Manolo Blahnik: “Toronto is my destination now!”

July 6, 2018

After appearing in the cultural capitals of Europe, Manolo Blahnik arrived in Toronto to bring his acclaimed exhibition Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes to the Bata Shoe Museum. FAJO had a unique opportunity to preview the exhibition before it opened to the public and chat with the amusing and highly engaging designer.

“Each of [the cities] captures my imagination,” shares the designer. “Those were the places that I love to be in—like Saint Petersburg and Prague, where my father is from. Then, we did Milan because I love Milan, I work there. And Madrid was beyond my expectations. They had to close the museum because of all the people [who came to see it]. It was frightening!”

Manolo Blahnik is on the cover of The Summer Issue.

So, why did the designer pick Toronto? Apparently, he has fallen in love with the city. “I like all this buzz—I like it! You still have places that don’t exist anymore, like Blu-ray [and DVD rentals] at Bay Street Video, which almost disappeared [because people download everything now]. In New York, they used to have it, but not anymore. Toronto is my place, my destination now. You can feel the creativity here.”

Even though the exhibition was presented in the same way in all five cities, Blahnik singles out Saint Petersburg, which he has been a great admirer of for many years. The whole academic approach of Hermitage, as well as its elegance, stunned the designer. “Each shoe was [placed in its own] block, and I loved it. People reacted well, especially young people like you, which is nice. Because, after all, a shoe is a shoe. But they see something else. I don’t know what [it is].”

Select pieces from the exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum.

Blahnik was particularly impressed with how knowledgeable the visitors were. “One man came to me and said, ‘These stitches remind me of the embroidery of Catherine the Great!’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god, yes!’ I was in Kremlin once, and I was taking notes from embroideries, and that man knew [what he was talking about]!”

Some of Blahnik’s illustrations on display in Toronto.

History has always captivated Blahnik, and even though he famously designed the shoes for Sofia Coppola’s movie Marie Antoinette (2006), which has a large part in the exhibition, he has recently been particularly fascinated with 17th-century Spain. “It is so beautiful, those beautiful sandals. Marvellous! They talk to me—I don’t know why.” Ancient Greece and Rome, however, are the periods that never stop inspiring the shoemaker. According to Blahnik, Greek statues have “the most divine feet and bodies,” and he says he can study them for hours.

Blahnik is truly unstoppable. He still designs every shoe himself. He travels to the factories near Milan and personally works on the lasts and heels, choosing materials and accessories, and overseeing the development of each prototype. His creative output is around 250 brand-new styles every six months, of which only 150 can appear across pre and main collections. This is on top of a 20-piece permanent collection of styles including the Hangisi, the BB and the Chaos pump.

The Hangisi, an iconic shoe with a buckle that served as an engagement ring for Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, is one of the numerous designs that is presented at the exhibition. The designer, along with the exhibition’s guest curator, Dr. Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz, has hand-selected over 200 shoes and 80 original drawings to display. All of them seamlessly reflect his personal journey, inspirations and achievements, collected over four decades.

The footwear presented in the exhibition dates back to the early 1970s—when Blahnik started his creative journey—and covers the period up until today. It even includes the denim thigh-high boots that were created in collaboration with Rihanna. Although he’s been in the shoe business for 48 years, Blahnik’s designs are still quite unique, often unexpected and always popular with his fans, be it celebrities, royals or regular women.

This piece, which is on display at the exhibit, is also on the cover of the latest book about Blahnik.

So how does the designer still get new ideas? “That’s not difficult!” he exclaims. “Not that I am repeating myself, but there is always hope that something is going to be new. Every experience is new.”

It’s truly captivating to observe and compare Blahnik’s sketches with samples of materials and an actual shoe, seeing how an idea materializes from a drawing to an object: an object of art and a desirable item for the fashion-conscious. Some of the shoes in the exhibition seem like they have stepped out from paintings of the great artists of the 20th century: they reflect Blahnik’s interests and the influences of his favourite painters, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Kazimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian.

What also becomes apparent are Blahnik’s meticulous attention to details and his passion for shoe design. Christine Bata Schmidt, daughter of the late Sonja Bata, the museum’s founder, mentioned at the opening that when Blahnik talks about his creations, it seems like he talks about his friends because there is a story behind each and every shoe. When asked if he could share any stories for FAJO, the designer pointed to the nearest shoe with an original heel in the shape of a ball. “This one here, with a ball, it is kind of stupid maybe, but I love it! It reminds me of windows, eyes and a mixture between the architecture of Le Corbusier and some other architect, but I don’t know which one.”

A sketch of the shoe Blahnik is referring to; both the sketch and the shoe itself can be found at the exhibit.

The shoemaker is forever curious about the world and is an intellectual himself. Movies, paintings and writers, he says, are the main fuel of his creativity. Even though he never takes a  vacation, he still travels extensively for work, and after Toronto he will jet-set to Japan and then back to London. And he reads. He reads a lot. Specifically, Blahnik adores 19th-century writers, including Flaubert, Balzac and Hugo. While discussing literature, he confessed, “To me, when I was young, I was mad about Myra Breckinridge, which was a flop at the time—it was too advanced, but now we see Myra Breckinridges all over the world.”

Blahnik’s creations are vibrant and memorable.

The exhibition is a real gift for Torontonians, for those who have been fans of Blahnik’s designs and for those who will appreciate the art of shoes after seeing it. Make sure you don’t miss the only North American—and final—stop of Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes.

Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes runs until Jan.6, 2019, at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada.

More Manolo in a new book

If you are located far from Toronto and cannot attend the exhibition, or if you would love to bring a piece of Blahnik to your home, the curator Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz recently wrote an accompanying edition “Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoe”, published by Rizzoli.

Just like the exhibition, this book celebrates Blahnik’s talent and insatiable passion for art and shoes. This richly illustrated edition is a great source of knowledge into Blahnik’s life, work and character. It features personal conversations of the curator and the designer, and every chapter is written in first person, so reading it feels like talking to Manolo Blahnik himself.

Images courtesy of Rizzoli.

Arranged in alphabetical order, starting from Alexander the Great and Brigitte Bardot, up to Visconti and Zurbaran, the book sheds light upon influences, people and inspirations behind Blahnik’s numerous designs, and also includes illustrations of his shoes.

There are plenty of personal anecdotes, mentions of iconic women and Blahnik’s own recollections: his musings about beauty, elegance and traditions are fascinating and inspiring. Included as well are rare personal photographs from personal archives of the shoemaker.

By Darina Granik; copy editor: Peter Christensen
Photography by Tara West; feature photo courtesy of Manolo Blahnik

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