Manolo Blahnik shoes are revered as works of art. And that art has become one the most recognized fashion brands in the world. He is touring the world with an exhibition called the “Art of Shoes” and the only North American stop is in Toronto. Kim Parlee talks to Blahnik about creativity, inspiration and business, at his exhibit, sponsored by TD Wealth.
For almost 50 years, the fashion elite have coveted Manolo Blahnik shoes.
Born Manuel Blahnik Rodríguez, he grew up inspired by his fashionable mother. Blahnik studied art in Paris, then moved to London to work in retail. In the '70s he met the editor of US Vogue, and presented her with his fashion designs. She saw his shoe sketches and was very impressed, advising him to design shoes exclusively.
He took that advice. Now he handcrafts every shoe himself before sending to production, and ensures that every stiletto and peep toe is an exact copy of his original creation. It's because of this quality that Manolos are now part of luxury popular culture.
So what is the secret to his success? Emphasis on creativity over commercialization. And that, as ironic as it may seem, could be the secret to his commercial success. Here's my conversation with Manolo Blahnik.
You have 30,000 styles of shoes in a private archive. Is that true?
Yes, I do, yes. And now we had an incredible two archivists-- one, young, called Georgia, another one called Chris. They're doing an incredible job. We have about five years to finish the all archives.
And are these all your shoes?
All are my stuff, yes. I've been going for years. I've been going about almost 49 years.
So I did the calculation. 45 years. Two pairs of shoes a day.
Oh, even more, sometimes-- depending how I feel, actually.
You know, if I sleep well, and I have a lot of dreams about shoes, I just do nonstop creations.
Is that where your ideas come from?
At night, yes.
And what do you do? How do you capture those ideas?
I have this huge block next to me, a big pen with this huge piece of wire. And I just wake up, and go into the bathroom, and I do things.
Do you draw? Or do you just jot down ideas?
I do doodles at night. I may be out of it. But I do that, yes. But ideas come from that. It sounds stupid, but this is the truth.
Your start, Ossie Clark, the shoe.
That was a thing that is paramount in my memory, because it was like a disaster. I did shoes for Ossie. I was very privileged to ask to do his collection at the time. Ossie was this star in London. Everybody copied him. Everybody just was mad about him. And I was asked to do the things. And I did a collection, yes. The shoes are very beautiful, and high in rubber. And I didn't put steel inside, because I just didn't know. I didn't know that much about shoes. All my life happened by coincidence or by chance.
And when I saw the show with all those girls, they just couldn't even walk.
They couldn't walk in the shoes?
No, they couldn't walk at all. It was so embarrassing, I walked out. But I hear people clapping, clapping, clapping. At the end they say, oh, it's a new way of walking. My god. That was absolutely a farce. But they loved it, actually. The girls were just, like, uh!
It's interesting, too. I mean, that's your start. I mean, you talk about that's what really made your career. But you are an ultra-luxury brand. Why do you think you are an ultra-luxury brand that other shoemakers haven't done--
I do not know that. I have not-- no--
You don't think like that?
How do you think of yourself?
Doing shoes that are very good, well made, and people wear them and are happy with them. And that's it.
Yeah, that's it. I mean, I don't have always movie stars, and royals, and things. I'd rather have everybody.
And sometimes my favorite people are in the street. When I see wearing, I think that they're really incredible, so I have to stop and look at them. So it's great. I still have ladies sort of-- ha, how lovely then.
Do you talk to them? Like, do you approach them and talk to them?
Ooh, it depends how I feel. If I'm in a kind of mood like, yes, I say, hello, you look wonderful. I do it all the time, actually. In fact, if I see somebody, I say, you look fabulous.
I'm sure it makes their day, hearing it from you.
You don't even know who I am, but anyway-- but--
You should introduce yourself.
I do sometimes.
Tell me-- you mean-- you're an artist. I mean--
Maybe you don't like the title, but, I mean, you are. You're a creator. I mean, the ideas come from you. And you talk about your dreams and where it comes from. And you have a business at the same time. How do you balance the two?
I don't do the business side, actually. My niece, who's the CEO of the company, does all those things. But also on my own, I never thought about that, because in my time, people did things without thinking about business or thinking about how much it costs. People do things because they loved it and it was fun to do. This is the 70s I'm talking about.
That was great. And now everything is, like, oh my god, it's crocodile. We cannot use because it's too expensive. We cannot use this. There's always something to do with money, which never was in my time.
Does that influence you now as much? Or do you just shelter yourself from that?
No, I still completely block all those kind of things and do whatever I want to do.
Do you still do it all yourself?
Oh, yes indeed.
I don't think people get-- because it's not team. It's you.
Oh, no, no, no. The team for working is me. And then in the factory, the cutter, because I hate to do that-- sizing, and 31, 32. It's horrible. But I like to do everything myself-- the last heel, everything. Sometimes it's successful. Sometimes it's not. But let me tell you, I just do everything myself, and I love it. I mean, otherwise, I mean, you know, I'm not interested.
In anything else?
No, I love that. Reading and doing my ladies shoes, I'm happy.
Are you preparing for the R word? Are you preparing for retirement? Is this something that--
Oh, no. Retirement? No. Maybe when I really collapse or get some kind of-- oh! Maybe. No, but I don't plan to relax. I don't want to relax-- retire, or-- no, I don't want to do that. If people like my work--
You're happy to keep on doing it.
If you were giving advice to somebody about keys to success-- forget whether it's an artist, or an entrepreneur, or a business-- what would be some of the things you think you must do this?
One of the keys that you have to have, incredible knowledge of what is the function of what you're wearing in your lovely extremity. And also, knowing what is the design that you're going to offer them, and the quality of materials-- and also, repeat the same thing, because this is what I think.
And the price sometimes I don't even think about that.
The price being what?
Being high, because it's a lot of work, because a lot of beautiful materials. That is one of my biggest faults.
Meaning that I just should think about selling, and I don't.
Yeah, and you don't.
It happened, actually. It happened because it happened. But I never think--
What shoe did you love and it wasn't a commercial success?
That one, for instance.
I loved it because it was like a take-off of a Japanese geta. And I did free heels. That one was maybe three people.
It'd be a little hard to walk in.
Isabella Blow. Who else was there? Daphne Guinness, and somebody else. One of those eccentric girls in England. But it was not a commercial success at all.
What's your favorite pair of shoes?
The one I'm wearing. I like oxfords.
I adore them. And for women, too.
I like flat shoes for women, too.
For a woman, should a mule, stiletto, or a kitten heel if she's dressing up? What's your favorite?
Kitten. I love kittens. Always did. I never stopped doing them, because I like them. Some seasons are not very good sells, or some seasons are really incredible. We have a mule, which is about 40 years old. And this year, we just surprised in New York and in London. It's selling like mad. It's a mule we did for-- I think it was for somebody in New York-- Perry Ellis. No, Isaac Mizrahi. It was taken from somebody who just had the idea to revive it again, and it was a great success.
If a woman can only have one pair-- one--
A Monolo pump? Which one?
No, it doesn't matter. Mine or the-- but a pump.
No, but which one? Like, which pump?
Simple. The most difficult shoes to do is simple pumps, for me. You can decorate. You can do anything you want. But pumps, you have to be really technically perfect to be comfortable.
Thank you. Manolo Blahnik, the man, the legend. You know he referred to each shoe as a part of his family? He has 30,000 members of his family. He has named most of them. Really an incredible person.