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The star? Mr. Stiletto

September 28, 2008|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

MANOLO BLAHNIK became a household name when "Sex and the City" made his sexy stilettos practically a member of the cast. But before Carrie Bradshaw started giving him shout-outs, the shoe guru was already a star to the well-heeled women who wear and collect his designs -- a list that includes Madonna, Bianca Jagger and Diane von Furstenberg.

Blahnik's shoes are a perennial on Hollywood red carpets -- as common as Spanx and cleavage tape. And last week, Hollywood thanked the designer for his contributions to the entertainment and fashion industries by awarding him the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award. Past recipients of the annual award, which is given by the city of Beverly Hills and the Rodeo Drive Committee, have included Tom Ford and Salvatore Ferragamo.

Known for his whimsical, color-drenched takes on the classic stiletto (priced from $525 to $2,685), Blahnik sparked the current craze for designer shoes with artisan pedigrees -- paving the road to success for posh footwear brands, including Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo. In L.A., Blahnik devotees shop at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, which showcases the brand in its own section, and his most fervent admirers turned up at the department store Friday to have their heels signed by the man himself.

The designer, who's fond of wearing bow ties and Saville Row suits, zipped into town to accept the Walk of Style award -- the latest in a growing list of accolades he's accrued over the years, including three awards each for outstanding accessory design from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council. In 2003, the Design Museum in London staged a major exhibition of his work, and two years later, Blahnik dipped his well-shod foot into film (a genre he's eager to continue working in) when he crafted the ornate, flare-heeled shoes for Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," which won an Oscar for best costume design.

Blahnik's lifelong love of movies -- particularly golden oldies starring screen sirens such as Rita Hayworth and Ann-Margret -- is why he calls Los Angeles "a spiritual home" (the 65-year-old was mighty upset when he discovered that the Turner Classic Movies channel wasn't available at his hotel).

During his brief stay in L.A., we sat down with the effervescent footwear phenom. Born in the Canary Islands but a longtime resident of London, he speaks with a heavy, lilting accent -- and rapid-fire enthusiasm:

You have on amazing shoes [Creamsicle-orange loafers with matching ribbons tacked to the fronts]. Who made them?

My factory made these with my own lasts. I was going to do a combination of colors, but I thought no. It would be like an eccentric person in a mad house or something. I was going to wear one violet and one orange, which is very matador.

How do you feel about getting a star on Rodeo Drive?

It's beyond meaningful. Can you imagine? We're going to do it on Rodeo Drive, and that land belonged to Greta Garbo, one of the great movie actresses that I've adored forever. My father had a film projector . . . and I was mesmerized by this woman. Here I am standing up in Greta's land. I love it.

I've heard that you're still involved in the physical creation of each Manolo Blahnik shoe design. Is this true?

I design the last and the heel. Then I cut the pattern on plastic. I hate to do the sizing and things like that.

You have designed all kinds of shoes -- from flats to sandals to boots. Are there any shoe silhouettes you don't care for?

I don't do platforms. I find them ugly. I did them in the '70s when I was young -- it was my thing. But they're dangerous, and they're just not very flattering for women's legs. No, no, no, no. I remember ['80s fashion icon] Tina Chow said, "Every time I put on a platform, I felt like I [had on] some sort of orthopedic shoe." And she was the chicest and most exquisite creature. Still, sometimes unconsciously when I design, I say, "I wonder if Tina likes this thing?"

So you sometimes design with certain women in mind?

I used to, but I don't think it's very nice. I do have fantasies -- like I love people of my time, like Julie Christie.

What, in your opinion, is the most beautiful shoe silhouette?

A light, beautiful shoe. I like pumps. And it's the most difficult shoe for me to cut. It's got to be perfect. You've got to show just exactly the right amount of cleavage -- just a little to suggest. I love thin heels, like this one [Blahnik picks up a satin stiletto with a narrow, 3 1/2 -inch heel]. Of course, every year you do longer or shorter in height, but I don't change very much. I also . . . think it's fantastic to see a shoe lived in -- when the heel's a little [he makes a "roughed-up" motion]. Maybe it's a perversion, I don't know, but I like it.

Can we talk about shoe etiquette -- when to wear or not wear certain shoes? Like, can you wear satin during the day?

Yes, I think so. I don't think there are rules any longer. Coming from England where all things work . . . daytime, night, it all works.

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