Manolo Blahnik hates traveling. He hates airports, train stations, planes and trains. But these days Blahnik spends most of his time on the road. He goes to Italy, where he still personally oversees the production of his $500-a-pair shoe collection; to the Canary Islands, to visit his 90-year-old mother; to the United States, where most of his customers live. He also travels from his Georgian home in Bath, where he stores some 10,000 pairs of what he affectionately calls his "stupid shoes," to his office on the fashionable King's Road in Chelsea, London.
Blahnik's "stupid shoes" have traveled a long way too since he first started making them in the 1970s. They have worked their way into the cultural landscape. Bianca Jagger wore a pair in 1977 when she rode into Studio 54 on a horse. Carrie on Sex and the City was mugged for hers. Now the shoes are the subject of an exhibition at the Design Museum in London and a new book, Manolo Blahnik Drawings (Thames & Hudson; 200 pages). To prepare for both, Blahnik spent much of the holiday season traveling even more. "I don't like this kind of attention," he says. "I still think 'Why did I let myself into this madness?'"
The exhibition, which runs until May 11, is a scrapbook of his career. Tucked amid white walls built of shoe boxes the show was designed by his niece are original sketches and magazine pages featuring his shoes, clothes by some of the designers with whom he has worked, a video clip of the mugging scene in Sex and the City and shoes lots and lots of glorious shoes.
The details in a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes can vary greatly: the elegant ones plenty of satin stilettos for brides-to-be; the funky ones his take on the Timberland boot, the Tims (picture a suede work boot with a four-inch heel; now picture it on Jennifer Lopez); and the subversive ones his personal favorite is a shoe of steel, aluminum and titanium that never made it to production because the razor-sharp heel could pierce someone's hand. Creations like these make women fanatically loyal to Blahnik.
Which is ironic, because Blahnik never intended to be a shoe designer. In 1970 he arranged, through a mutual friend, a meeting with Diana Vreeland, then editor of American Vogue. He showed her sketches of stage sets and his new hobby, shoes. She told him to surrender the stage for the shoes. So he did. His first foray into fashion was a collaboration with the groovy British designer Ossie Clark in 1971. The shoes with straps of green suede and fake cherries were perfect. The heels each six or seven inches of unsupported rubber crepe were not. The models wearing them bounced and buckled down the runway at Clark's fashion show in the Royal Court. But never mind. The It-girls of the day Bianca Jagger, Marisa Berenson loved them despite the wobble. If the exhibition lacks anything, it's the stories like this one that lie behind the shoes.
While he was impressing the women of West London with his designs, Blahnik went to East London and Northampton to study shoemaking from traditional craftsmen. (The wobble went away.) Today, Blahnik still does every step of the process himself he sketches the designs, carves the lasts, chooses the materials and supervises the craftsmen in the factories. "What is fashion?" Blahnik asks. "It's discipline. Discipline and a credo to do only the best, down to the smallest detail." Despite offers from several luxury-goods groups, Blahnik, 60, still owns his own company. By remaining relatively small production is so limited that many retailers are turned away Blahnik has what he values most: freedom. "Can you imagine being told 'You have to do this?'" he asks in horror. "The greatest luxury is being free." Free to do the shoes for films like Moulin Rouge, if his friend, set designer Catherine Martin, rings. And free to give it all up to design for just one woman. "If Marie Antoinette called me to go to Paris to make shoes for only her, I would go in a second," he says. And if she'd seen this show, she would surely ask.