Exclusive: Manolo Blahnik Interview

In an #aboutlastnight for fashion history books, London’s Burlington Arcade played host to the launch of legendary designer Manolo Blahnik’s second boutique, 44 years after the opening of his first shop on Old Church Street in Chelsea.

Manolo’s love affair with England started at an early age, and he fell in love with the arcade’s intimacy and elegance from the very first visit. “I could not think of a better place to be”, said the candid and cordial designer, who was immaculate at the opening in a lilac-hued cashmere suit and signature bow-tie. “I never before found a place that encapsulates what London is for me”. The 19th century arcade houses around 40 small shops which share the qualities of history and tradition that Manolo loves.

In attendance were Kristina Blahnik, the designer’s niece and chief executive officer of his company, key fashion press, longtime friends such as Yasmin Le Bon, and fellow footwear designers Nicholas Kirkwood and Charlotte Dellal.

The coveted shoes on display ranged from polka-dot flats (a nod to the swinging Sixties) and open booties laced with pink roses, to perhaps one of the most recognized styles, the Hangisi (AKA, the shoe that Big proposed with).

Born in the Canary Islands to a Spanish mother and Czech father, Manolo studied languages and art in Geneva before moving to Paris in 1965 to become a set designer. It was during a trip to New York five years later, that he found himself showing his designs to Diana Vreeland, the then editor-in-chief of American Vogue, who encouraged him to concentrate on shoes. "Young man, make things, make accessories, make shoes", she famously said. Manolo took her advice, and when in 1972 his designs were used by Ossie Clark, it marked the beginning of what has since become an illustrious career; one that reached new heights when his shoes were repeatedly featured in Sex and the City.

Despite achieving worldwide acclaim, Blahnik prefers to remain outside the public eye, living a private life in Bath. A romantic at heart, he likes spending time in places with fairy-tale charm such as Prague, Venice and St Petersburg, cities which will be taking part in a traveling exhibition of 500 pieces of his work later this year.

Considering his strong friendships with the likes of American Vogue editor Anna Wintour and his strong command of femininity, we were not surprised to hear about Manolo’s love of women. Strong, confident women. Not in the clichéd gender-neutral way this term is sometimes slanted towards today, but in the hypnotic, sensual way of yesteryear. Mr Blahnik reflected on his fondness for Julie Christie and admitted to being “obsessed” with actress Romy Schneider. “No one moved or expressed herself with her eyes like she did”, he told Menkes.

CarmenBusquets.com's Anabel Maldonado had the privilege of sitting down with Mr Manolo Blahnik to find out more about his decision to set up in Mayfair and his unique cultural inspirations.

You’re a self confessed Anglophile. Are there any other places in the world that you have felt an immediate connection to, and have any of them inspired your designs?
North Africa and the Mediterranean are always a constant source of inspiration to me. And my country Spain is like absolutely the most inspiring for me. But then, you see, I could not live in Spain for too long. I could not live in Italy for long [Mr Blahnik works and lives near Milan three months of the year]. I need the kind of detachment that the English culture and English people have, especially in the countryside. In London, it’s as if we can just be anywhere now [laughs] - we have lost a bit of this Englishness.

You said that it took you 44 years to find a place that encapsulates what London is for you. Why here at Burlington Arcade?
The history. For instance, there is Cavendish House next door - now it’s the Royal Academy. This arcade was created by Noel Cavendish with the 5th or 6th Duke of Devonshire, Noel Cavendish’s brother. Anyway, so he built this thing and this is Devonshire House, and that’s Cavendish House. I have friends of mine that live at The Albany, there are tailors that I love here, next door at Cork Street, Savile Row, and places like that. This is disappearing fast, all these kinds of classic things that I like, but there are still some left.

Apart from being a romantic, do you identify as a classicist?
I’m a classicist. Hellenistic, on top of that, is what I am most of anything.

Yes, I am talking about Greek culture. The mother of Alexander the Great, the mother of Darius. She loved Alexander so much that five days after he died, she died also. Isn’t that extraordinary? I remember when I was a boy things like that really captured my attention. Hellenistic culture - or Roman culture also too. I was very happy to have Ms Beard [Mary, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge] here today, isn’t she divine?

What is your advice for anyone who wishes to remain a classicist or a romantic in today’s world?
In this world it is a tough, tough, tough thing to achieve simply because everything is so [sighs] you have so much information you have so much openness, you have so much of everything that to just concentrate on one thing there’s got to be a lot of energy, a lot of dedication to do so. It takes more discipline, and being tougher with yourself.

You’ve said that you wish to experiment with new materials. Is there any new material in particular?
This year I’ve been back again to, and maybe it’s going to be a disaster, but it’s a new technology, the aluminum made in aluminum resin, which is exciting to me because it’s a new material, so I’m going to try and work with that.

Earlier, you said that elegance is something you have or you don’t, that it’s inherent.
I do believe so, but maybe this is too drastic and too radical because you can also be born as a peasant girl and then turn into the most exquisite creature I’ve seen. I’ve seen people like that.

But do you think that a shoe can do something for you, psychologically?
It can help you achieve certain projections, or what you have to say to people. I think sometimes that it could almost cure depressions, curing many things, curing marriages. I think that because I’ve had husbands say to me ‘oh you’ve saved my marriage’ - many times they’ve said that. In America, I’ve heard husbands say ‘my wife is ruining me, but I’m so happy to be ruined by her’, because apparently what he loves to do is see his wife in an incredible costume, an incredible shoe as a costume!

Manolo Blahnik at 32-33 Burlington Arcade opens to the public today.