After 43 years, the emperor of shoes is opening a second boutique - in Burlington Arcade
Manolo Blahnik and Suzy at his new London boutique in Burlington Arcade
Right now, there is just a peephole through the window blind of a boutique in London's most elegant arcade. But cross the marble floor and peer through it — and the shoes with shapely heels poised on metallic sticks are indisputably Manolo’s.
An enticing peep into Manolo Blahnik’s new boutique
The designer, who as testament to his fame is known just by his first name, is opening his second store in London this week, 43 years after he opened his Chelsea boutique in the country he has made his home.
The three dainty floors burst with vivid colour, which includes the Ottoman seating as well as the shoes: suede brogues in pink, purple and pistachio green, to reflect the Ladurée macarons on display at the Piccadilly end of the arcade.
There are polka-dot flats, a reminder of Mary Quant from the Sixties’ “Swinging London” years when Manolo first arrived, wide-eyed, from his home in the Canary Islands. Then there are high-heeled, open-toe shoes, with swirl patterns in the spirit of the Africa he would glimpse as a boy from the family's banana plantations.
There are even open bootees, laced with pink roses — an echo of his mother's fascination with Empress Sisi, the symbol of exquisite style in the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Rose bootees reflect Manolo’s mother’s fascination with "Sisi", the Austro-Hungarian Empress, Elisabeth of Austria
Manolo waves enthusiastically towards the open window and the curving architecture of the graceful mini-street leading off Piccadilly, home to quirky gentleman's suppliers, jewellers and perfume emporiums such as Penhaligon's. After a recent refurbishment, Chanel and fragrance expert Frederic Malle have been added to the names of the 40 small shops with a feeling of an earlier, more graceful era.
The designer told me that he had been waiting for years to find an appropriate place in central London to extend his reach from the intimate Chelsea shop he opened back in the early Seventies. "Between you and me, that was the best time in London - in terms of freedom, when nothing was made for corporations and everything was spontaneous. Ossie, Bill Gibb and Zandra Rhodes — they didn't think about money,” said Manolo, referring to Ossie Clark, who was the first designer to ask for a shoe collaboration back in 1971.
Manolo in Burlington Arcade, with its globally renowned specialist boutiques
What about those hundreds of shoes that I know are stored in the designer's home in Bath, the elegant town with its Roman baths and royal crescents? Manolo tells me about a comprehensive exhibition that is being prepared - but not yet finalised — to open in Venice, Prague (his Czech father's original home), St Petersburg and Madrid.
Then there is a film, Manolo — The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, directed by fashion illustrator and editor Michael Roberts, who has known the King of Shoes for 30 years. It is being produced for Nevision Studios One Limited by Neil Zeiger.
A display of shoes from the new collection
Right now, Manolo, the designer whose iconic status ricocheted across the world through Sex and The City, is concerned more about the angle of the Ottoman couches and the freshness of the pink floral arrangements. I had the pleasure of sitting on the velvet pouf (with a cup of coffee and a macaron) in conversation with the deeply cultured and soaring romantic, Manolo Blahnik.
Suzy: Manolo, I can't believe how much colour there is in this store for women and for men - is colour something you've always lived with and that you long for?
Manolo: Yes, indeed. I guess what has always been in my work has been colour, because I came from a country that is colourful. Half of my body is Spanish, so that is why I always insist on this kind of colour. I think colour is important in life.
This season Manolo’s shoes for men are also in jewel-like shades
Suzy: Why did you decide to open this store?
Manolo: This shop was one of the last offerings that we were shown. We'd been looking for five or more years, trying to find a place here. And we liked it. Many years passed and we couldn't find anything. And suddenly, two years ago… It was a Georg Jensen store and Pickett too, so we tore everything out and got an architect. Eventually we said, “Yes, we are going to have this shop”, because to me this shop is London; it's my London. It's clean and my idea of tidy and English without being too exotic.
Suzy: I know that Michael Roberts is making a film about you — you love movies, don't you?
Manolo: I love them more and more — old movies. I stopped in 1970-something.
Suzy: Weren't you in love with Anna Magnani and those Italian film stars?
Clean graphics, inspired by the Swinging London of the 1960s
Manolo: Oof, she was one of them, but I do have millions I love. Can you imagine that girl in the silent movies who suddenly retired because she was a very shy girl but beautifully, properly brought up. I've discovered now the beauty of silent movies from the French ones to the Italian ones — oh, the Italian ones are beautiful!
Suzy: I know you are going to Barcelona to get an award - and Spain is your country — but do you feel English after all these years?
Manolo: No, I wouldn't say that, because my English is totally my invention. My accent is totally… I don't even know. But deep down I have an incredible love of this English character. Mind you, it's been twisted, it's been evolving differently than I expected. But I don't care, I live in my past, I live in the English that I like. I take refuge in that. A few people are still going around like that.
Suzy: What do you want people to feel when they come into the shop?
Manolo: Maybe tempted to buy something, because this is the reason for our shop! But also, to be given a treatment, not only from the boys who are selling, but a treatment that doesn't exist any more in Europe. It's disappearing like crazy. People are able to do everything they want, they choose the shoes, we advise them, we will repair the shoes.
Suzy: Are these brogues for women or men? I want to tell you how ignorant I am — I don't know whether you have always made men's shoes.
Manolo: The shoes are for boys and girls — I don't like to use the word “unisex". It began before Ossie, when I began doing men's shoes. It was my version of the idea of saddle-shoes and I still do them. In about a month we'll have saddle-shoes again — at the moment it's too soon — and proper linen shoes, things like that. The opening of Ossie's Royal Court Theatre collection - my God, that was in something like 1971. Between me and you, that was the best time in London for me in terms of freedom, and nothing was made because of corporations, everything was spontaneous. Not that I thought about money, because I didn't, and people like that - like Ossie — didn't think about money, or else he wouldn't have ended up like he did. But it was great, it was incredible, you had Bill Gibb, you had Zandra Rhodes — all the creatives.
Mary Quant-inspired flats, with matching clutches
Suzy: There was a freedom — and you have never looked for a corporate backer.
Manolo: Many people at many times have insisted, "Would you like to?" I say, "No, no, no!" If I do something wrong, maybe, I don't know, if I make a disaster, but then it's my disaster. I don't have to give up. I put every penny we make into this office and here.
Suzy: You've got this fantastic collection of shoes down in Bath. How many have you got?
Manolo: Oh goodness, about… We have a wonderful girl taking care of that now, a really wonderful girl — Canadian, she's called Chris — she thinks there are about 27, 28, maybe more…
Suzy: Twenty-eight… ! Don't you want to display them?
Manolo with one of the more classic men’s designs for this season
Manolo: We will open an exhibition next January in Venice. They told me to choose the places that I like in Europe. I don't want to do London, I don't want to do New York — who cares! We were also invited by the Czech government in Prague. It's ideal because that's my father's town, and my father used to sing and dance there as a child.
Suzy: Thinking about you opening your new shop, thinking about the exhibition to come — what is the part of your story with shoes that you want to put across? What do you want people to think about your work?
Manolo’s has always included art historical references in his work
Manolo: That there is something absolutely non-prepared. Everything is done spontaneously, everything is done on my own terms. Sometimes I do good things, sometimes I do bad things, but it's my own. This is Mary Quant inspiration - everything I love. Dots, polka dots… Every shoe is based on something I have that is sublime to me — not to everybody — but to . I just look at the paintings of somebody and I think, "Oh, God!" I even love Bacon, madness, those splashes of colour. Do you realise that Francis Bacon was quintessentially English and he is loved by Spanish people as if he were God? I did a collection a few years ago based on the splashes of colour in Bacon. It sounds pretentious to say that. And I did another one with the holes and shapes of Henry Moore. Everything is just inspiring, it's very beautifully and almost violently inspired by England, an English fantasy tale, Cecil Beaton — all those things.
Suzy: Well, I do also remember you telling me of the influence of Africa on your work. That you'd listen to this African music and look out from the family's plantation and gaze at Africa.
One of Manolo’s 28,000 pairs of shoes
Manolo: Completely. I still have that kind of influence from Africa. If you're born with it, it's almost genetic. I love everything about Africa, I’d dream about living in those places, like in mud houses, and beautiful things. I love that, there's something grand about that.
Suzy: Am I right in thinking the collection of the shoes I'm looking at now is perhaps more influenced by London?
Manolo: I have my other side, which is absolutely twisted. It's Vienna, and when I say Vienna I say the empire and the court, and all those things. I was brought up by a mother who was absolutely mad about Stefan Zweig and she read about Marie Antoinette about a thousand times or more.
Suzy: How is all this transferred into your work? Because you know I'm sure, like me, you've seen many students' work and they say, “Oh! It's the influence of Vienna” or Africa, but there's no particular depth to it. But with you, if I understand, it's something that's inside you, it's in your mind and your blood — you don't sit there with books.
Manolo: No! And what they call mood boards, oh, I hate them! In fact, they confuse me! I really don't like to work like that, and I would never want to work that way. I really do admire people who do like great masters, like John Galliano.
Manolo has always revered Africa, and his collections often reflect his African upbringing in his choice of shade or detail
Suzy: Yes, but those people make clothes like you make shoes. Some of these other people make dreams and ideas, but they don't fit the body or the feet.
Manolo: Alas, no, I learned, after many, many years, if the technical side is not there, you don't have it. It took me years and years to master this. It's this kind of balance - understanding things like that takes a long time.
A modernist display of Manolo’s footwear