Spanish footwear designer
Born: Santa Cruz, Canary Islands, Spain, 27 November 1942. Education: Educated at home, University of Geneva, degree in literature, 1965; studied art in Paris, 1965-70. Career: Jeans buyer for Feathers Boutique, London, early 1970s; encouraged to design shoes by Diana Vreeland; first collections for Zapata Boutique, London, and for Ossie Clark, early 1970s; opened London shop, 1973, opened New York boutique, 1981; subsequent shops in Hong Kong, Tokyo; designed shoes for Anne Klein, 1994-95; opened five-story Manhattan headquarters for Blahnik USA, 1998; online boutique at NeimanMarcus.com , 2000; teamed with Estée Lauder to create nail lacquer for Golden Globes, 2001. Awards: Fashion Council of America award, 1988, 1991; British Fashion Council award, 1991; Balenciaga award, 1991; American Leather award, New York, 1991; Hispanic Institute Antonio Lopez award, Washington, D.C., 1991; Footwear News Designer of the Year, 1992; Stiletto award, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 1998; Named "Fifth Star" of HBO series Sex and the City, 2000; Designer of the Year, QVC/FFANY, 2001. Address: 49-51 Old Church St., London SW3, England.
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Established in the 1970s, Manolo Blahnik has become world famous. His beautiful shoes exude a level of craftsmanship rare in today's age of mass production, and he has a wonderful sense of line and silhouette. These talents, combined with the other footwear sense he displays and exploits, have ensured his rightful position as a true genius in his field, worthy of sharing the mantle worn by the other brilliant shoe designers of the 20th century, Yanturni, Vionnet, Perugia, Ferragamo, and the one he most admires—Roger Vivier.
Blahnik was born in 1942 in Santa Cruz, in the Canary Islands, to a Czech father and Spanish mother. This slightly exotic and romantic start to his life possibly determined the pattern his future was to assume. His awareness of shoes was an early memory. His mother, who had a fondness for satin and brocade fabrics, had her footwear made by Don Christino, the island's leading shoemaker. Blahnik inherited her love of the unconventional and remembers seeing a trunk containing shoes by Yanturni, the Russian designer and onetime curator of the Cluny Museum in Paris. The shoes, in brocades, silks, and antique lace, trimmed with buckles, were elegant and light, attributes Blahnik later sought to achieve in his own creations.
Blahnik studied law, literature, and Renaissance art in Europe before settling in London in 1970. His portfolio of theatrical designs was seen by the photographer Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland of American Vogue, who particularly admired his shoe designs and encouraged him to concentrate on this aspect of his work. His subsequent footwear collections were to prove how astute their instincts had been for this extraordinary talent.
The mood of the 1970s was lively, adventurous, and colorful. The advent of the miniskirt had focused attention on the legs and consequently on original interpretations of footwear. Creative thought produced new materials for footwear and a climate in which fresh ideas could flourish, and Blahnik dramatically interpreted these
Blahnik chose Zapata as the name of his first shop, opened in London in 1973. He now uses his own name, but from the beginning, his tiny, personalized salon was a mecca for devotees from all over the world. Blahnik has a deep understanding of contemporary trends and a genuine feeling for his clientéle and what they seek in a shoe. Constantly featured in the world's most prestigious fashion magazines, it is easy to see why his imagination and ability to translate fantasy into delectable and desirable foot coverings have won him such acclaim. His designs are always complementary to the feet; he believes fashion should be fun and his ebullient and energetic designs have always reflected this philosphy. He considers shape, material, and decoration with great care and combines handcraftsmanship with modern techniques. A master of materials, he handles leather, suede, velvets, silks, and the unconventional and unexpected with equal flair and panache, paying exact attention to detail and creating fine, elegant footwear with glamor and refinement. His shoes have a weightless quality, and a seemingly ethereal atmosphere often pervades his collections.
Many Blahnik styles are deliberately kept exclusive, with only small quantities produced, and his instantly recognized style remains constant, regardless of the fashion climate. Over the years, he has designed collections to enhance the work of, among others, Yves Saint Laurent, Emmanuel Ungaro, Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Bill Blass, Fiorucci, Zandra Rhodes, Jean Muir, Jasper Conran, and Rifat Ozbek. One of his most famous individual clients is fashion eccentric Anna Piaggi. She invariably selects a pair of Blahnik's shoes to complement the other unusual items in her wardrobe. The following is a typical description of her appearance: "Black velvet coat by Lanvin, circa 1925; t-shirt in cotton jersey by Missoni, circa 1975; Harem trousers made out of a silk kimono; grey suede shoes trimmed with mink by Blahnik; the jewel, a crystal iceberg with an orange bead by Fouquet."
Wherever they are featured, Blahnik's shoes are a copywriter's dream. Frequently executed in vivid colors, magenta, deep purple, bright scarlet, orange, emerald green, or saffron yellow, they retain a certain theatrical fantasy—"red mules with high, knotted vamps," or "jeweled satin shoes for the summer collection," or "ribbon-wrapped ankles for watered silk dancing shoes," or perhaps "the Siamese twin shoe"—completely original combinations of wit, sex, and allure. With their reference to history, they nevertheless remain entirely contemporary while catching the spirit of both.
Blahnik is a distinctive personality, much traveled, intelligent, and well educated, in demand for his opinions, wit, energy, and style. Like many true originators, he could probably have been a successful designer in another field. His distinctive sketches, for example, transmit a real feeling for his shoes and are used for his company publicity. They serve to underline how very individual his work is, and he clothes some of the world's best dressed feet; he produces shoes for all occasions. His creations are worn, and adored, by film stars, celebrities, socialites, and those who just love what he offers. He has an intrinsic feeling for the moment and a foresight into what will come next. His shoes are provocative and dashingly extroverted; almost—but not quite—too beautiful and desirable to be worn.
The exclusivity, handcraftsmanship, high style, and wild popularity of Blahnik's shoes have raised the Spanish-born, London-based cobbler to mythic proportions. The evolution of shoe design from protection to status took hundreds of years; yet the evolution of Blahnik design from status to icon took only decades. Even early in his career, the fashions—coats, dresses, and elaborate eveningwear— of his contemporaries in couture sought to complement the latest Blahnik creations and every fad.
By the close of the 20th century, Blahnik's taste appeared to rule the design world of the most fashionable women. Blahnik was honored with an extended profile in the New Yorker in 1998, where his shoes were described as objects not simply of desire but of worship. Cynthia Marcus, vice president of Neiman Marcus described to Women's Wear Daily an "annual pilgrimage" that Blahnik customers make to the Dallas store or to Beverly Hills or to White Plains when he visits each year. She explains that for Neiman Marcus, Blahnik shoes are an emblem: "The timing now is about sexy, beautiful shoes and luxury and if there's anything Manolo stands for its all those things."
Blahnik himself agrees that the relationship between shoes and sex is so important it cannot be underestimated: "When you put [on heels], most women walk differently… It makes you immediately sexy." And sex sells. The "erotic" stilettos that exemplify Blahnik design—he is said to have invented "toe cleavage"—produce a taller, thinner leg line and a shapely calf, which every woman understands as profoundly attractive and every man finds irresistible. The cost of such a chic pair of shoes is very high, but does not prevent women around the world from acquiring them in dozens or hundreds. "Manolo Blahnik shoes are ubiquitous at all Hollywood events," explained Aerin Lauder, creative marketing director for Estée Lauder, who commissioned Blahnik to devise a 24-karat gold nail polish in a limited edition bottle in honor of the Golden Globe awards.
Blahnik's shoes are legendary, recognized everywhere, and capable of making even the most ordinary apparel into a spectacular fashion statement.
updated by Kathleen BonannMarshall