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Sole Survivor

LONDON — In just over a week, Manolo Blahnik will open the first retrospective of his 32-year career, and he doesn’t know whether to cheer or cry — or both."I always thought retrospectives were for when you were about to drop...

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LONDON — In just over a week, Manolo Blahnik will open the first retrospective of his 32-year career, and he doesn’t know whether to cheer or cry — or both.

"I always thought retrospectives were for when you were about to drop dead," he giggles, drowning beneath a desk piled with sketches at his headquarters here, a town house on Kings Road. "It’s something you usually do at the end of your career, but now, at 60, I feel I’ve just begun to grow up."

And like an excited kid, he’s breathless and exhausted from tearing open packages on Christmas morning, in this case, his own shoe boxes. "I feel like a voodoo victim," he says, describing his recent lack of sleep while anticipating the opening of the show. Nearly all of the 750 shoes to be shown at London’s Design Museum are from Blahnik’s home archive in Bath. Most of them are his personal favorites, including the Baroque- and African-inspired models, and Avion, his aluminum-and-Perspex strappy sandal.

"This is not a humongous exhibition. It’s very low-key and personal. Maybe there’s not a lot of variety, but it’s what I love most," says the designer, who’s wearing a brown-and-blue tweed suit and a pair of chocolate brogues he designed for himself.

It’s also a warts-and-all production. "In the Seventies, there was a huge flood in my Chelsea home so a lot of those shoes were damaged by water," says Blahnik. "But I haven’t repaired them for the show. That would be like cheating, no?"

The exhibition, curated by Gemma Curtin, assistant curator of the Design Museum, and Colin McDowell, the fashion historian and writer, will delve into Blahnik’s inspirations: film, 17th century religious paintings and his travels. The walls will be lined with white shoeboxes, and the soundtrack will feature a collection of Blahnik’s favorite music — from 17th century Andalusian to modern-day Sudanese.

The accompanying book, "Manolo Blahnik Drawings" (Thames & Hudson), showcases his initial color sketches of shoe designs. Besides gushing quotes from fans, including Madonna, David Bailey and Kate Moss, the weighty tome also features an essay by Anna Wintour, who refers to Blahnik as the Brooke Astor of the fashion world — and calls for a knighthood.
Blahnik, who studied law when he was younger, refers to his career as a "beautiful" trap. "I studied law but thought that was horrid. I always knew I’d do something with my hands. I always liked extremities — and feet in particular. But it’s not a fetish or a sexy or sensual thing. You stand on your feet all day, and no matter what sort of problems your feet present, there’s always something redeeming about them."

In fact, he’s far more critical of shoes than he is of feet, and the shoes that he detests in particular are sneakers. "Call me prehistoric, but I think trainers are almost unhealthy. I don’t like the thought of feet encased in rubber," Blahnik says.

The future of footwear? Blahnik admits that one of his great challenges is to create a shoe without limits. "I want to do a shoe made from one piece of material that can be worn for every occasion, in every season, a shoe that you can wear with jeans or with a little black dress."

But his other goal is to remain his own boss. "I want to stay small, and keep my freedom. Everything today is about these big conglomerates. I wish fashion could return to being about smallness and about quality."