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On July 5, 1973, Footwear News featured a sexy Manolo Blahnik high-heel sandal on page one, calling it "the most talked-about shoe in London." It was the fledgling designer's first big splash in this publication.
Nearly four decades and many FN covers later, the now-fashion legend still has everybody talking.
"I've never really thought about my success, but I guess it's true. I have been going for a while," said Blahnik, who is known for his humility as much as for his humor. "Suddenly, people seem to really like my shoes again. But you know, those furniture shoes were fashionable for three or four years. I did platforms in the 1970s, so that wasn't new to me. I've never followed trends or gotten into the frenzy of doing the 'right' shoes."
Blahnik has been doing it his own way since the beginning. Fiercely creative and constantly curious, the designer has built a world-famous brand by sticking to a surprisingly simple formula: designing feminine, elegant, high-quality footwear season after season. He has always been much more concerned about crafting the perfect shoe than courting the "it" celebrity.
"It's about the love affair between Manolo and his shoes. That's never changed," said longtime business partner George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik USA.
The designer, 68, still creates every single shoe himself. He's an ardent supporter of made-in-Italy and spends the bulk of his time at his factories there, overseeing the production of the label's hand-made designs.
"I'm never satisfied. I always find something wrong, and I'm really difficult to work with in that respect," said Blahnik, who noted that even the smallest flaws still send him into a tailspin. "Just today, I was looking at a shoe [here in London], and there was a fault, so I called the factory and told them to do it again."
While he's a self-admitted perfectionist about his designs, Blahnik doesn't get consumed by the details of the business. He's never been interested in tracking sales or hatching expansion plans — and he's refreshingly unaffected by money and fame. He often shuns the spotlight and self-promotion, preferring to focus on what really matters to him.
"I love three things: reading, doing my shoes and seeing movies. Those are the things I could never do without, never get bored with," Blahnik said a few weeks ago. He excitedly discussed his silent-movie obsession and ticked off his current reading list, which includes a new book about Diana Vreeland, the renowned Vogue editor who encouraged Blahnik to become a shoe designer after admiring his unique sketches for the first time in 1970.
Forty-one years have passed since that fateful meeting with Vreeland, but Blahnik said it often feels like he just started.
"I've never been able to capture the essence of time. I really enjoy what I do, so what's the point of saying how long I've been doing it?"
While his vision has remained unchanged, Blahnik has noticed a dramatic shift in the luxury-footwear business. It's never been hotter, he explained, and everyone seems to want a piece of the action. But the landscape was much different when he first arrived on the scene.
"In many ways, Manolo started the designer shoe business. That's very powerful," said Karen Katz, president and CEO of The Neiman Marcus Group. "He set a new standard and forced the design and aesthetic of shoes to a new place. And for the past 20 years or so, everybody has been rushing to catch up to him. It took a couple of decades for people to recognize that this was a business. They could just design shoes and not have a big house of names. Manolo gave them the courage to do that."
"When you think about all the Nicholas Kirkwoods and Christian Louboutins and all these brands, who do you think opened the door for all of them?" added Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks Fifth Avenue. "Who showed them how to put their shoes on the runways? Who paved the way with a celebrity following? That was all Manolo."
Indeed, Blahnik helped get shoes in the spotlight long before they were considered must-have items.
"I loved what Manolo was doing so much that I asked him to work on shoes with me for the runway [in the 1980s]," said Calvin Klein, one of the many major ready-to-wear designers Blahnik has worked with over the years. "I would show him sketches and fabrics and colors, and he always created shoes that caught the essence of the clothes. He was fantastic at doing that. We just worked together for a few seasons, but we had a lot of fun. The shoes were perfection."
Nothing was more perfect than Blahnik's star turn in "Sex & the City," which helped catapult him to superstar status in the American market. While the designer said he never really understood all the hype, he continues to benefit from the buzz surrounding the series — which is attracting a new, younger audience with its television reruns and the recent films.