Colourful, intimate look at Manolo Blahnik in new film

Fashion writer Michael Roberts (right) directs a documentary on his friend, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik.
Fashion writer Michael Roberts (right) directs a documentary on his friend, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • It began 46 years ago.

British fashion writer and artist Michael Roberts recalled that he was on his way to Feathers, a boutique in London run by trail-blazing retailer Joan Burstein, when "this mad person came rushing out, across the road, in the traffic".

"Me," said luxury shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, the owner of the Georgian townhouse in Marylebone, where the two men were gathered having tea. "I did that to everybody when I wanted to know them."

He succeeded and, this week, the culmination of that friendship, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes For Lizards, a documentary directed by Roberts, will have its premiere.

The movie is a colourful collage of hilarious archival footage, poetic docudrama shorts, intimate moments with Blahnik and surprisingly touching interviews with fashion power players such as Vogue editor Anna Wintour, photographer David Bailey and designer John Galliano.

What it does not show, however, is the vibe between the two men, cultivated over more than four decades and the uncredited character at the heart of the film. At this stage, they riff off each other like fashion's version of Bogart and Bacall, alternately needling, praising and encouraging each other.

Back to that first meeting.

Blahnik, 74, who grew up in the Canary Islands, had just arrived in London after studying politics and law at the University of Geneva, and art and set design in Paris. He took a job at Feathers as a sales assistant to secure his immigration papers.

"I was in charge of New Man jeans," he said, nattily attired in a bespoke vanilla linen suit, sky blue and white striped knit tie and saddle shoes. "They had jeans in the most beautiful acid green denim. I bought them."

Roberts, 69, who was dressed in a faded navy raincoat, blue plaid Gap pyjama pants and saddle shoes, said: "And I bought them in orange."

Later, they teamed up for a fashion collaboration in the 1980s.

When Blahnik started making shoes (the idea came from Ms Diana Vreeland, then the head of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute), fashion editor Grace Coddington became a fan and, he said, she put him in British Vogue "all the time, with pictures by Norman Parkinson and the model Apollonia".

By the 1990s, Blahnik had become a household name in the United States, thanks to the television show Sex And The City, whose Carrie Bradshaw character (Sarah Jessica Parker) wore "Manolos" religiously.

Roberts, at the time, was the first fashion director of The New Yorker.

After leaving The New Yorker in 2006, he made, among many other projects, a series of short films for and about Blahnik.

The first, Jealousy, was a stormy tango-themed love story inspired by one of Blahnik's shoe collections, starring their long-time friends - photographer Lucy Birley and actor Rupert Everett - and shown on YouTube.

Later, Roberts produced several Super 8-style, black-and-white movies about his friend's childhood in the Canary Islands, with a boy in a crisp white shirt, dark knit vest and lederhosen scampering around a formal garden, playing with lizards and fashioning shoes for them out of the foil wrappers of Cadbury chocolate bars.

So pleased with how they turned out, Roberts thought: "Why don't we do a film of Manolo's life?" He proposed the idea and Blahnik agreed.

Initially, the movie's production went seamlessly. Roberts filmed Blahnik's shoes as still life in flower beds and on swathes of silk.

He interviewed famous customers and friends, including singer Rihanna and fashion designer Paloma Picasso.

To illustrate Blahnik's inspirations, he dressed up Birley and Chanel creative consultant Amanda Harlech as Victorian chatelaines and captured them strolling across the fields of a British estate.

Then, Roberts recalled, it came time to sit down with the star and Manolo said: 'I don't want to be in it.'

"All the people on the film were desperate to get him involved. He was like this myth and they wanted to see him, to know what he's about."

Blahnik said: "I changed my mind when you saw the little boy playing with the lizards. You said, 'Oh my god, it's so like how it was.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2017, with the headline 'Colourful, intimate look at Manolo Blahnik in new film'. Print Edition | Subscribe