the manolo blahnik effect: how a classic shoe became an avant-garde sensation
Vetements and Rihanna may have made Manolo Blahnik the shoe designer of the year, but Ossie Clark first did that in 1971.
"No, there's nothing remotely ironic/ about our love of Manolo Blahnik," sing the women in the theater adaptation of American Psycho. Bret Easton Ellis's nightmarish book about material excess came out in 1991, when thin-heeled, whimsical Manolo high heels were the undisputed fashion shoe.
The American Psycho lyric is funny to people that follow this sort of thing because it speaks to the shoe's flip/flop relationship with cutting-edge style. Manolos have been in, and out, so far in they're out, and so far out they're in, too many times to count over the course of the past forty plus years. Now, with a starring role in Vetements's genre-bending tour de force spring 2017 couture collection, and a recent Rihanna capsule, the shoe is firmly back on the cool kids. And the attention has returned to an instantly recognizable icon of modern design.
Born in the Canary Islands and originally destined for a diplomatic career, Blahnik ended up in art school and made his first shoe for the swinging, psychedelic Ossie Clark in 1971. Spurred on by none other than Diana Vreeland ("Do shoes, shoes!"), he opened a London shop and began quietly making elegant footwear that would become a staple for artistic women like Grace Coddington and Bianca Jagger. Somewhere between Bianca and Lotta Volkova, the shoe's avant-garde essence was lost. Or was it?
In 1979, Andy Warhol wrote in his diaries: "Got up and wandered around, passing out (the magazine) Interview. I went to Manolo Blahnik's new shoe store on 65th and Madison, next to Kron's, really beautiful, one-of-a-kind shoes." Along with his obsessive notation of taxi costs and deli lunches, Andy would write down when his friends wore Manolo Blahniks, which was often.
From the 70s through the 90s (and again, today), Manolo Blahnik collaborated with the most creative designers in fashion, from Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis to Alaïa to Galliano. During John Galliano's brief tenure at Givenchy, Blahnik made what might be considered the ultimate fashion footwear: the red heels Madonna wore during her period channeling famous shoe horder Eva Peron.
Then, in 1998, Sex and the City hit, and what might have been a niche, insider's view into New York lives became a decade-long franchise that inspired cupcake tours of the West Village and unwatchable movies filled with it-bags and endless puns. Depending on your perspective, it was either the birth or the death of the Manolo (and the conspicuous "stroll with Manolo shopping bag" look that was Carrie's signature). As the meatpacking district filled with women in heels instead of meat, the Manolo Blahnik became a shoe your fancy aunt in Dallas wore, not the sexy, subversive design icon born from the Swinging Sixties.
Manolo didn't care: "When I was out of favor and people didn't want that type of boot, flats, or high heels with the elegant, dainty things, it gave me much more energy," he told Tim Blanks. "I'm totally twisted. I'm always kind of contradictory to what people want and what's selling."
To many, Manolo Blahniks never left. Designer Adam Selman, who collaborated with the brand on John Waters-Americana-inspired spectator pumps for fall/winter 15, said, "Manolos have never gone out of style, they may have gone under the radar, but those in the know, truly know that they've always been the go-to for ladies." Ladies like Anna Wintour -- she has worn pretty much the same shoes every day for the past few decades, nude criss-cross low-heeled Manolo sandals. MB authority André Leon Talley told me, "He is the king! The roi soleil of shoes!"
Frequent Selman collaborator Rihanna Fenty teamed up with Mr. Blahnik for a completely sexy, chambray-toned capsule collection which dropped this spring and featured its own hashtag (#denimdesserts). Crystal-crusted patterns riffed off Rihanna's hand tattoos. Manolo Blahnik's website, not quite ready for the Navy, crashed multiple times when the shoe launched. Rihanna herself wore the denim, chap-like thigh-high boots everywhere, often with just a baggy tee-shirt and mini-shorts. A far cry from the ladies who lunch that pad across the West 54th street store's beige carpeted floor.
Rihanna inadvertently prepared the world for perhaps the most experimental Manolo Blahnik collaboration yet: Denma Gvasalia's spring 17 couture collection for Vetements, featuring 18 legendary brands. Shown in the tourist-heavy department store Galéries Lafayette, it was an ode to Shopping with a capital "S" that made zero sense on paper and all the sense in the world IRL. Alongside reinvented Juicy Couture sweatsuits and Comme des Garçons Shirt shirts were brightly colored satin Manolo Blahnik pumps and waist-high boots. The shoes (along with everything else) were conceptual as well as covetable. They somehow absorbed the shopping-addict girliness of Carrie Bradshaw while respecting Mr. Blahnik's craft, and bringing the shoes into the future.
The shoe's rich and at times complicated aesthetic history is very much part of its place in the now. Luella Bartley, who collaborated with Mr. Blahnik for Hillier Bartley's spring/summer 17 collection, told me, "Manolo Blahnik's shoes just feel like the most refined, beautiful, chic, elegant and sometimes slightly wrong objects in such a perfect way. They conjure up all kinds of sensibilities, from 70s bohemian Chelsea to the pages of 80s Harpers and Queen Sloanes." The most creative designers don't see good taste and bad taste as limitations -- it's all about inspiration. And Luella and Katie Hiller were just as inspired by the man himself as by his designs, making a women's version of Manolo's signature matador flat. "Our season with Manolo felt more than a collaboration, he was literally the first picture on the mood board," explained Luella. "A picture of him in a beautiful tux, cashmere scarf and a pair of odd dress shoes, one pink, one blue. It summed up the perfect clash between the correct rules of evening dress with a perfectly refined use of eccentric, chic, rebellion."
This charming short by Michael Roberts (whose feature-length documentary on the designer is on its way) shows MB's unique way of sketching and painting his shoes. His fanciful drawings, often exhibited, are as iconic as the shoes themselves. As Adam Selman says, "I feel like I noticed the Manolo sketches before I really got into the actual shoes. Those perched tippy-toe arches on stiletto heels were burned into my memory in such a fantastic dreamy way." Shoes may go in and out of style, but vision is forever.
Text Rory Satran
Sketch courtesy Manolo Blahnik
Runway photography of Vetements by Mitchell Sams