed by well over $100,000 in sales at Neiman’s downtown Dallas store on Sept. 26.
Both events sold mostly from the store’s stock and were spurred by Blahnik’s appearances as well as the introduction of a book about him by Colin McDowell. The 200-page coffee table tome, “Manolo Blahnik,” was published in September by Harper Collins.
Available at Neiman’s and Barneys New York, as well as bookstores nationwide, it’s chock full of illustrations and photos of his designs. The text chronicles the minutiae of Blahnik’s life and work, starting with his childhood in the Canary Isles and touching on encounters with such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Paloma Picasso.
Neiman’s Web site is also doing a brisk business with Blahnik. Offering 22 styles of shoes, the site’s Manolo Blahnik boutique is selling as many pairs as one of Neiman’s highest-volume “A” stores, according to Karen Katz, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Direct. She declined to reveal specific sales volume.
“It’s amazing to see that with technology that you can even sell objects like shoes,” Blahnik said. “They aren’t like a dress, which is flat. It’s exciting to see people from Kansas buying them and not returning them.”
Blahnik said his firm is too small right now to have its own Web site — though he declined to elaborate on the company’s volume — but he does envision launching one within two or three years. Until then he said, “Let Neiman’s do it.”
Though the company’s headquarters are in London, Manolo Blahnik America Inc. is based in New York and owned by George Malkemus, who since 1982 has held the Blahnik license for North and South America.
Malkemus, who accompanied the designer on the American tour, pointed out that Blahnik’s shoes are made by four factories in Italy that each turn out 60 pairs of shoes per day compared with a typical production of 400 to 600 pairs at other Italian factories.
To handle the additional demand, the company has just contracted two additional factories in Italy to begin producing the collection next spring under the guidance of the four main plants. The Neiman’s business alone has doubled in the past year, Malkemus reported, but declined to give specifics.
Blahnik claimed he has enough work just keeping up with demand for his own line, let alone producing any collections for other designers. His last license, for Anne Klein footwear, ended in 1995. Unlike so many other designers, he claims not to want to add handbags, despite continual pressure from retailers.
In Beverly Hills, fanatic Blahnik territory, about 300 people turned out, some of whom lined up three hours before the designer’s scheduled appearance at Neiman’s.
For Cynthia Marcus, vice president of shoes at Neiman’s, who orchestrated the tour, it’s no mystery why Blahnik’s shoes are so popular.
“We’re very focused on the business, and the timing now is about sexy, beautiful shoes and luxury and if there’s anything Manolo stands for it’s all those things,” she said.
For his part, Blahnik was unusually enthusiastic about Neiman’s presentation of his line.
“I love the way Neiman’s does things,” he declared. “I could cancel all the shops in the world and just sell to Neiman’s.”
Fall bestsellers have been alligator loafers, ring-lizard mules, calfskin square-toed pumps and leather mules decorated with mother-of-pearl discs. The Beverly Hills store sold out of $1,800 alligator loafers — some 24 to 36 pairs. Neiman’s also wrote orders for four pairs of $12,800 high-heel alligator boots in Beverly Hills and two more in Dallas.
Shelle Bagot, Neiman’s vice president and downtown store manager, said she sold a pair of the boots over the phone to a customer by telling her, “I know your wardrobe and this is one thing you don’t have.”
The scene in Dallas was more sedate than in Los Angeles, although there was a steady stream of 10 to 20 people waiting at any given time for Blahnik to sign shoes or the book.
“This is very ladylike and people in Dallas are very well groomed compared with Europe,” Blahnik observed. “People there have let themselves go. The masses are not so gorgeous. But here, even in the streets you see incredible women.”

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