A Moment with Shoe Icon Manolo Blahnik

Somewhere in the midst of watching his designs co-star alongside Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City and hearing his name dropped in a Jay-Z song, Manolo Blahnik became a bona fide cultural phenomenon in his own right. Yet the footwear designer is still surprised to hand over his passport to customs officers and hear them launch into a conversation about heels. “They will see my name and ask me things,” he says, perplexed. “I am just someone who does my work and enjoys it.”

Even before he embarked on a meteoric career spanning five decades, the Spanish designer’s work attracted star power. Blahnik credits his entry into the world of fashion to none other than former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. “She is my fairy godmother—almost,” he says. Legend has it Vreeland took one look at one of Blahnik’s early shoe designs and promptly pushed aside the set designs he had been focusing on at the time. Her stamp of approval was all the encouragement Blahnik needed to finally pursue his true passion.

Growing up in the Canary Islands, he spent his youth designing shoes for the family dog and wild lizards. That same spirit of playfulness continues to propel him forward today, leading to his many and widely varied sources of inspiration: Alexander the Great, abstract paintings by Mark Rothko, and Anna Karenina, to name just a few explored in a recent retrospective at the Bata Shoe Museum, “Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes”.

His expressive conceptual watercolour sketches offer an intimate look at the way Blahnik thinks: in atmospheres. “Even this morning, I was seeing a Barbara Stanwyck movie,” he says. “It was set in last-century New York, and some element of that mood really attracted me.”

While Blahnik may have always had vision, his expert craftsmanship is the product of hard-earned experience. His first lesson came in 1971. Tasked with designing his debut collection for Ossie Clark, the young designer fashioned the rubber heels for his shoes with no supportive steel. Nonetheless, critics were smitten—even praising him for inventing a new way of walking. The takeaway? “How fickle the world of fashion is,” Blahnik chuckles.

To this day, Blahnik remains obsessively involved in the manufacturing process to avoid any more steelless-heel situations. “I am still there,” he says. “I gather material. I cut patterns.” And thankfully, the classics that he has introduced in the years since—the Hangisi, the Okkato, and the BB pumps—do not require those who wear them to make any outrageous sacrifice for fashion.

Make no mistake: Blahnik is an artist, but his art is meant to be worn—by the Rihannas and Bianca Jaggers, but also by anyone stylish just making their way to dinner. Or, perhaps, to work at a customs security counter.