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Golden Arches

A snazzy coffee table book on shoe designer Manolo Blahnik is only fitting. To his adoring devotees, his creations are more than footwear--they're works of art.

September 27, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

The delicate, sinuous and sleek shoes of Manolo Blahnik live somewhere between sex and sculpture. So intense is the adoration and loyalty of his fans that when he makes his single annual personal appearance in the United States, usually at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, the crowds gather like pilgrims at the Shrine of the Stiletto.

For three intense hours last Friday, Blahnik alighted on the hallowed ground of the shoe salon where he is duly worshiped. Hours before he arrived, shoppers began circling the shelves containing his $700 lizard pumps, $975 crocodile sandals and $815 parrot feather slingbacks. Many bought multiple pairs and signed up for special orders that would be delivered in three to six months.

With his perfectly gelled white hair, the tall, slim man personified "debonair" as he whirled through the crowd, signing both shoe soles and a new biography with his artist's, sketchy pen strokes. The book, "Manolo Blahnik" (HarperCollins) by Colin McDowell, explores the theatricality of Blahnik and his craft. McDowell's description of the seemingly scattered designer as "butterfly brained" isn't a stinging criticism. It'shilariously accurate.

With his jacket draped on his shoulders like a cape--or butterfly wings--Blahnik fluttered from person to person. He momentarily perched next to a book buyer, who lamented, "Ilove your shoes, but they are too expensive for me!"

"Oh," trilled Blahnik, "but we have a sale once a year!"

In seconds, he was on to a lanky, well-dressed young man who thrust a compact disc player at the designer. Angel, who fronts a group called Angel and the Mambo Katz, has written a 5.44-minute song titled "Manolo Blahnik."

"It's really great," Blahnik said, as he cha-cha'd to the music. "This song is so divine!"

"It's about a girl who's wearing Manolos and she drops her shoe box and I pick them up," said Angel. "Then I'm chasing her."

It's that old Hollywood story: Girl Wears Manolos. Boy Goes Crazy. Girl Buys More Manolos.

Minutes later, David Lena handed Blahnik a demonstration reel of commercials by his production company, Metro Pictures, that includes a Manolo spot he shot on speculation.

Blahnik gushed a thank-you and attended to another very loyal customer, Mary Harvey, who was standing in the fall collection's most-desired item: knee-high crocodile boots that hug the calf, point the toe and lift the leg onto a pedestal of sex appeal. It's clear this is no mere try-on: Shoe and woman have bonded. Harvey isn't at all deterred by the $12,900 price tag.

"It's not hard. It's a fabulous, gorgeous boot. I've got a bag at home waiting for this boot," said Harvey, who is married to the comedian Steve Harvey. "I love Manolos. They're not like shoes. They're never boring," said Harvey, who has worn Manolos for nearly six years.

Blahnik introduced himself to all of his best customers, who by day's end would bring the sales tally well into the six figures. The cult of Manolo is not just about boosting sales and hitting projections, however. It's as much about art appreciation.

"I'm told we have a client who buys a pair each season to put on her coffee table," said Neiman store manager John Martens.

Blahnik clearly enjoyed the attention and the personal contact with his fans.

"The energy is such a creative force that drives him for months afterward," said George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik USA. "They come out for him like for a movie premier. It's a great compliment to us, especially in L.A., where there are so many celebrities around."

And what must it feel like to be a cultural icon?

"I haven't thought about it, but it's kind of fun," replied Blahnik in his Spanish-accented singsong. "I'm going to be 58. My body is what it is, but my mind is 22, maybe." Then, the peripatetic designer paused to think a minute.

"This is what I do," Blahnik said. "It's like a reward. But this adulation, being on top, it could trigger . . . insecurity, pressure. I have to do a better collection next year."

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