Manolo Blahnik: Head Over Heels

On a drizzly September afternoon, inside an elegant sitting room in the St. Regis Hotel in New York, Manolo Blahnik is mesmerized by the parade of people on 55th Street.

The eclectic lunchtime crowd outside the hotel window provides endless fodder for the ever-curious, quick-witted designer. “People here are twisted. I like that,” he says, chuckling.

Only a few hours into his stateside visit, Blahnik has a clear idea that people’s moods have shifted since his last trip to New York. “There is a sinister look in everyone’s eyes,” he says. (Ironically enough, three days later, the unraveling of the stock market began and the economic crisis deepened.)

While Blahnik only arrived a day earlier — and admits he stayed up all night watching “Trouble in Paradise” and other old films in his hotel room — he is energetic and animated.

But it’s a recent film that has drawn more attention to the designer. And while he’s willing to talk about “Sex and the City,” Blahnik is perplexed about his starring role in the movie.

He says of the now-famous blue satin bejeweled pumps featured in several key scenes throughout the movie, “I’ve been doing that shoe for a million years. The only thing that changed was the buckle. It is a pretty shoe, but it isn’t particularly exciting. [I’m amazed] that you have lines of people, even in Europe, asking for this shoe.”

Shortly after the first of Footwear News’ two exclusive interviews, Blahnik heads off to greet dozens of eager fans at Bergdorf Goodman, for one of seven U.S. store appearances. He is visibly anxious about the event, but when the time comes, he is caught up in the fervor of his devoted fans.

Almost two weeks later, we meet the designer again at the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles for our second conversation. During that span, he’s had a hectic cross-country jaunt that took him from New York to Neiman Marcus store appearances in Westchester, N.Y.; Atlanta; Chicago; San Francisco; Beverly Hills and Newport Beach, Calif., Blahnik has come to Tinseltown for a special reason: to accept the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award at a star-studded ceremony.

But before the celebration can begin, the designer must race through back-to-back press appointments booked to promote his award. It’s a pace that clearly frustrates Blahnik. “I like to sit down and really get into conversation with people and talk,” he says. “This just doesn’t allow me to do that. I hate it. It’s rude. Everything is rush, rush.”

Still, Blahnik admits to being flattered by all the attention, particularly in a town that holds a special place in his heart and has had so much influence on his work.

“I just love Hollywood and the movies — the old ones, not the new ones, the ones about people talking and romance,” he says. “They don’t make them like that anymore, which is why I love my DVDs. They’re my most valuable possessions.”

In both interviews, Blahnik is candid about the big changes in the luxury market, the importance of innovative design and the pressures of staying competitive in today’s footwear market.

“I’m so much more nervous now than I’ve ever been,” he confesses. “I don’t know why that is. I push myself harder now. I always did, but now I am so concerned about creativity. There is no resting, not even for me.”

FN: Do you think shoes are as hot as they were a few years ago?

MB: It looks like the whole world is mad for shoes. I can’t open a newspaper nowadays without there being something about shoes, how much they cost, how high the heels are getting, how much women spend on them, how women are having surgery because of them. There is an element of media hysteria to it … [but] shoes seem to still be hot, if not hotter than before.

FN: How is the current economic crisis affecting your business?

MB: My business is fantastic, but I’m always worried. On the plane over here, I was absolutely terrified. The Madrid Airport was empty. Terminal 4 [at Heathrow] was empty. [In New York], [there is] a sinister look in [everyone’s] eyes. I said, “Do you think anyone will come to my appearances?” — and then I spent hours and hours signing shoes. I’m not a businessman, so I don’t see things in terms of the economy. But I do believe that if someone has the right design to push product forward, they will succeed.

FN: Do you see troubles ahead for the luxe footwear market?

MB: Increasingly, yes. But people will still shop, they will just be buying less. Maybe instead of buying six pairs, you only buy one. There is a change happening, though. People are changing the way they look at wealth. The days of the huge display of wealth are over.

FN: Is quality as important as it used to be for luxe footwear designers?

MB: I am so worried about quality. It’s more important to me now. A lot of our embroiderers [from my Italian factory] are going back to India, China and Romania. It’s frightening. I’ve seen this coming. [But] I want that perfect stitch. When economic times are the worst, people want the most excitement [and highest quality]. I look at Hermès [as an example of top-notch quality]. They haven’t sold out.

FN: How has the business changed over the years?

MB: When I started it was Ferragamo and big design houses, and it was like that before I was even born. There weren’t designers; there were big manufacturers. Since I started, I think I pioneered this wave of designers. Everyone wants to be a shoe designer now.

FN: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

MB: It’s not good, but that’s because there are no individual voices. Everyone looks the same. They look to each other and to what is already out there for their inspiration. I really don’t belong to that class of designers. I am not at all a trend person. I don’t like them, I never have and hopefully never will. I think everyone is aware of how I feel about platforms and all these furniture shoes, so I shall not repeat [those feelings] again.

FN: Has your approach to designing shoes changed?

MB: I’ve always been a perfectionist, but even more so now. I feel much more exhausted because I demand much more of myself. I always want to do better. Sometimes I go days and days trying to decide if I want to do that one [style] or that other one. People aren’t stupid and they know when you get tired, so I have to stay creative.

FN: What shoes in your spring collection are you most excited about?

MB: I love all my shoes for spring. It’s a simple collection, appropriate for the times. This is not a climate to play around with, so I made a collection that is about what women want: beautiful shoes that are well made.

FN: How do you feel about designers who try to copy your work?

MB: It means to me that I am doing something new, that I’m doing something they would want to copy. When I teach design, I have all these young people wanting to know about my new designs, not the old ones. That makes me feel good, that I can still be as creative as people much younger than I am.

FN: You’ve done a number of designer collaborations. Do you have any new ones in the works?

MB: There are a number of American designers we work with, people such as Thakoon, Rag & Bone, Band of Outsiders. In Europe, we do Aquascutum and are in discussions with some other designers. I like collaborating with designers. It’s always good to see a fresh take, a new angle.

FN: Were you surprised about the attention your blue satin pump got in the “Sex and the City” film?

MB: I’ve been doing that shoe for a million years. The only thing that changed was the buckle. It is a pretty shoe, but it isn’t particularly exciting. [I’m amazed] that you have lines of people, even in Europe, asking for this shoe.

FN: After visiting Los Angeles again, are you still turned off by today’s young celebrities?

MB: It’s not that I disapprove of modern celebrities. I met some wonderful young new girls at the event. Lucy Liu is adorable. It’s the culture that blows anybody into a celebrity after two minutes that I am against.

FN: What were your most memorable moments from your trip?

MB: It was wonderful catching up with Los Angeles. And of course, the Walk of Style event was memorable. I was scared of it all at first, to be honest, but I have to say, seeing my silly drawings blown up all over Los Angeles did leave an impression on me. I always love Los Angeles. … It’s the city of movies, and as everyone knows, I am a big fan.


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