Kristina Blahnik is bringing all aspects of luxury footwear brand Manolo Blahnik back in house with the aim of respecting its heritage and securing its long-term future
Kristina Blahnik, CEO of luxury footwear brand Manolo Blahnik, stands proudly in the doorway of its Marylebone townhouse headquarters. The niece of the eponymous founder is dressed in a scarlet Alaïa dress and co-ordinating Manolo Blahnik heels. Charming, friendly and wickedly smart, she is the epitome of the brand’s sophisticated luxury – with a hint of eclectic humour.
“We’re here to make dreams come true,” says Blahnik. “It sounds corny, but that’s ultimately what we’re here to do: to bring a smile to people’s faces.”
Born in the Canary Islands in 1942, Manolo Blahnik studied law before a stint in London working at Kensington boutique Feathers with Joan Burstein, the “Mrs B” now known for luxury retailer Browns.
After an encounter with Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in New York in 1969, in which she encouraged him to make shoes, he opened his first store on London’s Old Church Street in Chelsea in 1972. Today, the brand has stepped far beyond the Old Church Street store – which is still in operation – and is one of the most sought-after luxury footwear names in the world.
Kristina Blahnik has been CEO since 2013, when she took over from her mother, who had been managing director since 1980. She is taking control of the brand’s future through measures including bringing its US team in house, and buying one of its manufacturers, as having full control is the “only way we can really, truly nurture it”. She plans to increase the proportion of sales through its own stores and website, and, in the long term, make Manolo Blahnik’s archive open to the public.
Turnover reached €34.3m (£29.6m) for the year to 31 December 2018, broadly flat from the previous year. Profit before tax, however, dropped by 18% to €6.6m (£5.7m). The business explained this as a result of investment: two new branches were opened during the year – a men’s store in London and a women’s shop in Geneva – and added that 2017’s profits had been exceptionally boosted by “the sale of a property” that year.
Manolo Blahnik has become part of the fashion vernacular as a symbol of modern luxury
Lydia King, Harrods
In the head office, with Manolo Blahnik’s footwear sketches adorning the walls, a bouquet of white roses on the table and an own-brand candle burning, Blahnik explains: “I have the opportunity to protect a legacy, but then also build the foundations so the story [of the brand] is still there in 500 years.”
Raised around the business, Blahnik was born in Germany, and her family moved to the UK when she was six. She studied architecture at Cambridge, and ran her own practice for 10 years. She joined the family business in 2009, working her way up in areas as diverse as manufacturing and PR. On her first day, she flew to Italy to take her uncle’s designs to the factory.
Manolo Blahnik himself remains the chairman, and is enmeshed in the business. Employees speak of him with an affectionate, near-reverential tone. He leads the design of all the brand’s collections – four per year, comprising both men’s and women’s shoes.
Blahnik works on the designs with him, but says: “He’s absolutely the creative director. The creative, conceptual genesis [of each collection] is from him.”
The cultural impact of Manolo Blahnik’s designs is hard to overstate, says Lydia King, fashion director at Harrods: “The instantly recognisable name, made popular by Sex and the City and fashion editors alike, plus its combination of sleek with sparkle [make the brand popular].” King says the brand’s Hangisi shoe (right, retail price £740) – adorned with a glittering buckle and available as both a flat and a heel – and Maysale mule are the most popular. Jewel tones sell particularly well with Harrods customers.
Typical retail prices range from £395 for plain leather pumps to £1,095 for embellished styles. Wholesale prices for the brand are adjusted for each stockist.
Harrods’ King adds that the brand has “become part of the fashion vernacular as a symbol of modern luxury” and, indeed, high-profile exhibitions have been dedicated to Manolo Blahnik’s work.
These include a showcase at London’s Design Museum in 2003 and, most recently, a display at the Wallace Collection in Marylebone, which ran from 10 June to 27 October 2019. The exhibition was extended for an additional month as a result of unprecedented demand.
“[Manolo] Blahnik’s designs reflect a commitment to the highest levels of artistry and craftsmanship,” says Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection and co-curator of the exhibition. “Blahnik seeks to produce shoes of refined quality and elegance.”
We now have total visibility from the moment of creative conception through to the marketplace
Kristina Blahnik takes a long-term view of her responsibilities as CEO. Rather than focusing on driving immediate growth, she says she is investing in the “foundations” with a forward-looking attitude born of her architectural training.
“As an architect, you have to be able to visualise,” she explains. “You have to visualise something that is five years down the line, in such a clear way that you can write it and draw it and see its dimensions. I’ve applied that again and again: what do I want the business to look like in five, 10 and 100 years’ time?”
An important part of this strategy has been to bring more operations directly under the brand’s own control. In July 2019, it bought one of the manufacturers it works with near Milan, after working with the factory for more than 30 years.
Blahnik says: “What’s been so humbling for me and for my family is the passion with which all 80 people in that factory [near Milan] have for us, and for their art and their craft. That’s one of the things that we really want to be celebrating [as we go] into the future. Putting the word ‘art’ back into artisan.”
The brand also manufactures in several other factories in Italy, around Milan and Florence, many of which it has worked with for decades. Blahnik notes that having near-vertical integration is immensely valuable for the business and, while there are no immediate plans to acquire more factories, it focuses on working as closely as possible with them – she describes them as “family” rather than suppliers.
“We now have total visibility from the moment of creative conception through to the marketplace,” she adds. “It also gives us much more ability to ensure that our responsibilities on the worldwide front [such as sustainability] are able to be implemented.”
You can’t have a plan for a legacy if you’re not fully in ownership of it
In addition, from 1 January 2020, the US business, which has been licensed to businessmen George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis for 37 years, will be brought in house. It will be run by Andrew Wright, previously the brand’s commercial director, who was appointed president of the US business in August.
Today, in addition to the 80 workers in the newly acquired Italian factory, there are 80 staff at the brand’s Marylebone base and its London stores. The newly created US team will comprise 40 people when it launches next year, so, by the end of 2020, there will be around 200 people working directly for the business.
“You can’t have a plan for a legacy if you’re not fully in ownership of it,” says Blahnik. “It’s very important that we have the ability to touch every stage of our journey. On a business level [it is key] to have an impact on every decision made. It’s the only way we can really, truly nurture it.”
Part of this “full ownership” was taking control of the brand’s website, which was previously managed by an external company. In November 2018, Manolo Blahnik relaunched its global ecommerce site, which was built in house. Although the front end design has remained largely the same, the brand now has full control over interactions with those shopping on the site. Blahnik says ecommerce sales have doubled since the relaunch.
“Building the site ourselves gave us the ability to be more nimble,” she explains. “We’re better able to reach out to the customer, to be able to actually engage with consumers and make sure that we’re fulfilling everyone’s wishes as best as we can.”
While many luxury retailers were traditionally wary of digital and are now battling to regain ground with their own sites against more agile digital retail competitors, Manolo Blahnik is embracing the possibilities it can offer to the business.
Blahnik estimates that, across all channels, 50% of the brand’s sales are in the US, and the other 50% from Asia-Pacific and Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined. Excluding the US, digital and own retail sales make up around 20% of the total, and Blahnik says her ambition is for one-third of sales to come from the brand’s own network by 2022.
As with many luxury names, the Manolo Blahnik stores are an important element of the business, as they allow the brand to convey its story to customers and provide a high-end experience. Creating unique stores has been a longstanding preoccupation for Blahnik. In the late 1990s, while still an architect, she wrote an article criticising the “retail coma” of “cookie-cutter” shop fits on the high street.
She is adamant that each store must be unique to its location: “Each store was designed as a collage of the geology, history, culture of the place and the artisan. We were able to create for each city something that resonated deeply with its home. You need to experience each city, each store, in a different way.”
Of the brand’s 20 global stores, 15 are operated by partner businesses, and five – including those in London and Paris – are run directly. Blahnik is targeting a total of 25 stores globally by around 2022.
Beyond these business developments, Blahnik says her biggest project is the organisation of the brand’s archives. She describes it as a “lifetime mission”, but is determined that, eventually, the archive will be accessible and engaging to the public – a “juxtaposition” of physical and digital media rather than a static archive.
“I have to make sure that the archive is in the right place, so that generations to come can have access to it, and enjoy it and appreciate it,” she says. “I want it to be a living, breathing, archive. It has to be able to spread the wonderful tentacles of its story worldwide.”
In addition to preserving the designs, story and craft of the brand, the archives are becoming increasingly integrated into the business’s current operations as it seeks to celebrate its heritage.
“Internally we use the archives and more and more, because they underpin every aspect of us,” says Blahnik. “My uncle is creating the future archive, and we’re protecting the past archive, and that very much brings us to the present, where we’re kind of in this dynamic moment between the two.”
As the brand approaches 50 years in business, it has already built the kind of heritage and cultural cachet of which others can only dream, but Blahnik is not prepared to rest on its name.
Profits have taken a knock as the business invests, and the volatile world of fashion retail never provides any guarantees, but her focus on brand integrity and controlling the company’s direction of travel should place Manolo Blahnik steps ahead of its competitors.