Life’s Work / Manolo Blahnik


Life’s Work: Manolo Blahnik

by Alison Beard 
The Magazin, December 2010

Manolo Blahnik is one of the world’s most successful shoe designers. Raised by his Spanish mother and Czech father on a banana plantation in the Canary Islands, he studied law, languages, and art in Geneva and Paris before opening his London boutique in 1973. His eponymous company now has shops or department store concessions in 20 countries, yet Blahnik has retained full control of the business and still designs every shoe—even hand-carving the wooden form around which it’s crafted—himself.

For all of HBR’s 2010 Life’s Work interviews, check out this slideshow.

How did you become a shoe designer?

It was a long, long road. My father thought I should do international law, so I did it at university for the first semester, but I wasn’t into it. So I asked if I could do literature, but I didn’t enjoy that either. So then I asked permission to go to art school and found my way. I wanted to do something creative, something with my hands and with my head. I was in Paris for many years, and every day was a party, but the French mentality was not for me. I moved to England, and the people doing exciting visual things there interested me tremendously. Ossie Clark was the one who said “Do the shoes for my show” in 1972. But if I’m doing shoes today, it’s because I came to America and showed my drawings to Diana Vreeland, who was editor of Vogue at the time. That’s when I started to do shoes for real. I was hooked.

Why shoes?

Because they have a life for themselves: You have them on the floor; you look at them as objects. A dress, you have to wear it. I also love the way you can see people walking in shoes, how they decorate feet. They bring a refreshment to people’s lives. They’re entertainment for women—or their husbands.

Were you immediately successful?

I didn’t have a clue. It took me about 10 years to learn the craft—not in school, in the factories. But I was very lucky to have incredible women around me who were mad about what I was doing—Bianca Jagger, Paloma Picasso, Marisa Berenson, so many. And what I was doing was totally different from the horrible platforms of the time. I was a classicist, inspired by the 19th century. The shoes looked different. I guess that was the trick of it.

Have you always had an artistic sensibility?

I guess I was born with it. My mother was an incredibly artistic woman. She painted, she carved. In the islands during the war we didn’t have any materials, so she persuaded a local shoemaker to teach her how to do things herself, quite beautifully.

How do you come up with new designs year after year?

It’s not that difficult; it just kind of comes. I have to edit myself sometimes, because I’ve got millions of fantasies. When I’m doing a collection, I might create some type of woman in my head, unconsciously. For example, at the beginning of the new century I was very much thinking about Creole life in the United States. I went to Savannah, I went to Charleston, all these places, because I had this curiosity about the music, the strata of society, how those people wear things, the workers. So I did shoes thinking that way.

Are you a perfectionist?

I am. I like to finish the product beautifully, with the best materials, the perfect balance in a heel, and do the best I can. Every day I’m critical. I say, “No, this is not good enough. Boom. Out.” I kill it.

How do you balance art and commerce?

I’ve never been a great strategist thinking about what sells or doesn’t sell. I do fashion, yes, but I think it’s obscene to change drastically from one season to the next. Of course, I’m aware of the climate now. And maybe the shoes are expensive for some people. But they are made by hand with really beautiful materials, so you cannot produce them for $150—no, impossible. But they last; you’re not going to buy them now and throw them away in a few months.

Would you ever partner with a low-cost retailer to create a less-expensive range?

If somebody asked me, yes. Why not? If you can afford the same silhouette and instead of using the most beautiful chiffon, you can do it in wonderful linen, that is great. I adore that idea.

Why have you stayed independent?

I don’t like large companies, where they have these endless meetings to do one little detail. I can’t deal with these things; I’m too old for it now. We’re a family-owned company—my sister, my niece, a few people more. We’re successful but we’re not big. And that’s easier for me, because if I have a moment of panic or rage, I just say I’m sorry, and it’s okay. It’s very difficult to be independent at the moment, but that’s why we have to work harder to convey an image of shoes that people desire. I design all the shoes myself, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise. I don’t want to be influenced. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not, but it’s my product, my idea, and I follow it to the end.

Including overseeing work in the factory.

Yes, that’s my relaxation. Sometimes I’ve been there all day, and I say, “My God, I don’t believe it’s so late. I have to sleep.” Time goes quickly simply because I’m enjoying every second. I’m very lucky to do what I love and, on top of that, have a little success. You become accomplished if you do what you do with passion. I never thought about money or success. I just wanted to make pretty things and make people happy. It’s not work.

What else are you passionate about?

I’m mad about movies. I was so excited the other day when I heard that in New Zealand they found 75 silent movies—the first John Ford, the first Gary Cooper, these great masterpieces that have been lost—and they’re going to restore them. I’m a frustrated film historian maybe. It’s because of my cinema knowledge that I understand an incredible amount about countries and people and times. So I’ll be looking to those movies to understand the beginning of the century, from 1906 to 1920-something. I’m also mad for 19th century literature. I stop with Henry James. I’m enjoying rereading L’Education sentimentale, by Flaubert. You should get it immediately. It’s the life of a young man from the provinces who wants to make it in Paris. It’s so modern; it’s still happening now, because it’s human. It’s so beautifully written, and you get the period, the materials that people are wearing, the dresses, the china they’re eating on, the table. There’s nothing like 19th century things—American, French, Russian, anywhere. I don’t sleep very much, so between books and DVDs, I pass my non-sleepy time.

How do you react when you see your work copied?

I’m so used to it now. I say, “Oh, this is like my 1977 or 1987 shoe”—but I just don’t care any longer. It bothers me, some huge Chinese companies doing shoes when we have copyright, but what can you do?

How do you respond to cultural differences in taste?

When I do a collection in Russia, for instance, they say to me, “Can you do five shoes especially for us?” So I buy sable, because in Russia it’s not a luxury, and I play with the heritage, maybe Catherine the Great, and do a fur lining. In America I play with what Americans are good at—sports—so maybe you have high heels with a sport motif. You always have to think about what country you work in and what women there would love.

What more do you need to learn?

A lot still, especially in life. I’ve become more intolerant. When people don’t understand things and I have to explain again and again, I get really frustrated. I need to have more patience. And I wish I could just concentrate on one thing. My mind goes tangentially from this to that, that, and that, and sometimes that can be very tiring for me and for the people who listen to me.

Do you ever see yourself retiring?

No, I don’t even want to think about it. I’m trying to introduce my niece, who is an architect, into the company much more than before. But me retiring? Never. The only relaxation I have is doing these things. I was blessed by that—maybe punished. But no, no, no. I really enjoy what I’m doing.

Could the company exist without you?

I would like to think so, but I don’t know. It’s so personal. Possibly.

What’s the best shoe for a female executive to own?

Something she can wear all day long. Americans call it a pump. In lizard or crocodile, because it will last for many, many moons.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review.