How I Did It: Manolo Blahnik’s CEO Started Out as an Architect Who Grew Up in a Shoebox

(In a new series, “How I Did It,” FN profiles successful footwear and fashion players — from entrepreneurs to designers to top executives at major brands — and reveals how they carved their path into the industry.)

“I did genuinely grow up in a shoebox,” said Manolo Blahnik CEO Kristina Blahnik.

The office above the brand’s first shop in London’s Chelsea was a 5-meter-square space with her uncle, Manolo Blahnik, and mother, Evangeline Blahnik (then managing director), sitting at opposite desks.

“When the collections arrived from the factory, they’d be in these big brown cardboard boxes,” she recalls, “so to make some entertainment for me as a 6-year-old, they’d cut out a door in one of them to make me a Wendy house.”

However, a career in architecture, as opposed to footwear, ensued before she joined the family business in 2009 at the age of 35.

Under Kristina’s leadership, the brand has flourished — growing from three employees in 1980 to around 60 strong. It has also logged substantial earnings growth, posting an 86 percent rise in profit and 142 percent gain in in turnover between 2015 and 2017 alone, largely due to optimizing its footprint in the Asia-Pacific territories.

At the end of this month, it is poised to open its first Taiwan store in Taipei’s Breeze shopping center, followed by a two-story boutique, an industrial space in Tokyo’s Omotesando Hills district in April.

Closer to home, 2019 will see the opening of the brand’s first Paris store within the colonnades of the city’s Palais-Royal. They will take over a space occupied by the Jacobean era Café Corazza, an erstwhile hangout of Napoleon and the Empress Josephine. The name and majority of the venue’s original features will remain intact. She said, “We’ll be in residence.”

What was your dream job growing up?

“[During my teenage years], I wanted to be a banker — maybe because my dad was a banker. But I was always drawing and decided at around 17 that I wanted to go into architecture because I was really involved in set design at my school theater.”

What made you change course?

“I felt I needed to, to protect and nurture the journey that my family was on. I could see so much untapped potential, but the the workforce and the resources simply weren’t there. I started in the press office and learned the ropes of the business as I went along. I didn’t come with any business skill set, but I knew how to construct a building. I don’t see myself as being in fashion — I see myself in a family situation in which we want to keep evolving and growing.”

What was the toughest thing about changing careers?

“Leaving the career I’d set up at 18 and by which I’d defined myself. I felt for a while that I was losing my identity. But then I realized I could find myself via the project both on a human level and in terms of protecting the family legacy for the future. Because I joined the business in my mid-30s, I feel that I came in at the right time. If you join the family business too young, [I don’t think] you’re necessarily bringing life experiences, your own convictions, confidence and security.”

What was your big break?

“We’d previously used Liberty prints on some of the shoes, but in 2009, shortly after I joined the business, Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye, the then-CEO of Liberty London, and Ed Burstell, managing director, asked us to design a print. One print led to three, which led to an entire pop-up with co-branded products. The previous pop-up in that space had been with Hermès. At the time, we had no communications team, no in-house lawyer, no product development team and no network around us, so I did the entire contract myself — something I’d never done my life before. We launched nine months later in 2010. It was real baptism by fire.”

Kristina Blahnik and Manolo Blahnik
Kristina Blahnik and Manolo Blahnik.
CREDIT: Manolo Blahnik

Describe the moment that solidified to you that you had broken through.

“In 2015, when we moved our head office from London’s Old Church Street in Chelsea to Welbeck Street in the city’s Mayfair district, we were a company of 20 — but in that year, we tripled in size. We’d previously done everything instinctively, but as we grew, there came a need for clarity in terms of our foundations and brand values. So in 2016, we decided to define these in a mission statement. It felt like exposing the foundations of a building. It was the toughest thing we did but also the most rewarding. The Möbius curve is one of our visuals. It reminds us we must constantly keep moving. If you stop or simply replicate, that’s not moving forward. You stagnate. We also implemented a board of directors.”

What has been your biggest disappointment?

“I never reflect on the negative because I don’t see it as a negative; I see it as an opportunity. If you’re still disappointed about something, you haven’t resolved it.”

One thing you do every day to be successful?

“Smile.”

Best advice for a new designer or someone who wants to be in the shoe/fashion industry?

“Take time to do things slowly and organically. The biggest luxuries in life are time and freedom. Take your time and protect your freedom. Without these two luxuries, you haven’t got luxury.”

Manolo Blahnik and Kristina Blahnik
Manolo Blahnik and Kristina Blahnik.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

The next big thing in footwear is …

“Celebrating elegance. It doesn’t mean the sneaker is over, though; you can do both. We have a one piece: a whole-cut sneaker. Manolo will only make a sneaker he could actually wear himself.”

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