Manolo Blahnik hardly needs an introduction. To anyone old enough to remember the ubiquitous turn of the Millenium television hit Sex and the City, his name is as recognisable as Gucci or Prada, only with more emotional attachment. Even most men know that Manolo is a word for expensive shoe. But for all their reputation, they actually remain fairly difficult to get a hold of.
It all comes down to keeping the cherished brand exclusive. As well as his own carefully cultivated Manolo boutiques, Blahnik has deemed only a few, very select independent stores worthy of selling his shoes. This is particularly true in Europe, where the number doesn’t even reach double figures.
Well, the Swedish can rejoice, because Stockholm based boutique, and farfetch.com favourite, Savannahs just joined that exclusive club. Savannah Alsén, the family run store’s namesake and buyer, alongside mother Pia, explains that their long-term courtship of the label was a crucial factor in getting the designer’s approval, ‘the chemistry and timing must have been just right. I believe long-term friendship is valued very highly at Manolo Blahnik, more than at other brands. We were literally welcomed into the family on our first purchasing appointment!’
A design from the Manolo Blahnik Autumn/Winter 2010 collection.
It’s certainly true that despite the world-wide fame, Manolo Blahnik has remained a select, intimate label, one which, rather admirably in this furiously evolving industry, doesn’t slavishly follow fashion. ‘I don’t give a damn about trends. I just love shoes’ the man himself has said, and he’s always stayed true to his signature style, with its pointed toe and a slim, elegant heel. They’re feminine without being too girly, sexy without being flashy.
Of course classic doesn’t necessarily mean boring, after all, Madonna would hardly have said ‘Manolo Blahnik’s shoes are as good as sex – and they last longer’ about some bog standard old courts. And Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has exclaimed ‘If God had wanted us to wear flats, he wouldn’t have invented Manolo Blahnik!’ Everyone, it seems, has a sound-bite about his creations. It’s hardly surprising; Blahnik has been wowing the fashion industry for some four decades.
A portrait of the designer by Michael Roberts.
Born in the Canary Islands, he studied art in Paris before pitching up in London in 1968. After showing his portfolio to legendary editor Diana Vreeland, she advised him to concentrate on shoe design and in 1972 Ossie Clark invited him to design the shoes to accompany his catwalk collection and the die was cast. He opened his first store in London’s Kensington a year later, and the cherry adorned heels he created for Clark’s show turned him into a bonafide fashion hit.
Since then he has done everything from create a collection for Bloomingdales to designing the footwear for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. ‘It’s making shoes that I like best… the two or three days waiting for a sample, I get really high’ he told a journalist in 2008. And it’s true, the man lives and breathes shoes, as we found out when we caught up with him last week…
Why do you think women fall in love with your shoes?
Manolo Blahnik: I think it is because my shoes are a bit romantic. They are pretty shoes, which flatter women’s figures and most importantly, they can walk in them. I do not believe in huge chunky platforms which distort the proportions of the body and make women walk ungracefully.
Why did you decide to design shoes, what was it about footwear that attracted you?
I think the mystery of the foot attracted me to design shoes. Feet are always covered and there is something sensual about decorating them in opulent, beautiful designs. Moreover, shoes are interesting objects in themselves.
What inspires your designs?
Anything and everything. From art and literature to old films through nature and people on the street. I have a very vivid and quick imagination, so as soon as an idea for a shoe enters my mind, I have to sketch in down.
The shoe master at work
Do you have a muse?
I have many women whom I consider beautiful and inspiring. Some of them are Amanda Harlech, Lucy Birley and the late Tina Chow.
Do you have any signature design details or favourite materials to work with?
As for signature design details, I am a fan of the ‘zero sole’ – a sole with no platform.
Some of my favourite materials to work with are silks (ottoman, organza) and linens.
What’s been the highlight of your career?
Definitely being awarded the Honorary CBE by Her Majesty Queen of England. But I hope many more highlights are still to come!
Do you have a favourite pair of shoes that you have designed?
My favourite pair is the Ivy shoe with red cherries and green leaves which I did for Ossie Clark in the Seventies.
Blahnik’s famous ‘cherry shoes’ designed for Ossie Clark’s show in 1971, and re-issued after Clarke’s death in 1996
Is there anyone you would like to see wearing a pair of Manolo Blahniks?
Keira Knightley. I saw her in a theatre performance recently and she has an amazing presence.
What is your advice to women when buying shoes?
Always choose a pair that you really love. Follow your instinct and do not be scared to choose a pair in bright colour or unusual material. Wear them with confidence!
What’s your motto for life?
Keep going and do what you believe in!
The genius thing about Blahnik is that he’s always been able to somehow inspire borderline hysteria in his fans, remember Carrie’s rhapsody over a pair of his Mary-Janes in an episode of Sex and the City (‘I thought they were a shoe myth’ she squeals). Savannah Alsén agrees, ‘There is a sort of wow-factor with Manolo Blahnik shoes. They are always made to perfection and quite honestly still the most comfortable high heels available. I can’t wait to see the reactions from our customers!’
And if Blahnik is picky about where you can buy his shoes, he is at least in good hands with the Swedish boutique, ask Savannah to name her favourite pair and she shoots back ‘the Masai designed for John Galliano’s first coutoure show at Dior in 1997’. Now that’s what you call a fan.