For reasons I can’t quite explain, I have an affection for films about the fashion industry, whether they’re about specific designers or tastemakers who run magazines, take photos, or otherwise influence trends. I know nothing about fashion, so maybe it’s easier for me to see the creation of “a look” as the intersection of taste and art. But I don’t think it takes a fashion expert to recognize the artistry and hands-on craftsmanship of Manolo Blahnik, widely recognized as the world’s greatest design of fine footwear. Whether his works are seen on runways around the world or on an episode of “Sex and the City” getting stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker by a savvy thief, Blahnik’s shoes are said to be the perfect mix of style and comfort.
My favorite scenes in the documentary Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, by fashion writer Michael Roberts, are when we see Blahnik do his work, sitting down at his table and drawing freehand a new design. First he fine-tunes the shape, then he adds decorations and color. He claims to never have had any kind of artist’s block when creating new pieces, which is why he’s a fountain of creativity that employs no team to help with designs (he actually rants against designers who use a team approach to their lines). Late in the film, we follow Blahnik to his factory where he again finalizes the detail in a shoe’s wooden form, crafting the heel of a shoe by hand with sanders and other tools, before handing the final template over for manufacturing. Every step of the process falls under his eye, and it’s no wonder that far too much of Manolo is a parade of famous faces talking about what a genius he is.
The biography portions of the film are almost superfluous. He grew up privileged in the Spanish Canary Islands, where his only connection to shoemaking was making tiny shoes for lizards out of candy wrappers. At some point, he simply figured out that he was talented in designing women’s shoes, and before long, he opened his first store in London in 1973, after which his trajectory went nowhere but up.
While it’s always fun to look at and hear from the likes of Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, Karlie Kloss, Isaac Mizrahi, Iman and Rupert Everett (among others), perhaps the most informative in terms of giving us some insight into Blahnik’s gifts are Vogue magazine’s former American editor-at-large Andre Leon Tally and the publication’s current editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Wintour has a true gift for describing what separates Manolo from the all others and how he has maintained his favored-nation status for decades among designers and celebrities alike.
I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with all of my newfound knowledge, but it’s easy for me to appreciate a self-proclaimed cobbler at the top of his game. And Blahnik is such a spirited, cartoon-like character that he makes the film all the more entertaining just by bursting into one of his high-pitched giggles. He’s an odd and gifted man, and the film matches him in many ways. It won’t change your world but it may open your eyes and broaden your definition of art.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.