Manolo Blahnik: The Master and his Muses

by Pearlyn Quan

An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection in London will be collaborating with shoe master Manolo Blahnik to showcase 150 of his most opulent designs, together with some of his greatest art inspirations from the museum, from June to September 2019.

As a young man, Manolo Blahnik first came to London in the swinging ’70s and got his first big break designing footwear for iconic British designers Ossie Clark, Jean Muir and Zandra Rhodes.

He has since gone on to establish himself as a giant of contemporary design and shoemaker to the stars, his trademark sleek stiletto and beautifully feminine curves inspiring devotion in the late Princess Diana, Rihanna, Carrie Bradshaw, and Victoria Beckham, to name a few. Madonna once famously declared Blahnik’s shoes to be “as good as sex” – compliments don’t come much better than that.

His enduring love affair with Great Britain has seen him make his home in the UK for the past 40 odd years, where he lives in the historic city of Bath in a grand 200-year-old John Eveleigh townhouse (which Blahnik calls the “shoe mausoleum”).

As a young designer living in London, he would draw endless inspiration from the magnificent historic art museums in the capital, with the Wallace Collection being one of his favourites.

The Wallace Collection has been a point of reference for me since my early days in London,” says Blahnik. “It was – and remains – one of my favourite museums with the most refined selection of art.

The Wallace Collection

Housing one of the finest collections of 18th century French decorative arts in London, the Wallace Collection is a veritable jewel box comprising 30 galleries of antique furniture, arms and armour, porcelain and Old Master paintings.

Originally a private collection amassed over four generations in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Marquesses of Hertford, and subsequently an heir Sir Richard Wallace, this stunning collection was eventually bequeathed to the nation in 1987, and remains free to the public.

Set in a splendid townhouse in Manchester Square in London, the works of such masters as Rembrandt, Fragonard and Velazquez adorn the silk-covered walls and repose harmoniously amongst precious historic artefacts from all around the world, like the 18th century pearl-studded imperial wine cups from China and a magnificent gold trophy head originally from Asante (Ghana).

The experience of walking through the Wallace Collection is much like visiting an exquisite private home – to this day, Blahnik continues to return to the museum to wander the grand rooms and immerse himself in its beauty on a regular basis, as his headquarters are situated but a few minutes’ walk away in Marylebone.

Creating a dialogue between the old and the new

For the exhibition, Blahnik’s specially chosen designs from his archive will be displayed in various rooms all around the museum, with the intention of creating an aesthetic dialogue with the existing pieces and themes.

In the Oval Drawing Room, Blahnik’s candy coloured Rococo-esque confection of ribbons and feathers (designed for Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette) will share a room with Fragonard’s iconic painting The Swing, which depicts a young lady on a swing tantalisingly poised between her husband and her young lover, with one slipper teasingly flying off her foot amidst layers of crinkled silk and luscious lighting.

Yet another pair of Blahnik’s carefully handworked jewel-encrusted shoes will sit in the museum’s Boudoir Cabinet, basking in the tempered sheen of immaculate lacquered and enamelled gold snuff boxes and exquisite 17th-century painted miniatures in watercolour and enamel.

An aesthetic collaboration

Dr Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection, who worked hand-in-hand with Blahnik to co-curate the exhibition, says the show is an attempt to reenact conversations that both men had after they first toured the collection together.

This is an incredibly exciting opportunity to showcase the way in which the Wallace Collection has inspired one of the world’s greatest fashion minds,” says Bray, who reports that he was the one following Blahnik around the museum instead of the other way round.

It also enables our audiences to see the collection in a new light and make connections between the many artistic disciplines to be found in the museum.

Visitors are taken on a journey through Blahnik’s imagination, spanning the theatre and spectacle of the Commedia dell’arte, the fashions inspired by Blahnik’s native Spain, 18th-century Rococo style, and his own personal interpretation of Englishness.

A life less ordinary

Born in the Canary Islands to a Spanish mother and a Czech father, Blahnik grew up amidst the lush greenery and volcanic lava fields of La Palma, and famously created tiny little shoes from candy wrappers for the inhabitant lizards of the gardens of his family home.

Never seen without his immaculately tailored suits, silk pocket squares and vintage cufflinks, Blahnik’s personal sense of style belongs to a different time, to an era of old world elegance and refinement. His dedication to the cult of beauty is almost as unshakeable as his dedication to his craft, which he honed by training in some of the best Italian shoe factories.

His devotion to his work is near fanatical; Blahnik reportedly only sleeps four hours a day, and the rest of the time is immersed in shoe design and everything that comes with it. His creative process starts with his distinctly beautiful sketches; Blahnik draws every shoe himself, and in many cases painstakingly stretches out the leather, glues on the soles and whittles down the wooden heels. When the time comes for reproduction, Blahnik is reportedly right there keeping a beady eye on every step of the process.

Says Bray of Blahnik, “Manolo is an artist; he draws first, he thinks, and there is a process.

Blahnik’s artistry and the refinement and quality of the Wallace Collection is an aesthetic match made in heaven – visitors to this exhibition will be in for a true feast for the eyes. Alongside the exhibition, a series of panel talks will further explore the themes which permeate Manolo Blahnik’s designs and the works contained within the Wallace Collection.

An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection will run from 10 June – 1 September 2019 at the Wallace Collection in London, free entry.

Editor’s note: The An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection exhibition has been extended to 27 October 2019.


Related link:

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