An accidental shoemaker, Manolo Blahnik was in Paris studying art and set design when Diana Vreeland, then editor-in-chief of American Vogue, loved his sketches for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and advised him to design shoes. It inspired the birth of an iconic footwear brand.
Born in the Canary Islands in Spain, Manuel Blahnik majored in Literature and Architecture from the University of Geneva. In 1965 he shifted base to Paris to study art and stage set design while working at a vintage clothing boutique. On a trip to New York in 1970 Paloma Picasso introduced him to Diana Vreeland- then editor-in-chief of American Vogue- and showed her his set and theatrical designs. On seeing Manolo’s sketches for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ she loved Hippolyta’s high-heeled sandals embellished with ivy and cherries and encouraged him to concentrate only on designing shoes.
Since he wasn’t formally trained in shoemaking Manolo learnt the craft by visiting Italian shoe factories and learnt from machine operators- pattern cutters and technicians. All of the production phases in the making of his artisanal shoes were manual and consequently the number of pairs handcrafted each day were limited and unique. “Every shoe Manolo creates begins as a freehand sketch using sable brushes and watercolour ink. His stylistic use of line, light and colour give the renderings an impressionistic quality, making them works of art in their own right. Once he has sketched an entire collection Manolo brings his drawings to the factories in Italy to work with the technicians on how to build them in three dimensions…” per his official website.
Settling in London in 1969, he started working with Zapata Shoe Company in New York. His break came in 1971 when fashion designer Ossie Clark requested him to create shoes for his show. This was the era of platforms and chunky heels and Blahnik’s sexy stilettos stood out in the sea of shoes. There was no looking back!! Blahnik has since worked with the most acclaimed designers including Yves Saint Laurent- Calvin Klein- John Galliano for Dior and Oscar de la Renta.
Shortly he opened his own boutique on Old Church Street in Chelsea which became a hangout for the A-list set including Bianca Jagger, Rupert Everett, David Hockney and Anna Wintour. Pop icon Madonna described shoes designed by Blahnik as “better than sex” and late Princess Diana who usually wore low-heeled shoes looked sensational in a pair of black pumps from Manolo Blahnik which she accessorised with a little black dress. In 1983 Manolo opened a boutique on West 54th Street in New York. With help from Vogue Editor Anna Wintour he quickly became the go-to shoe designer for the A-list set.
HBO series “Sex And The City” catapulted him into stardom after its central protagonist Carrie Bradshaw spoke of her devotion to Manolo Blahnik shoes. But here’s a little trivia: Manolo Blahnik’s BB pump- the ones fictional character Carrie Bradshaw loves- is named after Fifties’ legendary French actor Brigitte Bardot and stood the test of time due to its cross between sexy and elegant. Per Forbes: “Long before Sex and The City came along, Blahnik became the godfather of sole, creating unprecedented demand for luxury footwear, gracing the cover of British Vogue and changing the course of 70s style—from platforms to stilettos—altogether.”
Manolo Blahnik was named “Accessory Designer of the Year” by British Fashion Council In 1990 and 1999.. has honorary doctorates from Royal London College of Art and Royal Society of Arts of Britain.. and was honoured with “CFDA Awards”. In 2000 he collaborated with Neiman Marcus to launch the first virtual reality online showroom featuring 3D models of his shoes and the collection was sold out within three weeks!
His designs were featured on the silver screen in Sofia Coppola’s film “Marie Antoinette” which won an Oscar for “Best Costume Design”. In 2003 there was a retrospective exhibit of his drawings, memorabilia and collections at the Design Museum in London. In 2006 photographer Eric Boman collaborated with him on cult shoe book “Blahnik by Boman”. The following year Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II presented Manolo with “Commander of the British Empire “for his contribution to British fashion.
Manolo has always remained true to his ideals — creative, cutting-edge and artisanal. In 2015 he published “Fleeting Gestures and Obsessions”: a transcript of conversations with icons such as Pedro Almodóvar and Sofia Coppola about his treasured influences in art, design and literature alongside select photographs from his design archive. In 2017 a filmed portrait on his life “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards” was released in theatres and on Netflix.
In 2013 his niece Kristina Blahnik came on board as CEO of Manolo Blahnik and since taking over the position she has expanded the company from just six employees to eighty globally and from two standalone shops to twenty boutiques, all while keeping the staple artistry of the luxury shoe brand her uncle started just over fifty years ago. However Manolo Blahnik continues working at the same pace. If he isn’t designing at his office in Marylebone or at home in Bath.. he can be found handcrafting samples in the factories in Italy. Because… Manolo is involved in every stage of the process of building his shoes and creates each sample himself to ensure that they match his original vision. He has been known to whittle wooden lasts by hand.. cut the patterns of the upper and assemble the parts to meet his rigorous standard. The factory artisans then study the prototypes to make enough exact copies to fulfil the orders.
In 2018 Blahnik- who has produced men’s footwear since the launch of his eponymous label- opened his first standalone shop for men in London. The debut collection featured over thirty-five styles of men’s shoes ranging from zebra-prints- pony hair loafers and raffia dessert boots handwoven by a team of artisans in Morocco and finished in Italy.
An integral part of the man and his luxury brand is philanthropy. Manolo Blahnik supports the Mental Health Foundation as an official partner since May 2019. The UK-based charity is a leader in research and public awareness- advocating for policy development at a local and national level and also provides free evidence-based information to help empower people to look after their mental health. Their team has been working tirelessly to identify and inform on emerging issues, helping organisations and the UK Government effectively respond to those in need.
“We believe in the artist and the artisan; we are innovative while still protecting the heritage of the house. We believe in working proactively and being solution focussed. We believe in upholding family values; we treat everyone with honesty and respect while nurturing our teams to deliver excellence.”
Manolo Blahnik’s vision is to sketch, design and handcraft each pair of shoe himself so that each pair in his atelier is unique and a statement piece. The brand is known for its original, creative flair as well as timeless classic styles which sees loyal customers, from film stars to leading editors, to women who simply trust his perfectionism, come back again and again.
Luxury handcrafted footwear for women- and lately- for men.