On a summer afternoon in London, an animated Manolo Blahnik is re-enacting favorite scenes from his new biopic.
During the trailer of the film, titled “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, viewers get a glimpse of the shoe legend squealing in delight and holding his hands up to his face in a surprise moment. “Suddenly John Galliano had appeared,” recalled Blahnik, who is perched on the edge of a sofa in his elegant townhouse headquarters in Marylebone. “It had been years since I had seen him, and I started screaming. I really loved this bit.”
Blahnik — who was made for the big screen — has been fascinating audiences for decades with his artistic shoes, electric personality and theatrical wit. Now he’s in the middle of another incredible moment, but this one is unlike any other he’s experienced.
At 74, the prolific designer is not only starring in his highly anticipated documentary. He’s also touring the world with a retrospective exhibition and expanding his namesake label into new, and sometimes unexpected, territory. “I just keep going. I’ve always been like that,” said Blahnik. “I don’t even know that I’m old. It’s not something I imagine. I just don’t think about it.”
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The fashion veteran’s cinematic life — which began with an idyllic childhood in his beloved Canary Islands — is chronicled in the film, which launches Friday in select cities. Blahnik’s close friend Michael Roberts directed the movie, which will be distributed by Music Box Films in North America.
The designer has viewed the completed project three or four times; he prefers earlier, less edited versions. “It’s been a great experience, but it’s taking too much of my energy. Dealing with editors and producers has been an absolute nightmare,” he admitted. “I don’t want to see my stupid self anymore. People might walk into the theater and say, ‘Who is that freak?’ I asked Michael to film the back of me all the time, but it didn’t happen that way.”
That self-deprecating charm is a Blahnik trademark, and he clearly knows he’s a compelling character. To help tell his story, the designer brought together a diverse group of fans to expound on his intersecting passions: art, literature, film — and of course fashion. “To be a great designer, great creator, you have to be interested in the world and history and people,” says Vogue editor Anna Wintour as the trailer opens. She later delivers one of its most memorable lines: “I can’t remember the last time I wore anybody else’s shoes. I don’t even look at them.”
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 and Isaac Mizrahi, classicist Mary Beard and many others. “It weaves so many elements together: interviews, biography, animation, fantasy sequences,” said Kristina Blahnik, the designer’s niece and CEO of Manolo Blahnik International. “Finally, we get to see Manolo in his true environment. You get insight into his mind and his private world. It isn’t about shoes; it’s about a feeling, a spirit.”
While the shoes might have a secondary role in the documentary, they are front and center in Blahnik’s in-depth retrospective exhibition, which features some of his most imaginative designs. After debuting in Milan at the beginning of the year, it has traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, and is now on display at Prague’s Museum Kampa in the Czech Republic, where his father hailed from.
Next up, Blahnik will honor his Spanish roots and take the show to Madrid’s Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas. “That’s going to be quite fun, a mess,” laughed Blahnik. The final stop will be the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto next year.
The exhibition features more than 200 of Blahnik’s favorite shoes and dozens of drawings spanning from the early 1970s to modern day. “Some people have no idea about the complexity and true artistry of what Manolo does,” said George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik USA. “This gives him a new audience and enthralls him.”
During FN’s visit to the retrospective at Palazzo Morando in Milan, two young women gasped when they saw the shoes Blahnik created for the 2006 film “Marie Antoinette.” “This is the magic of that movie. I loved it with its kind of trashy music and people. It worked,” said Blahnik, a well-known film and television buff, who seems to find inspiration in every genre. (His current obsession: Elisabeth Moss in the series “Top of the Lake.”) The designer also continues to be stimulated by his extensive travels, and he loves to soak up the culture in every place he visits.
At the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, more than 100,000 people visited the exhibition over the course of its three-month run there. Blahnik said he signed books and shoes for hours during a personal appearance.
“I didn’t think anyone knew about me in Russia,” he said. “It was incredible to meet so many people in their 30s and 40s who were intellectuals. They really see what’s behind an object and view a shoe as more than something they just put on. I don’t know if it’s fashionable to be like that, but it was incredible. I’ve never seen that in America or Europe.”
During the meet and greet, an older man emerged from the crowd and told the designer he had been anticipating the meeting after reading about Blahnik in several newspaper articles. “He knew I had originally studied [law and politics], and wrote me a poem that said the best things in life are those you never think about or plan. It’s true, I never think about anything. The man really got it. I love things like that.”
Blahnik’s fan base spans generations. During the same event, a 12-year-old girl asked the designer if she could come to England and be his apprentice as soon as she was old enough. “Too many things could happen by the time you’re 18. I might be dead,” he responded. According to Blahnik, the girl didn’t miss a beat. “She said, ‘Oh, you won’t be. My mom says you’re one of those people who is going to go on and on and on.’”
In that spirit, the artist said he constantly challenges himself to do something new. “I try to run from what I see in the film or the exhibition. It works for me in a strange way.”
Blahnik said he dreams up his most creative styles while he’s sleeping — a process that’s always been successful for him. He keeps his 3H pencil on a wire beside his bed so he can launch into action at any time. “During the day, I’ll see women on the street and want to design a shoe for them. But those ideas don’t really stay. Everything comes at night.”
The designer is permanently focused on his next collection, but he still understands that everything old can also be new again. Case in point: The Maysale, his update of the wildly successful Pilgrim mule he made for Mizrahi in 1990. “It’s such a wonderful thing to do mules again, and now it’s the best-selling shoe of the whole summer. We have waiting lists in Madrid. It’s extraordinary that the times are so terrible and people buy these stupid shoes. Maybe they want joy for five seconds.”
Blahnik’s own joy in life, as he says in the documentary, is spending time in the factories. He still designs every single shoe and is intimately involved in the production process, a task that many creative directors hand off to their teams. “I love being there, cutting and feeling the materials,” he said.
While his spring ’18 collection is technically still under wraps, the designer already has a definite favorite — the Francamaria, a satin d’Orsay pump with draped beading that he created in honor of the late Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani. “It’s so beautiful. I saw Franca wearing it before she got sick,” said Blahnik, who lamented the loss of so many close friends over the past several years.
He dedicated his Milan exhibition to Sozzani and another Italian fashion icon, the late Anna Piaggi. “They had incredible minds and taste. I think about them all the time, and girls like Tina Chow and Isabella Blow. I will never be able to replace them.”
Strong women have always gravitated to Blahnik, and he has an innate ability to connect with the people who inspire him — from young British designers such as Grace Wales Bonner to global superstars like Rihanna (he has collaborated with both).
“I enjoy everything about Manolo. He is such an incredible human being,” Rihanna told FN. “I was blessed with the opportunity to see him create from scratch. He’s so passionate about what he does, and it makes it so worth it when you buy or wear a pair of his shoes, because you know what went into it. He’s not ‘copy and paste.’ He’s not letting anyone do his work. He still loves everything about shoes, and it’s so refreshing.”
In July, the designer and the songstress released their third and final collaboration collection, called So Stoned, which featured four bejeweled sandals with PVC straps and Perspex heels. Rihanna generated buzz for the knee-high Poison Ivy gladiator style when she wore it in DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” video.
According to Kristina Blahnik, the look sold out within hours, and #sostoned has racked up more than 240 million media impressions. “The entire collaboration has been a fascinating, fun-filled juxtaposition of what you would assume were two disparate sides of culture coming together and telling a story,” she said.
Now the Blahniks are busy writing new chapters of the brand’s story and plotting expansion — though they continue to approach growth conservatively. Together with partner Bluebell Group, the company recently debuted a stand-alone boutique in Tokyo’s new Ginza 6 retail development and a shop-in-shop at the Daimaru department store in Osaka. Further expansion is planned in both Japan and Norway, while the label has also recently moved into Australia and Poland.
It’s certainly a frenetic year for the designer, who worries aloud about his upcoming travel schedule, which includes a trip to New York this week for a personal appearance at Bergdorf Goodman and an intimate film premiere party at The Frick Collection art museum. “I’m going to shut my eyes during the whole preview. It’s going to be torture,” he said.
Blahnik’s big-screen moment will undoubtedly ignite a whole new wave of attention around him, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t have a clue about fame. I don’t understand what it is,” the designer said, reiterating a sentiment he’s expressed many times over the years. “I’m not mad about this kind of business. I never was. I never will be.”