Shoe designer Manolo Blahnik is a fashion orator from another time, when sweeping pronouncements and eccentric diktats were as important as listing colors and trends. Explaining history and dissecting beauty is an art form unto itself, nurturing a manner of speaking that was also epitomized by the late Andre Leon Talley and Diana Vreeland (who in fact first pushed Mr. Blahnik to design shoes). The word chic, a meaningless cliche to anyone under 35, has a religious significance for such personalities; living, which is to say presenting oneself, entertaining others with ideas, and seeking out aesthetic pleasure, is a form of creative expression. Mr. Blahnik’s voice is like an opera, stage whispering one moment—“horrible,” he said, of sneakers—then crying out—“Clean, clean, CLEAN!” he yelled, of his ideal magazine cover design—the next. The designer, as a result, can extemporize lines of impassioned impromptu poetry on subjects as marvelously specific as:
Blue velvet on the feet: “It’s very kind of enchanting somehow, I don’t know. Just look down and see blue shoes—it’s very nice! That is very exciting!”
The importance of pedicures over manicures: “The hands could be absolutely full of ink, nails beaten to the bone—but the feet have to be perfect.”
The ugly shoe trend: “Those horrible…blocks! Like furniture! I saw some shoes—I don’t want to talk about them!—in some place in Milan. Hideous! If you have those long, beautiful legs, they destroy your silhouette. God, they’re horrible now, especially.”
The most beautiful people on earth: “I really think the best people in the world [are] the people on the beach, people who live there all the time.”
His hygiene goals: “I’m absolutely mad for washing five times a day. Summertime? It’s a shower every two hours.”
On ugly shoes, again: “I call [them] furniture shoes. Because they’re hideous. I don’t know, maybe you like it—I’m sorry!”
After all, as Mr. Blahnik declared in a recent phone interview, “What is the point of talking to people if you don’t have fun?!”
In a world of algorithmic strategies and cautious planning, Manolo Blahnik’s modus operandi remains delight. Decision-making—for both the 51-year-old shoe brand and the man himself, who is 79—is led by what dazzles him, brings him joy, or makes him laugh. In the course of our conversation, which ran some forty minutes, he used a variation on the word “beauty” nearly 20 times. That’s another motivating question: What, most of all, is beautiful?
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Beauty and comfort—a combination Mr. Blahnik calls “the most incredible thing”—inspired his latest project: a collaboration with the crunchy health shoe brand Birkenstock. “It was a surprise,” he said, “and a challenge: What the hell can I do with Birkenstock?!” It wasn’t that he was unfamiliar with them: in fact, he has worn them since the late 1960s, buying one pair after another, and he often goes to his studio to work in a pair of Birkenstocks with “lovely socks—cashmere socks.” (He pronounces the name in the German style: “BUHR-ken-schtok.”) In 2020, he and his niece and CEO, Kristina Blahnik, appeared in the brand’s Personalities Campaign, which highlights longtime Birkenstock customers with cultural cache, like Grace Coddington and the artist and furniture designer Faye Toogood. Around that time, Mr. Blahnik’s mind began its imaginative churn—he could change the buckle, maybe “make it a little bit chic” by covering the cork sole with color. He would use fabulous materials, like velvet in rich jewel tones and smooth leather. With those realizations, he recalls, “I said,”—here his voice leapt to a shriek—“Yes! YES!”
As Ms. Blahnik, who joined the company in 2009, put it, Blahnik’s collaborations are “genuinely serendipity.” Just as the brand’s 2016 collection with Rihanna arose from her devotion to his shoes, or their participation in Vetements‘ collab-crazy show in 2016 was the result of “an intellectual meeting of philosophy, of art history,” Ms. Blahnik said, their decision to proceed with a project “is purely based on, Does this sound like it’s going to be fun? There is no commercial strategy behind it.”
“Birkenstocks are perfect,” she added a few minutes later. “All we’ve done is dress them in a different couture outfit.”
That “different couture outfit” includes deep blue velvet and dark fuschia–materials and colors Ms. Blahnik refers to as “edible” and “delicious in every way,” as well as smooth black leather, in the classic Boston clog and the Arizona sandal. They will be in stores, priced between $680-$750, on Thursday, March 24, and four more styles will drop in June. On both styles, the pragmatic metal buckle has been replaced with the blingy square usually seen on Mr. Blahnik’s celebrated Hangisi shoe, which Carrie Bradshaw, the most famous fictional consumer in the history of the world, wore for her wedding to Mr. Big in the first installment of the Sex and the City film. (She slipped them on again for the first episode of the reboot And Just Like That…, with less pleasant results. Incidentally, the Instagram fan account @everyoutfitonSATC referred to the blue Boston clog as “if Carrie and Aiden had a child.”)
“That bloody shoe has been going for years and years,” Mr. Blahnik said of the Hangisi. “I want to really just stop that thing,” but “customers want to have the security objects that they know; that’s the reason people keep buying that shoe.”
Similarly, Mr. Blahnik says he considers Birkenstocks unchanging classics, like Church’s Brogues, a timeless handbag, or his BB Pump (which remains his bestseller, even in the comfort-fueled pandemic times. “That shoe is unstoppable,” he said). And Birkenstocks have been in luxury fashion’s orbit for nearly a decade: Phoebe Philo gave them a surrealist Meret Oppenhiem-twist in 2013, and Rick Owens coated them with mangy hair and lengthened their straps to animalistic proportions. (They seem to bring out the fetishist in many designers.) At the beginning of last year, LVMH’s L Catterton, a private equity firm, acquired a majority stake in the company. Since then, they have collaborated with Valentino, Proenza Schouler, and Jil Sander. (Mr. Blahnik admitted he had no idea that the brand was now connected to LVMH until two or three weeks before our conversation.) The ubiquity of leggings, the Balenciaga-fication of shoes like Crocs, and the tyranny of the designer hoodie mean there are few faux pas left in fashion. And many fashion leaders and sybarites—Ms. Blahnik and her uncle included—have embraced them; certainly, their environmentalist, health-conscious halo is a virtue in our wellness-mania times. For better or worse, meditation apps, upscale healthfood stores, and Teslas mean crunchiness is a luxury value.
Perhaps the Manolo-Birkenstock teamup is an acknowledgement from the foremost king of high heels that many consumers, even luxury shoppers, are ready to privilege comfort over beauty. The sneaker has largely overtaken the heel as the must-have shoe, even as women begin to return to the office and socializing. But Ms. Blahnik says the fervor for flats and kitten heels actually peaked pre-pandemic. Now, she says, customers are looking down and finding that flats or slippers are “not visually stimulating,” and since April of 2021, sales of high heels have sharply risen. “We’ve got to this point where the very flat comfortable casual shoe and the high heel are coexisting,” she said.
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Mr. Blahnik concurred, in his own charmingly Delphic prose: “High heels will always be here—since the Greek times!” he pronounced. “Even now, high heels are something women cannot be without.”
As our chat wound down, Mr. Blahnik began musing on his latest collection, which he had just finished just the day before. “For a long time, I haven’t been interested in shoes of mine,” he said. He has a lung issue that puts him at high-risk for contracting covid, and he had to be somewhat reclusive of late, designing and working with factories by Zoom. “Finally—I did a good job.”
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.