Blahník empathizes with Marie Antoinette. “When I was a little boy, my mother used to read to me and my sister pages of Marie Antoinette’s biography. I was very much aware of the unjust way that woman was treated by the lovely French people,” says the Spanish designer, the reigning king of sexy shoes. “I for one, I find her so inspiring. She died so badly, to pay for her sins. Yes she spent money that she shouldn’t, but she was young and bored.”
Spending money they shouldn’t describes many of Blahník’s customers, though “should” and “shouldn’t” is up for debate. It was Madonna, after all, who described his footwear as “better than sex.”
I’m going to have this inscribed on my tombstone,” he says of the famous quote. But any woman who’s slipped on one of his slender stilettos and witnessed the magic it wreaks with her leg – cankles, be gone! – knows that it is absolutely true. So when Sofia Coppola needed a designer to recreate the period’s decadent shoes that were handed to the spoiled queen (Kirsten Dunst) on a posh pillow, she called on Blahník. Her film, “Marie Antoinette” is partly based on an Antonia Fraser biography of the queen that takes a particularly sympathetic tack, much like Manolo’s, on the subject. Movie buff Blahník started his homework by studying original 18th-century shoes in Paris. The Victoria and Albert museum in London gave him footwear that belonged to the French queen. “So I did some kind of a cross between academic and a little bit of fantasy,” he says. But then, his shoes – especially the film’s, a collection of candy-colored heels embellished with ribbon and buttons and beads – are a fantasy. “Indeed, that is the only thing I want to offer to people,” he says. “Of course, I’m like everybody else; I have to do black and brown shoes and a little bit of Mary Janes and satin, but my nature is kind of theatrical, simple and dramatic.”
Born in the Canary Islands, Blahník, now 73, studied literature before turning his attention to fashion. Today, he still handcrafts hundreds of shoes every year, starting with a careful sketch (“I drive everybody mad with my constant sketching,” he says), then following the process through, stitch by stitch. He didn’t even get the chance to bask in the glamour of moviemaking. Instead of on-set visits to “Antoinette” with Coppola, Dunst and Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero, Blahník was hard at work back home. “My assistant was going to Paris, to try the things, but I’m a factory boy. I work in the factory. But yes, it was an incredibly tight collaboration between everybody in the film.”
Though he’s the most recognizable name in shoes, he was shocked at the play his confections received in the film. “I didn’t expect it,” he said. “I thought, under those big dresses you would see a glimpse, but the camera lingers for a moment on the shoes, and the ladies of the court are looking at the shoes, and it’s quite extraordinary how they captured it. I’m very, very pleased actually; it was a challenge for me, but I was very surprised.”
The fancy footwear’s gotten such a great reaction, he’s even been approached to make more Hollywood hoofs. “I have many other offers from this movie,” he says. “But I’m doing shoes for the time being.”
And in between the sketching and sewing, he’s traveling the country, signing thousands of shoes for hours and hours during personal appearances at Neiman Marcus stores. But after more than four decades, Blahník never tires of his chosen craft. “Sometimes I do these nonsense shoes, and sometimes I do incredible things that I like even now, after many years. If I do this job, it’s because I have a passion for legs, women’s legs, and that is why I still do it. Every day I just think about something and I go back to the drawing board.”
Manolo Blahník and Sophia Coppola in Conversation
Manolo Blahník: You may not know this, but I have been obsessed with Marie Antoinette ever since I was a child. My mother, also a fan, used to read Stefan Zweig’s biography to me and my sister at bedtime, over and over again, though she always stopped with the storming of the Bastille. What attracted you to the story? Was it Lady Antonia Fraser’s book?
Sofia Coppola: Oh, I always loved the idea of her and that period and the decadence and isolation from reality… and I loved Antonia’s book because she looked at her story from her point of view and was sympathetic in understanding what it must have been like for her. I think it’s easy to make her stupid, or a villain, and I liked taking her side. I was living in Los Angeles when I was working on the script and saw a lot of women, bored trophy wives, buying shoes to cheer themselves up. And I could imagine what it must have been like for her.
Manolo Blahník: I adore how you made it modern and relevant to today. It was very clever of you not to make another costume drama.
Sofia Coppola: Oh, thank you. I was really trying to do the opposite of Masterpiece Theatre, and not worry about being perfectly accurate, but more to capture the feeling of what it was like and make the audience feel like they are with them, not looking back at some other time. I wanted the dresses to feel new and lavish, not off a dusty shelf in a museum. And I thought that if she was alive, she would ask you to make her shoes.
Manolo Blahník: Thank you. I’m flattered! And how wonderful that you had access to Versailles, and to be able to shoot where events actually happened.
Sofia Coppola: Yes, it was a privilege to be able to shoot there, and it made it all so much better for us, even on an emotional level.
Manolo Blahník: Your film was actually a kind of culmination of my love for Marie Antoinette. I had pictured it in my head ever since I was young, and there it was on-screen, captured so beautifully, with so much attention to the tiniest detail. Every frame is picture-perfect. How important was it for you to tell the story aesthetically?
Sofia Coppola: Oh, I loved getting into the beauty of her world, which seems to make up so much of their day-to-day life —the rituals and decorating themselves and their spaces. I loved that they changed the curtains with the seasons.
Manolo Blahník: Your casting was genial! Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa of Austria; Judy Davis, marvelous as the Comtesse de Noailles; Rip Torn as Louis XV; your cousin Jason Schwartzman; and all those wonderful girls – Natasha Fraser Cavassoni, Victoire de Castellane, Camille Miceli in small cameos.
Sofia Coppola: Thanks, that was really fun to see them in that world and imagine them as real people. I love casting and worked with Fred Roos on this. I loved Judy Davis from Woody Allen’s film Husbands and Wives. I was happy to have Marianne! It was fun to do it in a little bit of a pop way, but I always tried to make them real.
Manolo Blahník: I was beyond excited when I received the call from Milena Canonero – whom I consider to be one of the most important costume designers in film history – asking me to make the shoes for the film. Tell me about working with her.
Sofia Coppola: She’s incredible. I have so much admiration for her and how she works; her attention to detail is so impressive. She cares about a hem that’s miles away and really is involved in every detail and the hair and makeup.
Manolo Blahník: During one of the conversations I had with her, she said to me, “Don’t be academic. Think of Marie Antoinette as a modern woman.”
Sofia Coppola: Oh, that’s great. Milena’s so cool; she really got what I wanted to do and helped create her world. And even though her work is exquisite, she’s not precious about it. I always loved Marisa Berenson in that fur hood in Barry Lyndon that Milena did.
Manolo Blahník: I adore Marisa in Barry Lyndon. In fact, I adore everything about that film. It’s so chic! Did you watch any other Marie Antoinette’s in your research? I’m mad for Norma Shearer in W. S. Van Dyke’s 1938 version. It’s unbelievably outrageous, with those costumes by Adrian, Tyrone Power as Fersen, and the most wonderful chandeliers, which I later saw at Debbie Reynolds’s museum in Las Vegas. And Michèle Morgan in Jean Delannoy’s film . Kirsten Dunst was perfect casting, though; she was exquisite.
Sofia Coppola: Oh, yes, I love the Hollywood version! I wanted to make something as over the top, but that felt real, and show her as a young girl.
Manolo Blahník: I always find the scene when the young Antoinette is handed over to the French on the island near Kehl incredibly poignant. The poor girl, stripped of everything Austrian, to be replaced by French clothing, and to suddenly find herself having to adhere to the rigors of court etiquette. You captured that so beautifully.
Sofia Coppola: Oh, thanks. I couldn’t believe they really did that – took her dog and her underwear. I loved what Antonia wrote about those important details; they said so much to me about her situation.
Watch the full movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoYozK0WasY
Manolo Blahník: Fleeting Gestures and Obsessions
The first comprehensive and lavishly illustrated volume to document the influences and life work of Manolo Blahník, one of the most influential and talked-about icons in contemporary fashion. Featuring more than forty years of shoe design, this is the definitive monograph of the work of Manolo Blahník, one of the titans of contemporary fashion.
This book is a comprehensive survey of Blahník’s work and provides access to never-before-seen photography of designs. Drawing inspiration from the worlds of architecture, art, film, and literature, Blahnik is a master of the art of the shoe. His exciting use of color, unprecedented designs, and exquisitely sculpted heels make his shoes some of the most coveted in the world. Featuring more than 250 iconic designs from his archive, the book reveals for the very first time the inspirations behind his singular artistic vision.
With insightful chapters devoted to Blahník’s most powerful relationships and inspirations—including Marie Antoinette, Diana Vreeland, Cecil Beaton, Spanish and Italian film, the works of Goya and Velázquez and the Prado Museum—this book is a personal look into the man behind the shoes. Beautiful photography and thoughtful essays by fashion writers, curators, and colleagues give readers a unique opportunity to access Blahník’s vivid and creative-filled world..