In 1969 Diana Vreeland gave Manolo Blahnik some life-changing advice: “Make things, make accessories, make shoes!” she said, recognising his talent immediately upon looking at his sketchbook. Eight years after Mr Blahnik’s meeting with Vreeland, he would launch his first collection of footwear to the American market (he had been collaborating with London-based designers Ossie Clark, Jean Muir and Zandra Rhodes prior to then).
On her 27th birthday, Blahnik’s friend and muse Bianca Jagger would trot around New York nightclub Studio 54 on a white horse, her feet clad in gilt sandals made by the designer. The model teamed her shoes with a long off-the-shoulder red gown and opaque stockings, a glimmer of gold leather poking out bottom of her hem. Four decades on, the now historic image mirrors another: the Rococo painting The Swing (1767) Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which is on permanent display at London’s Wallace Collection, and forms the backdrop to a new exhibition held there titled Manolo Blahnik: An Enquiring Mind.
In Fragonard’s oil painting, much like Jagger, a young woman, petals of under-skirting unfolding around her, playfully displays her ankles and silk slippers to the gaze of a doting admirer – a pair of shoes which could easily be a design by Blahnik. This exhibition, which opened earlier this month, celebrates this period of art history’s influence on the designer’s work, with over 160 archival designs on show in the lavishly-decorated 18th-century building.
The satins, brocades, silks and kid leathers that Mr Blahnik favours sit underneath glass cloches, blending in almost entirely with their surroundings. Among the designs on show, are the shoes that he created for Kirsten Dunst’s indie iteration of Marie Antoinette in the 2006 Sofia Coppola-directed film. “When I was a little boy, my mother used to read to me and my sister pages of Marie Antoinette’s biography,” he said of why he was drawn to the project. “I for one, I find her so inspiring. She died so badly, to pay for her sins. Yes she spent money that she shouldn’t, but she was young and bored.”
Mr Blahnik is now 76 years old, but nonetheless remains kindred to this youthful and rebellious spirit. It was evident in his collaborations with John Galliano in the 1990s, during his tenure at Givenchy, and more recently in his partnership with Demna Gvasalia at Vetements, creating pairs of hot pink thigh-high boots that achieved contemporary cult status. Rihanna, with whom Blahnik has also collaborated, and who the designer compares to a modern-day Princess Grace of Monaco, was spotted just six days ago at the airport wearing a grey marl tracksuit and a pair of silver Manolos.
She’s not the only queen of pop to have endorsed the Manolo – “I have an incredible debt to Mrs Ritchie, because she said something divine that is going to be [written] on my tombstone,” Blahnik declared during an interview in 2005. He was, of course, referring to Madonna’s now legendary quote on his shoes being better than sex because “they last longer”. Her endorsement hit the nail on the head: not only are Manolo Blahniks hand-crafted to stand the test of time, but their cultural appeal is one that holds steadfast.
Inside the exhibition itself, visitors will find six rooms, spanning three decades of his work. Including sketches from Mr Blahnik, a pair of cut-out Trellis boots which sit in the entrance among works by François Boucher, and a room fittingly described as ‘avant-garde fashion’, showcasing some of the most daring designs that look as though they jumped straight out of an Almodóvar film, it isn’t one to miss.
Manolo Blahnik: An Enquiring Mind is open at The Wallace Collection, London until September 1, 2019.