How Manolo Blahnik Created the Most Coveted Shoes in the World

From his humble beginnings fashioning shoes from foil, Manolo Blahnik and his shoe creations have gone on to carve out a place in pop culture history. As the iconic brand makes its way to Australia, joining David Jones’ international stable this spring, we look back at 50 fabulous years and talk to current CEO Kristina Blahnik about her plans for the next half-century.

By Elle McClure

Manolo Blahnik has carved out a place in pop culture history. Photograph by Zac Frackelton

It’s no surprise that a brand that has become synonymous with style has a colourful past to hang its heels on – and though the success of Manolo Blahnik and his shoe empire is firmly planted in reality, the footwear designer’s legacy wouldn’t be what it is without a good dose of far-fetched imagination. In what has become a legendary origin story, Blahnik spent his childhood catching lizards at his home in the Canary Islands and creating shoes for them with the foil of Cadbury chocolate wrappers.

In his early twenties, he moved to Paris to study art, falling in with a fashionable social circle that included art heiress Paloma Picasso. In 1969, he moved to London and honed his eye for design as a fashion buyer and journalist for L’Uomo Vogue. A meeting with Vogue’s Diana Vreeland helped cement his penchant for shoes when the legendary editor-in-chief took a liking to his designs and insisted he work on them. He quickly began mastering his craft and soon the brand was born (his first store, opened in 1970 in London’s hip Chelsea district, remains to this day).

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Manolo Blahnik at work on one of his creations. Photo by Michael Roberts

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A sketch by Blahnik of the iconic blue Hangisi pump

While his childhood sense of playfulness and a hands-on approach to design remained, his creations found far more willing subjects than lizards. One of his first customers, friend Bianca Jagger, landed Blahnik firmly in the zeitgeist when the model was captured riding a white horse in Studio 54 while wearing a pair of his creations. His unique blend of function and frivolity only found more favour as the excesses of the ‘80s rolled in. By the time Princess Diana stepped out in his signature pumps – teamed with sheer black stockings and what came to be known as her revenge dress – in 1994, Blahnik was the name in designer shoes.

That potent mix of passion and originality has made the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna, Karlie Kloss, Naomi Campbell and Michelle Obama fans. According to Madonna, Blahnik’s shoes are “as good as sex – and they last longer”. But the woman who made owning a pair of Manolos a fashion rite of passage was, of course, Carrie Bradshaw, the main character in Sex and the City (in one iconic scene, a gun-toting mugger with an eye for labels demands Bradshaw’s Manolos by name – a nod to their status in the early-aughts). Later, they were the go-to for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, with legendary costume designer Milena Canonero commissioning dozens of candy-coloured pairs for Kirsten Dunst to frolic in as the French queen. Blahnik himself made the big screen with a 2017 documentary about his life, fittingly titled Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards.

“Bianca Jagger was captured riding a white horse in Studio 54 wearing a pair of his creations.”

Blahnik has found as much critical favour as he has commercial success. The designer has been awarded several Council of Fashion Designers of America and British Fashion Council awards, and was even recognised with CBE honours from the Queen in recognition of his contribution to British fashion as “one of the most successful and influential designers of our time”.

Known for his sketching talent, which has earned him comparisons to the late Yves Saint Laurent, every shoe developed is still based on Blahnik’s hand drawings. While 77-year-old Manolo still heads the brand as creative director and chairman, niece Kristina Blahnik took the reins as CEO in 2013, now guiding the brand into the future. The company estimates the next-gen Blahnik has increased its annual turnover tenfold, and helped grow its team from just 10 to more than 80 since joining in 2009.

The privately owned company remains as much of a family business as can be, with Kristina having succeeded her own mother Evangelina, who held the position of managing director for over three decades. “A family consists of people who deeply understand each other and have shared values,” says Kristina. “My mother and my uncle are my direct family but I see our whole global team as an extension of that.” It’s an approach she believes has served the brand well during this year. “The trust that a family intrinsically has allows for more dynamic conversations and agility,” she says.

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A sketch by Manolo Blahnik himself, of the beloved (and bejewelled) Lurum shoe
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Blahnik in his studio, photographed by Piers Calvert

“Prior to COVID, Manolo would always visit the factories every season to work on the collections,” says Kristina. “From carving out new lasts [foot forms] to selecting new fabrications; bringing his sketches to life has always been the favourite part of his job.”

The brand recently acquired an atelier in northern Italy, which it has worked with for more than three decades. “It’s allowed us to have a closer relationship with our artisans at every stage of the production process,” says Kristina. “We have folded the two families together.” 

Collaboration is something that has become pertinent for the brand: in 2016 it launched a three-piece collection with Rihanna and another range with cult label Vetements, both of which saw some styles sell out within minutes. 

“From carving out new lasts [foot forms] to selecting new fabrications; bringing his sketches to life has always been the favourite part of his job.”

Kristina Blahnik

The current Blahnik-in-charge says her background as an architect helps inform her work at the helm of the brand. “As an architect, you have to be able to visualise something in such a clear way that you can write it and draw it and see its dimensions. I’ve applied that again and again: what do I want the business to look like in five, 10, 100 years’ time?” 

Along with four women’s collections a year dedicated to its covetable footwear (including enduring favourites Hangisi, BB and Chaos), the brand has extended its range to offer bags and opened its first dedicated men’s store two years ago. Nonetheless, it still favours heritage and pure creativity over trends.

So how does it balance the origins of the brand with a need to push things forward and innovate? “By always looking beyond the here and now [to] the long-term future while staying true to your values: family, creativity and artisanry,” says Kristina. And with that, the brand is taking firm strides into the future.

Discover the Manolo Blahnik collection now available at David Jones. More styles coming soon to Level 7 of our Elizabeth Street flagship, and online.


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