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Sincerity Is at the Heart of Manolo Blahnik's Success

"If I could keep my vision intact in the future and be able to create, that would be a wonderful future for me," says the designer, reflecting on 50 years in business.

His name has become the stuff of fashion legend, a kind of shorthand for luxury and style; say "Manolo Blahnik" and you'll instantly conjure up images of the world's most fabulous women. Rihanna collaborated with him in 2016; Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex regularly chooses his surprisingly-comfortable pumps to finish her looks; his are some of the only shoes Dame Anna Wintour will wear, reportedly custom-ordering her favorite styles by the dozens each season.

But while all that international fame and fuss has brought him to his 50th anniversary, Mr. Blahnik himself has remained planted quite happily in his own world.

"You know, I don't even have a notion of what 50 years is exactly," he tells Fashionista, dialing in himself from his office in London. "I'm always so oblivious what's going on in the world of fashion. I keep doing my own thing. I'm so glad that people still buy my things and they get excited, but I never follow anything." 

Of course, success didn't happen overnight. He'd already been in business for nearly 30 years before Carrie Bradshaw — with her Natasha-one-upping, Soho-robbery-arguing, Vogue-closet-swooning, self-celebration-registry-making, Big-closet-proposing Manolo Blahnik obsession — turned him into a household name via "Sex and the City." Instead, the Blahnik brand was built steadily, through a combination of his creative steadfastness and the sharp business acumen of his sister, Evangelina, who served as his managing director until his niece Kristina came on board as CEO in 2013.

"The foresight that my mother had, and has, is that you should grow something very, very slowly and organically, because if you let it grow organically, it has its natural evolution," Kristina Blahnik tells Fashionista. "I've seen over my few years in fashion, but many years on this earth, that if you grow something too quickly, what goes up sometimes must come down; you can't exponentially grow, you have to stabilize."

That's now Kristina Blahnik's task, and as beloved as the Blahnik name is, it certainly can't be an easy one to maintain. Fashion is a notoriously fraught industry, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. Supply chain issues, unpredictable growth in the luxury economy, increased and urgent calls for ecologically sustainable practices, likely permanent changes in the way people work (and therefore, dress) — it's enough to make any CEO's head spin. 

Thankfully, Kristina Blahnik has a blueprint to follow and expand upon. "It's about deepening our foundations, not widening them; it's about creating more beautiful product, and over time, really celebrating the artisan. I want to blow the doors open on that," she says.

A view of the Manolo Blahnik archives.

A view of the Manolo Blahnik archives.

As a part of that artisan-focused movement, Kristina Blahnik spearheaded an ambitious project to bring the brand's archive digital, now live at The Archives website. There, fans can find Mr. Blahnik's sketches of some of his most-beloved shoes, photos with his most fashionable friends, 3-D captures of some of his earliest designs and lots of stories from the last 50 years. It's an ambitious project first undertaken by Kristina, who photographed every shoe herself upon finishing her architecture degree. Over time, that evolved into a proper internal archive; when Covid-19 shut the world down, it created the space Manolo Blahnik needed to turn Kristina's vision of a virtual museum into a reality, just in time to mark the momentous 50th anniversary. 

"There is no point in having something if it's in a dark room collecting dust," she says. "I've delivered a tiny bit of my purpose, which is to have something out there that is accessible to everybody at any time. It'll hopefully evolve and the technologies will evolve with it, so that we can get even closer to the archives. It's built in such a way that we can keep adding to it, and we can keep curating it, and telling more stories."

Of course, the brand can't reflect on the past without also thinking about the future. There's a dilemma most designers face: how to keep existing clients happy while attracting new, more trend-focused consumers. Manolo Blahnik certainly operates like any modern company, bringing in metrics, but Kristina Blahnik says that they are merely "fuel, not drivers." 

"Our drivers are everything that isn't commercial; it's about beauty, comfort, modesty, values, community, family," she says. "I truly believe if you are uncompromising on those, then people will sense that. They'll feel it, and they will engage with it, create a loyalty to it, because it is as sincere as it could be. We're not doing something because we want to gain, we're doing it because we truly want to make them smile."

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With the help of Kristina running the business end, the task of making people smile still falls exclusively to Mr. Blahnik and his design team, one he is happy to lead for as long as he still feels passionate about it. (Luckily for Manolo Blahnik fans, he still very much does.)

"Keeping my vision is very important for me in the future: Keeping what I do the same way, but, of course, changing, because that's in the nature of fashion, change. But I want to change only where I want to change," he says. "My future is thinking about today. This is what I think about all the time. If I could keep my vision intact in the future and able to create, that would be a wonderful future for me."

Manolo Blahnik has carved out one of the most valuable attributes any fashion label could hope to possess: a set of easily-identifiable brand codes. No matter how trends change when it comes to heel heights, or toe shape, or embellishment, his shoes are always classic at the core. Mr. Blahnik likes lightness, which is why he has skipped out on the sneaker trend that has overtaken the industry in the past few years ("I'm fed up of this look now," he says, "I'm really tired.") and will be sitting out the latest return of the platform ("hideous" and "awful shoes").

"I think I have longevity because my shoes don't have time, really; it's pretentious of me to think about that," he says. "But I see women coming along with shoes that I remember doing in the beginning of the '80s; I say, 'My God, do you still have that? How wonderful they look.' I think it's very nice that you [still have them], and I haven't seen it for years. Things like that are fun."

Inside the new Manolo Blahnik Madison Avenue store.

Inside the new Manolo Blahnik Madison Avenue store.

Those customer stories are what have made the brand what it is today, the clients at the heart of Manolo Blahnik. Kristina Blahnik speaks of her first visit to the newly-opened Madison Avenue store, where she got to ask customers about their connections to the shoes. Whether it's a regular who picked up another pair for a party or a newbie who saved up for their very first pair to wear to their wedding ("I love it when we get wedding shoe photographs," Kristina says, "They're always one of the photo requirements for the photographer: Get pictures of the shoes."), it's a label that seems to evoke an emotional response in many. 

"Whoever has a Manolo has a story," she explains. "They will look at that shoe and they will go, 'That happened then, then, then, and then, or these I went dancing in and so, and so.' There's always something that a Manolo shoe has to tell. Our stories aren't just us telling stories, it's also about hearing the stories back; it becomes a circular joy."

The newest Manolo Blahnik collection is centered around that circular joy. Celebrating the 50th anniversary, the brand released a limited capsule of special and classic styles in gold (the precious metal being the traditional gift on a 50th anniversary). They include the insanely popular Hangisi pump and Maysale, as well as fringed boots and heeled sandals which feature 24-karat-gold-plated bells, a tribute to Blahnik's mother. "My grandmother used to wear a bracelet with bells on it, and you'd hear her wherever she is," Kristina explains. "Each one was a member of her direct family, so it was constantly reminding her of her family."

There's been much to celebrate over the past 50 years: commercial success, yes, and keeping a business running for so long ("Surviving is the greatest achievement; not everybody makes it that far," Mr. Blahnik says), but also other landmarks, like a 2017 exhibition at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, which Mr. Blahnik cites as a personal highlight (and which also traveled to Milan, Prague, Madrid and Toronto). "I put in the shoes that I really wanted, the shoes that are meaningful to be me, not the commercial ones," he explains of the exhibition. 

Most meaningful to Mr. Blahnik, however, is a slightly less tangible achievement. Whether its helping to fund scholarships for Central Saint Martins students or guest-lecturing in design courses, he has, at different points in his career, always tried to find a way to give back. His most enduring legacy may just be in inspiring the next generation of footwear designers.

"This is what I love. I have a lot of people, they write to me and say, 'I'm going to do shoes and accessories because of you. You started so much,'" he says. "That is very satisfying for me."

Stoking not only a passion for design, but for a sincerity-led vision: What better way could one find success than that?

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