July 1991
Susan Smith
Portrait by Mary Ellen Mark


They sold out in a day," said the sales assistant in the shoe department at Barneys New York. "White patent leather mules that cost $385. Can you imagine?" But then their creator, Manolo Blahnik, has a way of making the improbable absolutely covetable. This particular spring shoe‑a delicate slipper with a pilgrim buckle, which came in a range of snapdragon colors‑was a phenomenal success. A hundred pairs walked out of Neiman Marcus, Beverly Hills, in twenty minutes (that's $38,500!). In New York City, a distraught woman called the Manolo Blahnik store in tears because she hadn't been able to find a pair in her size. "Of course, it's very gratifying," says George Malkemus, Blahnik's New York partner, "but I hope most people don't feel the need to react like this."

But one thing Manolo Blahnik shoes can be guaranteed to produce is a strong reaction. One client has more than 200 pairs labeled, catalogued and wrapped in virgin tissue. Another calls them "dear friends." "Everyone, everyone wears them," says Malkemus. For "everyone" read the well‑dressed and the well‑to‑do: Paloma Picasso, Madonna, Princess Caroline and Carolyne Roehm among them. "But I don't have a particular woman in mind when I work ‑more an attitude," says Blahnik. "I design for confident women who know what they want. I love women who are doers."

His shoes, however, are not necessarily the kind you do a lot in. They're aristocratic shoes; made in fine calfskin, soft, napa, grosgrain or taffeta; and decorated with beads, pearls, feathers or crystal. "Ideas come to me constantly," says Blahnik. "I have to edit them all the time. It's as much a torment as a gift." Sources for inspiration are found in a multidimensional background: a Czech father, a Spanish mother, a childhood in Santa Cruz and college in Geneva and Paris. For the last thirteen years Blahnik has lived between London and Bath and immersed himself in the history of English dress. In fact, you can as easily imagine his shoes peeping forth from a gown of duchesse satin in a Gainsborough portrait as decorating a short modern sheath. "People need whimsical accessories to make their boring little black dress stand out," Blahnik says. But his shoes are more than heavenly looking, they are exceptionally well made: "It's the balance between technical perfection and look that's so important," he says. "When women slip into my shoes they know they have something spe­cial on their feet."