x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Tread brightly

The notoriously affable designer Manolo Blahnik, who recently visited his store in Dubai Mall, speaks about his life in shoes.

The designer Manolo Blahnik at his boutique in Dubai Mall.
The designer Manolo Blahnik at his boutique in Dubai Mall.

"Fabulous" is a much overused word, especially among the fashionable classes. In a very few instances, however, it is completely justified. In Manolo Blahnik's case it is positively compulsory. This is a man who can make four-inch spike heels supremely comfortable, who can transform a cankle into a well-turned ankle with a twist of ribbon and whose covetable shoes had the biggest starring role in the TV series and film Sex and the City.

But quite apart from his skill with a last, Blahnik is effervescent, utterly charming, scrupulously polite and deeply witty. He is adored by everyone he meets, from the US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (who wrote an essay for his book Manolo Blahnik Drawings) to the thrilled customers whose shoes he is busily signing in his Dubai Mall boutique when we meet. Can the man really be so unrelentingly nice?

Thankfully not: a waspish wit, a mischievously raised eyebrow, and a confiding hand covering his mouth reveal that Blahnik is, indeed, human - albeit a preternaturally charming human. "I'm always so indiscreet!" he exclaims after admitting his true feelings about a certain actress (no, not SJP) and begging me not to write down his comments on her. If he had a fan in his hand, he would no doubt rap my knuckles coquettishly with it.

The designer has earned the right to be a little indiscreet after his decades at the centre of the fashion world. Born in the Canary Islands in 1942, Blahnik turned his back on the future in diplomacy that his Czech father and Spanish mother envisioned for him, studying art in Paris at L'École des Beaux-Arts and L'École du Louvre, after his graduation from the University of Geneva. Dabbling in PR, buying, writing and photography in London, he eventually decided to turn his hand to stage design. He hit New York with a portfolio of exquisite drawings in 1971 and, on being introduced to the legendary editor of Vogue Diana Vreeland, was privy to possibly the most prescient words she ever spoke: "Go make shoes."

That's just what he did, designing brightly coloured men's shoes for a London boutique, Zapata, which he subsequently bought. His first attempts at women's shoes, for the British designer Ossie Clark, were undeniably pretty but there was one problem: they were constructed without any understanding of shoemaking, so the heels wobbled, devoid of the necessary support. That is something that could never happen now. Blahnik has, over the last 30 or so years, become a master of the craft of shoemaking, carving each last and heel himself, a skill that is increasingly rare. Yet where journalists and commentators marvel at his dedication and virtuosity, melting over his beautiful illustrations and proselytising about the virtues of the workmanship, he remains unmoved: it is simply his job, and he does it best.

"I do everything myself," he sighs dramatically, eyes springing wide open behind his round tortoiseshell glasses, as if surprised at the level of his own hard labour. "Unfortunately yes, because it takes so much time, and is laborious. It's not... Shoes are not made like, 'whoops!'" he hoots, snapping his fingers above his head. "You have to really work hard at it. It took me years because it's almost like sculpting, and when you've got it, you've just got it. And then you just know where to turn."

He's made his point, but he does not stop there. Blahnik simply loves to talk, and his stream-of-consciousness conversation rattles out at rate of knots. "You know something? A journalist from a very important newspaper in America - I cannot name, her, I cannot. Can I? No, I mustn't. She asked me very technical questions about what kind of files you use for carving. I said: 'You know, I don't even know the name of the producer of the files.' People are just like, very... they want to know everything. And it's not because I don't want to tell you, because I tell everything, but I don't know what files I use. I don't remember the names. And I thought: 'This must be a kind of very profound technical article, because I don't know.' Yes" - he points at our photographer - "you've got Canon or you've got Nikon or whatever, but a file?"

I guiltily bite back the technical last-carving question I had been about to ask ("What kind of wood do you use?" Turns out, it is usually beech) and return to his favourite subject: movies. "Film is my big passion!" he gasps, his accent wobbling between rapid Spanish and the long vowels of upper-crust English (he lives in the Regency city of Bath, in the south-west of England). "I am hooked on high-definition new versions of old movies. It's a discovery of mine. It's so fantastic. You cannot imagine how beautiful it is. Nowadays TCM in Europe is boring because it's not black-and-white movies; it's all the time Lee Marvin. But in Spain and America they have the classic films, from the Twenties, the silent ones, up to the Sixties and it's so addictive. I loooove it."

Indeed, Blahnik's shoes may shimmer with vibrant colour and luxuriant materials (the fuchsia suede slip-on driving loafers he is wearing with his dapper pale grey suit and bow tie are a perfect match for the velvet pouffe he is sitting on) but it is to the black-and-white photography and film of the silver screen that he often turns for inspiration. "In that respect I'm totally opposite, but I do love... I don't know, it's the contrast: the remastered copies are perfection. Not everybody has that kind of thing. You have people like James Wong Howe and people like Charles B Lang and all those photographers - Saul Leiter. These people, they really knew how to photograph. In fact, Ginger Rogers was not a beauty and she became fabulous in the hands of one of the lenses of those boys. It's extraordinary."

The reason we are discussing movies, rather than shoes, is that while Blahnik is posing for his portrait he is reminded of the great fashion photographer the late Irving Penn, who died last month at the age of 92. Penn had photographed Blahnik some years before, and the designer is filled with nostalgia at the brilliance of the photographers of that era - the time when Blahnik was reading his mother's copies of Vogue and Time in the Canary Islands.

"I was very lucky to be photographed by Mr Penn. Oh yes! It was divine. All morning we had tea and coffee, and talking to me he said: 'What do you like in the world?' And I said: 'I like saints in Spain with the eyes going up, like this.' And he said - aah! - he said: 'We're going to do a picture like this.' He said 'Bring a heel' and I said 'I don't have the heels' so we went to the shop and grabbed one and he photographed me holding a heel like this, in ecstasy!" He mimes a classic Renaissance saintly pose, eyes cast piously upwards towards the shoe he is holding.

"I loved Mr Penn," Blahnik cries. "Oh, I miss those pictures! That's the reason I bought American Vogue this month, for the pages of his pictures. And for the last two months he's been not well and not been taking pictures because he's 92... Oh, he was 92. You know when people die, I just keep talking as if it was..." His eyes moisten and his voice catches. It is hard to keep Blahnik on the subject of shoes: his conversations run off at tangents as something new catches his attention. While we are speaking in the boutique, a pair of Emirati girls in rather elegant abayas and colourful shaylas walk past the window.

"Oh, look at these chic girls again!" he gasps. "I love them! We were talking yesterday; I was saying that in Japan you don't see girls with the obi belt and in China they don't really use any more the Mao suits because they remind them of bad times, but I love it. I went to Beijing two years ago, and the first thing I did was ask a friend of mine to take me to a tailor. He took me to a tailor that used to do Mao and all the people of the government. I have the original suits made in exactly the same pattern as Mao. I wear it sometimes, but you know what? Some of it is scratchy because it's made in wool. I have three. Itchy.

"In Hong Kong, you don't see anybody with a Mao suit, yet the chicest thing is the fantastic movie In the Mood for Love, [in which Maggie Cheung wears] the most exquisite Mandarin collars with the most exquisite materials, photographed by Christopher Doyle and directed by Wong Kar Wai. I see this movie when I'm in need of colour. Ah! Wong Kar Wai! You don't even know. That is a talent. He did some stupid movie in America that I didn't like.

"But the girls with their abayas: I love the identity and the continuity of tradition. This is what I miss in Europe too." Blahnik's work has developed over the years into something that perhaps sartorially echoes Wong Kar Wai's cinematic combination of tradition and creativity. His shoes are nothing if not up to the minute, yet there are famously design areas in which he refuses to tread, most notably the despised platform shoe.

"When this platform craze started a few years ago, I said it is one thing I refuse to do because I always declare I don't want to do platforms. I did it in the 1970s like mad," he says, his expressive face working, eyes popping, as he shows me an illustration of the "brick" shoe he designed for Clark. "And I did a few in 1992 for John Galliano. Oh, if you have long dresses like in Venetian times and then you have chopines [the giant wooden platforms worn in 16th-century Venice]. But now you see those kind of furniture shoes or whatever, these sculptures, and I find that with short skirts they destroy the figure!" He says this in an outraged falsetto, eyebrows waggling.

"Not only do you walk funny and almost Frankenstein-ish, but the proportions are wrong. I keep repeating myself to death but it's what I believe. Remember the beautiful thing Naomi Campbell falling off at Vivienne Westwood?" Rant over, Blahnik sits back and giggles. He has an afternoon of shoe signing ahead of him, followed by a flight to Athens, and he mildly laments his lack of sleep. Yet this is a man who is in a position to take things easy. He could sit back, let someone else carve the lasts, get his PR to hold back the hordes of fans who cluster around in search of an autograph. But he doesn't. He talks at length to the pregnant lady in the shop, asking her about the imminent birth and about her family and life here. He spends only a few days at a time in his home in Bath because he so regularly flies abroad to work. And he gives a wonderful impression of actually enjoying the normally tedious work of interviews and photo shoots.

"You have to be at the factories. You have to be in London, you have to see the press, you have to see the buyers. So my life is from morning up to the night, just work - and I love it."