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The Sky-High Ambition of Manolo Blahnik

A new documentary about the designer shows the vision behind Melania's "hurricane heels."

Courtesy of Music Box Pictures

One night in 1994, a documentary aired on British television in which Prince Charles confessed to his infidelity. The interviewer asked whether he had been faithful, and Charles replied, “Yes. Until it became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried.” That same evening, Princess Diana attended a party thrown by Vanity Fair at the Serpentine Gallery in a black silk Christina Stambolian minidress. Her neck swanned out from the dress’s 1950s dropped shoulders; she would have looked vulnerable if not for a huge collar of pearls around her neck. The silk clung to her body and ended in an asymmetrical hem above the knee. At the end of those beautiful legs, a pair of high heels. Diana was five feet 10 inches tall, the same height as her faithless husband. On this night she walked alone, and on her feet she wore shoes by the designer Manolo Blahnik.

This moment is recorded in a new documentary on Blahnik called Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards from director Michael Roberts. The movie is extraordinary for its access to Blahnik, who is arch and funny and sweet beyond words. In one scene he strolls through a garden in a lavender suit which matches the Cecil Beaton autobiography tucked under his arm. In telling the story of his journey from a Canary Islands childhood (where he made the titular shoes for “somnolent” lizards) to opening his iconic store in London in 1973, Blahnik is wistful and self-deprecating. He looks back over snapshots of his days partying with Bianca Jagger like a maiden aunt laughing over her prom photos.

“No one has done another shoes better than Manolo [sic],” says an uncredited French fashionista in a neon outfit. And the documentary emphasizes how Blahnik’s focus on craftsmanship and control redefined the concept of the shoe designer (though he calls himself a “cobbler”). Famous Manolos include the “pilgrim pump,” a heel with a big square buckle on the toe, the luscious satin-clad “Something Blue” pump, and the barely-there “Victoria” which snakes around the foot like a vine. Blahnik’s first collection in the ’70s featured high, high heels through which he had forgotten to thread steel: They wobbled, but were so beautiful that, he recalls, it seemed that the models were merely showing off a new way to walk.

The Princess Diana moment, and later Sex and the City, made Blahnik a household name, perhaps beyond his own comfort level. Recall the scene in which Carrie is robbed of her bag (“It’s a baguette!”) and her Manolos in an alley downtown. Part of the comedy of the scene is that the robber, a dirty-looking ruffian, doesn’t merely make her give him the shoes: he specifically demands her “Manolo Blahniks.” When he leaves, she cries childishly, and hops along the filthy New York sidewalk on her bare toes. The scene served to highlight two things about these shoes: first, that they are very, very expensive, and second, that someone who values shoes so highly must be clueless.

Manolo Blahnik’s most recent entry into the headlines was on the feet of Melania Trump, who teetered in his patent black heels towards the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey. “Melania wears her heels to Harvey hell zone,” trumped the New York Post. The scorn heaped on Melania for her footwear focused on its self-indulgent, flashy impracticality. The backlash chimes well with the Sex and the City scene, in which a rich and pretty girl acts like an idiot.

All this may be unfair to the shoes. After all, the designer is famous for his ornamentation and bold, even aggressive colorways. There are times when he strays into the language of vulgarity or overstatement, with mixed patterns, loud color and three-dimensional embellishments. But Blahnik’s restraint in the architecture of the shoe make their maximalism a conscious move. In this movie, he is only ever truly at peace in the factory. He sands heels by hand himself. He will not share power over his empire with anybody. He works alone, and he works constantly.

This is the first movie for Roberts, whose career has been in fashion journalism (he’s edited at British Vogue, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair) with a sideline of illustration. Roberts is clearly possessed of an eccentric imagination. This month sees the publication of his new book GingerNutz: The Jungle Memoir of a Model Orangutan. The book tells the life story of legendary Vogue editor Grace Coddington, “from the point of view of a baby primate born in the wilds of Borneo who dreams of making it big in the fashion world.”

Roberts’ fashion pedigree and cinematic naiveté are both clear in this movie. Not only is his access to Blahnik intimate, but he has called in talking-head appearances from Anna Wintour, Naomi Campbell, Isaac Mizrahi, André Leon Tally, and more. The film features several charming animated sequences, wherein Blahnik is illustrated as a wide-eyed and sweet cartoon. In the cartoon as in real life, he wears owlish spectacles and blinks very deliberately while waving his hands in front of his face.

However, there are some flaws here. Roberts uses a tacky Marilyn Monroe quote—“Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” There is an extraordinarily tasteless segment riffing on Blahnik’s love of the movie Blonde Venus (1932). Somehow Roberts has convinced Eva Herzigovina to dress up in a Gorilla costume and act out the racist “Hot Voodoo” scene to an audience of black models, which passed in 1932 but in 2017 seems tacky and tone deaf in the extreme. Roberts also positions Naomi Campbell next to two of Blahnik’s shoes which draw on vaguely “African” decorative motifs.

I love shoes. Everything I fetishize about shoes is the opposite of Manolo Blahnik’s design. My heart flutters for a rounded toe, a clunky sole, a masculine silhouette. Blahnik’s iconic pump illustrations show a sole thinned into nothingness, curving into a hyperfeminine arch, little triangular toe pointing down the runway. I would never wear them.

But Manolo Blahnik is an artist, and to see his shoes is a joy. In the interview scene with Manolo, he sits beside a curator from the Prado in Madrid. The pair, both in late middle age, talk about Goya. That painter is the master of shoes, they agree. Into the shoes Goya poured the soul of his subjects. Like Goya, Blahnik is claimed by Spain as a national son of great and timeless beauty. And like Goya, Blahnik represents an artistic methodology that has no contemporary peer and perhaps no future. In the film, Blahnik scorns the younger designers who work with a “team,” who disdain the profession of cobbler.

Individual items of exorbitant cost are no longer the type of flourish that fashion prizes, I think. By the same token, Manolo emphasizes that fetishization is the very currency in which a true artisan trades. Fetish imbues an object with an extraordinary value—not for its usefulness but for its sheer beauty. By the same token, not all or even many people will look at a Manolo Blahnik shoe and see the contours of a beauty so perfect that it is worth thousands of dollars. But in this exclusive economy, Blahnik’s shoes sit at the very top.