“It will be at the Palais-Royal or nowhere." Manolo Blahnik has a definitive way of saying things. Always sure of himself, and equipped with an iron will. At the age of 77 the fashion icon, sought out by women who want to feel special, is preparing to open his first store in Paris. “I waited for a long time, because I wanted it to be located right here, under the arches of this magnificent garden. It is a place that is very dear to me. It represents the symbol of Paris' intrinsic beauty. I discovered it in 1961, when I visited the city for the first time. I made the trip from Geneva by car, with friends."
Having lived in Paris between the years 1965 and 1969, the Spanish designer holds vivid memories of his time in the French capital. “These were magical and light-filled years. I lived on Rue Bonaparte, two steps away from the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I remember sitting on the terrace of the Café de Flore with my friend Shirley Goldfarb, the American painter, to watch people go by. They had an exquisite style then, which is not the case today! Nobody knows how to dress anymore."
Always speaking in a totally sincere and cheerful way, he continues: “The memory I have of Paris is linked to the people I met back then. Strong personalities with a great sense of humour. Françoise Sagan, and Juliette Gréco's sister Charlotte, a woman of indisputable charm. When I moved to London in the early 1970s, I continued to go there every weekend, almost! ”
At the beginning of his career, Blahnik offered his services to another young talent, the Englishman Ossie Clark, who belonged to the effervescent Swinging scene of the time. Out of the partnership, an iconic model was born. The Ivy, created by the maestro and used in a fashion show by Ossie in 1973. The Ivy was a green high-heeled sandal, with straps that laced up the legs, ending with cherries on the tips. Difficult to master, this creative technique continues to be used today, one of Blahnik's favourites. “I am known for the shoes with laces around the ankles. But it is very complicated to do! It is a question of balance. It may even seem vulgar. ”
Even today, he draws each of his models by hand in a small room in his house, which serves as a studio. “I use only paint. You have to be careful, otherwise everything gets dirty. ”
It was also in Paris during the 1960s and 1970s that he built lasting, sincere friendships. The young designer ended up opening his studio in the Chelsea, London, but went whenever he could to the other side of the Channel, where he re-energised himself and returned with new ideas.
“I was very close to Azzedine Alaïa, I spent a lot of time at his house, with his friends. I remember that he kept some of Madame Vionnet's dresses. Alaïa, from time to time, would give one of them to his friends to wear, and would say to me, in awe, things like: 'Look at this drape. It is magnificent, isn't it?'"
The defining figure in fashion in Blahnik's eyes was Yves Saint Laurent. “He was extraordinarily kind and generous, but shy. We met at a party in a Parisian garden. I was with my great friend Paloma Picasso. I remember seeing him laugh in delight with his friend Loulou de la Falaise, who was wearing pink satin shoes." The paths of these two men continued to cross over the years, and the luxury shoemaker ended up creating the accessories for some of Saint Laurent's shows.
“Today, I still do not dare to go through the doors of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Paris. It is very painful for me.” Karl Lagerfeld was also one of his close friends. “He was a real genius! His death affected me a lot," said Blahnik of Lagerfeld.
Born in 1942 in Santa Cruz de la Palma, Canary Islands (Spain), to a Czech father, the owner of a pharmaceutical laboratory, and a Spanish mother, whose family owned a banana plantation, there was no indication that the young Manolo would embrace the profession of shoemaker. “It was completely unexpected. I would even say that the profession of shoe designer came to me. I was destined to become a diplomat. It was what my parents wanted. One of my uncles worked at the United Nations in Geneva. In fact, at 17, I was sent there by my parents to do a summer internship, and ended up staying. I attended law school. I liked it a lot, especially the old law, which helped me understand how democracy works."
Until then, confined to the shores of his native island, he was home-schooled. Even so, Blahnik took advantage of the proximity to Switzerland, France, and England for a taste of the European continent. Years later, he enrolled for a time at the Louvre School in Paris. He worked in a vintage store in London, and it was there that he encountered those who would give him direction later.
“At the time, what really interested me was set design. I dreamed of becoming a set designer and I had already drawn a lot of them." It was one of his drawings that providentially fell into the hands of Diana Vreeland, and ended up chaning his destiny. “She told me: 'Stop searching. You were made to create shoes!”
For Blahnik, it was a surprising revelation. “I've always loved shoes, it's true. That taste comes from my mother. She travelled a lot with my father to Madrid, Marseille, and Monaco and brought several pairs of shoes home from those trips. One of them impacted me particularly: the inside was lined with a Moroccan motif made in gold leaf. I was amazed and so I kept them. They're at my house. My mother even convinced a shoemaker in our region to make a shoe tailored for her. I watched the creation process in wonder. Hence, my love for them was born. ”
The shoe maestro is constantly inspired by his surroundings: films, books, plays, and actors. “When I discovered Paris in 1961, I spent my first night at the theatre. I watched the play 'Dommage Qu'elle Soit Une Putain' (Pity She's A Whore), by the English playwright John Ford, and staged by Luchino Visconti with Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. What a sublime pair of actors!"
From then on, he harboured a deep admiration for French culture. “I have read many French classics, Lamartine, Balzac. I also like to spend my free time in museums. Beauty is everywhere." He also enjoys cinema, particularly French films: “I try to keep up with all the new films. I like to be aware of everything that goes on. I love André Téchiné, Patrice Leconte, Benoît Jacquot. For example, 'Les Adieux à la Reine' (Farewell, My Queen), with Léa Seydoux and Diane Kruger, is a fantastic film! And there is a group of actresses that I find very elegant: Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, and Stéphane Audran. What extraordinary beauty! And Dominique Sanda!”
Blahnik entered into pop culture history himself when Carrie Bradshaw became a passionate fan of his creations in Sex and the City. “Ah, yes, there are still people who talk about it! But I never watched the series," he says, clearly enjoying himself. His name also pops up in the lyrics of the song Bonnie and Clyde, by Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
When he is not touring the world due to his professional obligations (he has close to 320 stores across the globe), Manolo Blahnik divides his time between his London home and his Bath residence, which he discovered it in 1983 on a trip there with fashion editor Grace Coddington.
Today, more than ever, he continues to cultivate his unique style: rich in colour and classically elegant. “I always liked to use colours. I think it brings joy. Even more so in England, where the weather is so uncertain. When it rains or the day is gray, I dress in red. I think being well-dressed is a sign of respect: for yourself and for others. People don't try anymore today. It's a shame."
His suits, impeccably cut to size, are all from Anderson & Sheppard, tailors from London's famed Savile Row. Blahnik, who confesses to housing more than 25,000 pairs of shoes at his home in Bath, has no intention of slowing down, at least for now. “I draw about 300 sketches of shoes each season!”