As the Spring 2018 runways in New York and London rage on with post-ironic clothing that’s incomplete without a slogan, a photo print, or a bit of sheer provocation, a documentary about Manolo Blahnik is debuting in theaters around the world. The timing is, well, quite ironic, since Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, directed by his close friend Michael Roberts, reveals the shoe man to be the antithesis of tongue-in-cheek. An anomaly in our perma-jaded world, the Canary Island–born, London-bred Blahnik is a bonafide personality, one who takes relish in just about everything. In the 30-odd truly delightful minutes I spent with him, we managed to cover topics as diverse as Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth to Rihanna’s “Work” to his beloved dogs.
Of course, if you’re one of his millions of fans you probably already know this. Iman, Rihanna, and Karlie Kloss appear in the film. Offscreen, he has no shortage of supporters either. Downstairs from Blahnik’s New York office, where we linger for a moment, no less than five shoppers sidle over to chat him up. Honestly, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t aware of the transformative power of Manolos. Just last week at JFK airport's passport control he was recognized and swept through in a jiffy by a fawning customs agent. “I said, ‘We have a sale in January for three days, come up!’” Blahnik tells me with a devilish smile. “But this all the time happens to me, in New York.” How’d it get this way? Well, it started with lizards.
As a young boy in the Canary Islands, Blahnik made a hobby of outfitting the lizards in his parents’ garden with tin foil shoes. As he grew older, the extremities of Greek and Roman statues became of particular interest, but it wasn’t until Diana Vreeland told him in the early ’70s to design shoes that he directed his attention fully to footwear. His first shoe was for Kansai Yamamoto, called The Brick. He designed it in a week and made each pair of the geta-inspired platform himself, by hand. “I went to under the arches in Portobello Road, and I bought an incredible amount of cork,” Blahnik remembers, adding that he covered the shoes in “revolting patent leather in green and red and pink.”
From there came an ongoing collaboration with Ossie Clark that birthed some of Blahnik’s favorite styles. He namechecks an ivy-inspired sandal with cherry adornments as his number one (for today, at least) and remembers a two-toned pair of stilettos in cerulean and red, with white crepe rubber bottoms that turned a lot of heads at their 1972 debut. “I forgot to put the steel inside . . . the girls were walking strangely, but it was successful somehow. It worked,” he recalls with a booming laugh. “I thought it was going to the be the end of my days as a shoemaker—and it worked!” Sex and the City, of course, gave Blahnik a major boost, and the Hangisi shoe Carrie Bradshaw wears in the film for her wedding has become a mainstay of Blahnik’s business.
If all this makes this 40-year career sound like easy street, it’s only because he’s someone so enamored with his craft. The factory is his favorite place, and he says he hopes the film inspires young people to follow their dreams. His own dreams are naturally about shoes. “You know, I tell everybody because it’s the truth: I have a huge string on the night table by my bed—in every bed I have, everywhere—with a pencil, a nasty pencil, and a block that I just . . . ” he gestures a sketch in the air. “I had one in the hotel last night. I had two wonderful ones I did last night. I haven’t developed them, but I went boom! This is the way I work. It just comes. I am like that.”
With a documentary, a traveling show that debuted at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, and another exhibit planned for 2020, you might think Blahnik would want to take it easy and put down the pencil for a while. “I love to do what I do. Are you kidding?" he says. "I challenge myself: This is not good enough. I have to do better. This is what keeps me going—it’s my nature. And people have really asked me a million times, Why don’t you do glasses and things and hats, and blah blah. Are you out of your mind? I don’t want to do that at all. No. I do shoes, and I do the best I can.”
As our conversation comes to a close, I tell Blahnik that his shoes are not only devastatingly stylish but also comfortable. “That’s one of the greatest compliments that people have paid me,” he says. On that day it was particularly true, since a bout of midtown traffic left me running down 54th Street in red houndstooth Manolos, like a Carrie Bradshaw wannabe, to make our meeting on time. He claps loudly. “In that case they must be comfortable. Otherwise you would have hated me.”