About an hour into afternoon tea with a windowpane-checked, Charvet-bow-tied Manolo Blahnik in the showroom of his Marylebone HQ, I begin to wish that I had read a little more William James. Brother of novelist Henry, he was the pioneer psychologist who bequeathed us the term “stream of consciousness” to describe the way thoughts, emotions and other mental flotsam and jetsam flow through the mind, and, in the case of Blahnik, from his mouth. Instead of a stream of consciousness, Mr Blahnik, as he is respectfully addressed by his staff, generates a Ganges of the stuff, and it comes tumbling out. Imagine The Devil Wears Prada, scripted by Virginia Woolf and delivered as a dramatic monologue.
If Valentino is fashion’s last emperor and Karl Lagerfeld its Kaiser, then Blahnik, too, deserves some sort of imperial title. Footwear is his fiefdom, and he rules supreme. Last year a film was brought out to burnish the legend. Called The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, alluding to a childhood habit of making boots for the reptiles of his native Canary Islands, it was intended as a biographical study, with dramatised sequences and documentary footage of Blahnik at work. But what it succeeded in becoming was a fiercely fought compliment competition between the pundits. Colin McDowell called him the greatest shoemaker of the 20th and 21st centuries. Anna Wintour confided to the camera that she never wore, or even looked at, a pair of shoes that were not Manolos. A Spanish fashion journalist extravagantly announced that along with Picasso and Almódovar, Blahnik was one of the three greatest Spanish artists of the 20th century. Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw seemed to sum it up when she was looking down the barrel of a mugger’s gun and let him take her Fendi Baguette, her ring and her watch – but begged him not to take her Manolo Blahniks.
I think I am on safe ground when I say that Blahnik has a gift for covering the female foot. Women clearly have a special bond with their Manolos. But now 76, Blahnik feels the time has come to give men the chance to develop that relationship, too, with the opening of a men-only store, which he refers to as an “experiment”, next to his women’s shop in Burlington Arcade.
When he started designing women’s shoes (new season’s collection from £545) at the beginning of the ’70s, he also made shoes for himself – the “Manolo” is one of his oldest designs. When he felt like it, he also designed for male friends including Bryan Ferry, Peter Schlesinger, David Hockney and Michael Roberts. And that is what is so charming about the world of Blahnik: conventional fashion industry wisdom has no place here – the creator creates as the mood moves him; so now and again, a men’s shoe will appear as if conjured from the air around him in a typically whimsical fashion. In 2013, a little more structure came with the launch of a capsule collection: slippers and brightly coloured suede Oxfords, available from elegant outlets such as Anderson & Sheppard’s haberdashery shop. Then this year, the opportunity arose to acquire a boutique in Burlington Arcade, which he decided to dedicate solely to men and which is opening on July 5. It meant, excuse the pun, a reboot: conceiving an entire range from sandals (from £445) to army boots (from £615), creating new lasts, finding new factories and designing the store.
It certainly keeps him busy: as well as meeting me for mint tea and Madeleine-like cakes from Pierre Marcolini, he is also simultaneously finalising the design of the new store, critiquing the first batch of sample men’s shoes and holding a meeting with his production director about the line of accessories that he is designing for the launch later in the autumn.
When you are multitasking at this level, things can get a bit het up. “Motherf******s” is his one-word response when someone scuttles in with pricing details on a set of lamps for the new women’s store in Geneva. Apparently satisfied with this concise answer, the person scuttles out to convey the word of Blahnik to the supplier.
“Geneva’s going to work,” he tells me confidently, “but I am a little apprehensive about this thing in Burlington Arcade. But since we have Selfridges doing so well and they wanted men’s shoes – a kind of husband-and-wife collection – we decided to try the men’s experiment.”
Conversation bounces around the light and airy room like a rubber ball: the carabiner clips on the business bags (price on request) are a “bit Nellie” (Blahnik for overly feminine and fussy). The blanket-sized cashmere scarves (£275), which look very nice to me, are apparently “a bit mingy” and maybe he will move production from Ayrshire to Kathmandu. He is relentless and it’s almost as if he has to find something to criticise on every piece. Apparently satisfied with the uppers of a pair of blue suede Derby lace-ups, he turns them over. “They went too much in the handmade direction,” he says, examining the umber-coloured, handpainted sole through his Corbusier-like Cutler & Gross glasses. “It should have a more discreet brushstroke.” For Blahnik, this rigorous self-criticism is part of the creative process, it comes across as a type of fashion-world stage-fright.
He feels happier about the gloves (from £265), which range from zebra and tiger stripes to a butter-soft, silk-smooth fingerless alligator version; “I call it the Karl Lagerfeld,” he laughs. And he becomes positively animated about a collection of pouch(ettes) in saddle bag (price on request) and drawstring (price on request) styles with loops on the back to be attached to the wearer’s belt. He once saw something similar being worn at a Jefferson Airplane concert in Washington almost 50 years ago and felt it might be interesting to try again. He is also excited about the umbrellas (price on request), the conservative exteriors of which belie colourful linings. “When you’re opening it in London in the rain, it is very dark on the outside; however, printed on the inside you have got a sun.”
But the sunny smile gives way to a frown of concern: the site in Burlington Arcade is, as he puts it, “the size of a postage stamp” and he is concerned with how all the merchandise will fit in. “We looked into the history of the shop and kept all the Georgian woodwork – I wanted to do things with zebra skin, but all we will have room for are two midcentury Danish chairs,” he says, adding that Christopher Gibbs is his favourite antique dealer.
Gibbs was one of the tastemakers of Chelsea during the 1960s and ’70s, and there is a touch of his antique aesthetic in a line of evening shoes with prominent buckles (£820) on the front. From this louche dandy style, it is but a short leap for Blahnik’s gimlet eye and agile mind to Baron Nicolas “Niki” de Gunzburg: midcentury fashion leader, magazine editor and mentor to Calvin Klein. “Once in New York, I saw him wearing a patchwork shoe with a black tie, it looked so nice that I said I’m going to rip off Niki de Gunzburg.” He picks up a multicoloured patchwork shoe. “This will be the Niki de Gunzburg shoe… it will be… but is not now. It’s horrible now.”
De Gunzburg was a huge influence on Diana Vreeland, and given that it was Vreeland (portrayed surprisingly successfully by Rifat Ozbek in the film) who urged a young Blahnik to become a shoe designer, the significance of the de Gunzburg shoe becomes apparent.
Blahnik’s perfectionist’s impatience is compounded with frustration at the inability of others to immediately grasp his terms of reference. Although he was born in the Canary Islands and educated in Geneva and Paris, he was formed in the haute bohemia of 1970s London, where he mixed with Mick and Bianca Jagger, Ossie Clarke and Hockney; but where he also got to know an earlier generation of style mavens: Dietrich-like beauty Lady Diana Cooper and Cecil Beaton among them. It is perhaps expecting too much of anyone under 40 to know about Beaton, de Gunzburg et al; the same is likely true of another figure in his personal pantheon of male elegance, noted postwar dandy and wit Bunny Roger: once when a cab driver shouted, “You’ve dropped your diamond necklace, love,” he shot back, “Diamonds with tweed? Never.”
“Very Bunny Roger-ish” is how he describes a range of punched Oxfords (£695) that come in a dozen colours (Blahnik loves colour on the foot – hence the Paul Smith socks). “In the ’70s, I was inspired by Bunny, who was of an older generation; it is because of him that I have so many dusty, violet, lilac tweeds.”
Indeed, if he were not celebrated for his shoes, Blahnik would be famous for his checked suits from Anderson & Sheppard. “It was fate. It was meant to be,” he says of his five-decade sartorial marriage to the celebrated tailor. “Bianca told me they’d refused to do her jackets because they didn’t like to do the ladies’ things. That was the first time I heard about Anderson & Sheppard. This was in the ’70s, and since I could afford it I’ve been going there. And I still have suits from the ’70s.” When Anderson & Sheppard moved off Savile Row, he followed them to Clifford Street, across the road from his new shop.
Burlington Arcade finds itself at the figurative and literal heart of his London. At the other end of the Arcade is Fortnum & Mason, one of his favourite places and where he recalls going for clotted cream, which he would take across the Atlantic and hand-deliver to Vreeland.
He was, however, sad to see the transformation of the Fountain Restaurant into an identikit West End brasserie, and feels the same about the cloning of shopping. “I was in St Petersburg recently, on the street where the shops are, and looking around I could have been anywhere.”
When asked how many standalone shops he now has, his answer is almost childlike in its guilelessness. “I don’t even know. I’m not interested; my niece is the one who does all that.” The men’s shop will be the 17th, but he is not counting. He would much prefer to be left alone carving a last in his white coat and gloves, but reluctantly acknowledges that the 21st century has certain inescapable commercial realities. “We need to survive, and the manufacturers need to get minimum orders. The world’s not like it used to be. I was very happy just having the shop on Old Church Street in Chelsea for years. I couldn’t think about anything else. It was not until the 1980s that we opened a shop in New York.”
But Blahnik always wants each of his shops to be different: whether it is the mother******g lights in the Josef Hoffmann-inspired Geneva store or the wood and gold cage look that characterises his Kuala Lumpur one, he prides himself on not repeating himself. Each boutique adds another layer of meaning and interest to the Blahnik story, and so the men’s shop has plans for a bar on its top floor, serving Krug and a selection of rare whiskies, in deco-inspired surroundings of glass and gleaming metal. He wants to recreate something of the feel that his first shop on Old Church Street was famous for in the ’70s, when a young Anna Wintour used to come and hang out with Tina Chow, Rupert Everett and the Jaggers.
Such was the party atmosphere that director of Browns and Old Church Street habitué Joan Bernstein said, “He would talk to everyone – he was so busy chatting that I am not sure how many pairs of shoes he actually sold...”
Almost 40 years, 17 shops and countless department stores later it would appear that he did manage to shift a few pairs – and now that he is opening a men’s store, he will probably shift a few more.