His footwear became a must-have for women after featuring in Sex and the City, but the designer seems mystified by his phenomenal success as he opens his shop-in-shop in Brown Thomas.
It is with some trepidation that Drapers enters the private shopping suite of Dublin department store Brown Thomas to conduct an interview with footwear designer Manolo Blahnik. He seems tired when he arrives, which is not surprising since he has spent the entire morning holding court for a seemingly endless trail of journalists and photographers from the Irish media, who have come to quiz him about his new shop-in-shop in the iconic Grafton Street store, and he complains that he is “literally held together with pieces of metal”. It turns out he is wearing a knee brace as the result of a fall a few months previously and it appears to be causing him discomfort. But when he is offered a few sympathetic words from Drapers and the gaggle of PRs that surround him, he is having none of it. “Tired? Are you kidding? I love this!”
He arranges himself slightly awkwardly in a low chair with the troublesome leg sticking out straight in front of him. He declines offers of water but does request a wet flannel with which to dab his face and hands. When this arrives a moment later on a tray, along with the water and a scented candle, he looks surprised. “What is this they bring me? I do not need it, but it is too kind,” he says, ignoring the flannel he asked for and drinking the water he refused. (Later at a private dinner hosted by Brown Thomas chief executive Nigel Blow and executives from Shoe Studio Group, which runs the shop-in-shop, he confesses to being a “contrarian”, and says he often ditches designs from his collections if he considers them to be too in fashion and resurrects them only when he is satisfied they are out of fashion again.)
Once all the fussing is over and Blahnik is alone he relaxes and begins talking, quickly and in a heavy accent – he is half Spanish, half Czech – about anything and everything that pops into his mind, so much so that you get the impression he doesn’t realise he is being interviewed and thinks you are there for an informal chat. However, he occasionally checks himself. One high-profile celebrity is dismissed as vile, or more accurately “viiiiiiiile” (when he wants to emphasise a word he elongates his vowels for several seconds and raises the pitch of his voice until he is practically shrieking), before adding “but I suppose she is sweet because she wears my shoes” and asks that we don’t mention her name.
Blahnik admits he avoids doing live interviews because he can’t help saying what is on his mind, particularly if something is bothering him, and he gets himself into trouble. “But I don’t care,” he adds. Today, it is the economy that vexes him. “Now I see some bank in Scotland has gone,” he says, looking horrified. We meet on the day that the Royal Bank of Scotland’s share value dropped 40%, prior to its government bail-out, and Blahnik has just caught a snippet of business news on the television.
“It’s very upsetting,” he says. “I feel guilty thinking about all the problems we have and in Atlanta [the US city where Blahnik has just opened a store and from where he has just returned] we have people queuing around the block for that shoe.”
By “that shoe” he means the blue silk-covered buckle pump that actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie Bradshaw wore in the Sex and the City movie, and for which there are now waiting lists around the world. It is fortunate he raised the subject, because Drapers had been told not to, as he is apparently sick of talking about it.
It is hard to know what bothers him more; that the banks are collapsing and there are still stampedes for shoes that cost upwards of £500, or that the shoe in question is not one of his favourite styles. “I’ve always been doing that shoe,” he continues, “and now everybody is doing a buckle shoe. I like buckles but in Atlanta we have a waiting list to January next year. I’m quite embarrassed, it’s not even my best work; it’s just a pump.” However, a black silk-covered buckle pump, which to the untrained eye looks barely different from the blue one, is singled out as a personal favourite by Blahnik and he delicately brushes off a spec of dust from it with his fingers.
“Unfortunately that’s the power of TV and film and of Sarah Jessica Parker and the other one and the other one and the other one [her co-stars presumably],” he continues, trying to explain why a shoe he considers ordinary is a worldwide phenomenon. It was of course Sex and the City, the TV show (and in particular the episode in which Carrie Bradshaw is mugged for her “Manolos”) that brought Blahnik’s name into the mainstream, sent thousands on a pilgrimage to his shop in Chelsea, west London, and led to stores across the globe demanding his product.
It is the kind of publicity that most brands would kill for but we’re not talking about most brands. “I’m ambivalent about it,” says Blahnik. “The sudden recognition is OK but to me it’s just a bit upsetting. I mean, I’m grateful to death for this kind of research of my work and the fact that people are beyond happy [when they wear his shoes].”
While he loves the fact that women adore his footwear, he is less comfortable with the idea of heading up a global brand, and in fact does not see the need to grow the business, since he has no desire to ever sell up and has always maintained the business will die with him. “I wonder how long it will last,” he says of his success, “but the business, that will last as long as I do.”
In 1970, as an aspiring film set designer, Blahnik went to New York with his portfolio of drawings to try to get work, but a meeting with the then Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland changed the course of his life. “She went mad when she saw my drawings and said ‘you should do shoes and accessories’,” he says. He returned to London the following year to design shoes for Ossie Clark, among others, and acquired his Chelsea store in 1973. His empire now includes stores in his native Spain, Russia, Turkey, Dubai, Kuwait and New York plus shop-in-shops in various US department stores including Bergdorf Goodman. The Brown Thomas store is his first shop-in-shop in western Europe and, while he is under pressure to open more, he is reluctant.
“I can’t. I was asked to open in Glasgow but I say it is too near to London, and the big stores in London want me but I don’t want it. I was trained to do small things because I cannot deal with the facts [of running a business]. I have stress now,” he says. Glasgow doesn’t seem that close to London. “But it is. If people want my shoes then they come to my store. If they don’t come to my store, then…,” he trails off and shrugs.
It is this keep-it-small approach to business that makes Shoe Studio’s achievement in securing the Brown Thomas store all the more significant. Its opening marks the end of a year-long negotiation with Blahnik’s team – which includes sister Evangeline and niece Kristina, who designed the space – led by Shoe Studio’s senior buyer for luxury and fashion brands Sarah Smith.
“As with all projects of this nature it has taken time and a lot of work on all sides,” says Smith. “We felt passionately that Brown Thomas Shoe Rooms was a perfect home for Manolo Blahnik and that our customers both in Dublin and across Ireland would adore having the opportunity to purchase his shoes.” Business has been going “brilliantly” since it opened, she adds.
For Blahnik, opening in Dublin gives him an excuse to visit the city he loves because of its Georgian architecture, which influenced the shop-in-shop’s storefit which is intended to evoke a Georgian living room. “I love this city. I’ve been here before and [this store] means I can come again. I live in Bath in the UK because my period is Georgian,” he says.
However, Blahnik, who trained as an architect, is horrified at what he calls the “mutilation” of Dublin, where Georgian architecture has been demolished in the 1970s to make way for modern structures. “I like modern stuff but if you wanted to do modern why not go outside of the city? It’s a crime – I need beauty around me,” he says.
Certainly his shoes are things of beauty, ranging from seemingly conservative but “perfectly proportioned” pumps, to vertiginous warrior sandals, which have been a best-seller this season. “This style has been out of control. I know this because I sign so many,” he says, turning it over and mimicking a signing action on the sole. It has become tradition for women to request their shoes be signed when Blahnik makes a personal appearance, a practice he considers slightly odd but which he is happy to go along with. However, it does have its disturbing moments, such as the time a woman in the US asked him to sign her calf and returned two hours later with the signature tattooed on her leg. “It was the freakiest thing,” he says.
Talking of freaky things, what does he make of the fact that designers seem to be going out of their way to make their shoes look as crazy as possible these days? “All these uuuuuuuugly shoes,” he cries. “All these dress designers making mad and ugly shoes with bad proportions and bad designs. Unless it’s Prada which does it with irony, I hate these designers who put flowers and jewels and this and that on shoes and they don’t even look like shoes.” Shoes can be crazy, he says, as long as they’re comfortable and women can walk in them.
But while he is dismissive of “dress designers making shoes to sell their dresses” he is proud to be cited as the inspiration for a new generation of footwear designers, such as Nicholas Kirkwood, Jonathan Kelsey and Georgina Goodman. For the past five years he has been an honorary professor at the Royal College of Art in London and each year gives a bursary to one student. “I like to inspire,” he says. “It’s the one thing I have achieved that I have been happy with.”
2003 London’s Design Museum stages an exhibition of Blahnik’s work
1990, 1999, 2003 Wins awards from the British Fashion Council
1987, 1990, 1998 Wins awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America
1973 Acquires his store in Chelsea, west London
1972 Ossie Clark uses Blahnik’s designs
1968 Moves to London to work in various fashion boutiques
1965 Graduates from the University of Geneva
You’re a big movie fan, so which are your favourite films?
I am a huge movie fan. I have a column on film in Harper’s Bazaar magazine and for me it’s so easy to write about. Film is my biggest passion, except for shoes. I love Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina and Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus.
You have inspired many footwear designers, but who inspired you?
When I started my career there was no one. There was Maud Frizon and Salvatore Ferragamo and that was it, and I like them both. But I love Perugia [French footwear designer Andr預erugia, who died in 1977]; he was perfection. I love the heels he made that are like springs.
Who are your style icons?
Today, I like Amy Winehouse’s messy style. She reminds me of Dalida [an Egyptian-born singer who spent most of her life in France and who died in 1987] with her beehive hair style. And I love Kate Moss, I adore her. She is my faithful friend and she loves my Mary Janes. She is 34
now and she is even more beautiful now that she’s a woman – she’s the pride of Britain. I also love the actress Julie Christie. I cannot live without Julie Christie.
Which are your favourite retailers?
Brown Thomas is divine. It’s like the tiny version of the perfect store, it’s very homely. And I love Selfridges; it wants my shoes but I cannot produce enough. I also love Browns – Joan Burstein [the store’s founder, for whom Blahnik worked when he first
came to England] is sweet and very, very human.