Beautiful shoes are often treated as a frivolity, for obvious reasons. No one ever really needs a pair of jeweled green peau de soie pumps with a 10cm heel. But then, need doesn’t always figure into the vagaries of human desire. Which is why human beings—and not always just women—covet the shoes made by maestro Manolo Blahnik.
You may not be able to afford the shoes, but Michael Roberts’ documentary Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards may bring you almost as much delight. Here’s a doc with a spring in its step, intimate without being off-puttingly reverential. Roberts, erstwhile fashion director of Vanity Fair and one of the designer’s longtime friends, opens a window into the life of this very private man, one of those rare beings who is both a profoundly inventive soul and a master craftsman. Blahnik doesn’t just sketch out lovely designs and hand them to someone else who can then figure out how to make them. He knows everything about how a shoe should be made, and how it should be balanced so a woman can actually walk in it. In one of the movie's most unexpectedly moving scenes, he visits one of his factories in Italy, donning a white coat before striding onto the shop floor. There, he goes to work filing a wooden heel into a miniature Eiffel Tower of perfection. “My joy in life is to spend time in the factories,” he says. “It’s quite sad to say that, but this is the only thing I love, totally love!”
Roberts traces Blahnik’s life and career from his childhood in Santa Cruz de La Palma, Spain (where he really did make shoes for lizards, from the foil of Cadbury chocolate wrappers), through his beginnings as a shoemaker and designer (launched by a 1970 introduction to legendary U.S. Vogue editor Diana Vreeland), to the present. Now in his mid seventies, he’s a droll-looking gent with cloud-white hair and pinkish-tinged ivory skin. He wears owlish, black-framed glasses and has a penchant for windowpane-checked jackets in Easter Egg colors, clearly made of the softest wool.
Blahnik had a lot of fun the late 1960s and 1970s. His band of insiders included David Hockney and the late, mad genius designer Ossie Clark, as well as ultra-mod model Penelope Tree, interviewed here. (With her exquisite alien features, she looks more beautiful today than ever.) And although Blahnik is still a bit naughty—he rolls his eyes with mock dismissiveness when Roberts, off-camera, asks him a question he’s not sure he feels like answering—he’s mostly a man who simply likes to spend time alone, enjoying visits to Sicily or revisiting his favorite book, Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s end-of-an-era gem The Leopard, which he has read more times than he can count.
Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards is, among so many other things, a gentle meditation on what it means to age. It’s possible to face forward and to reflect on the past—the two aren’t mutually exclusive. At one point Roberts shows us Blahnik at home in Bath, wearing white cotton gloves (for reasons that are never exactly explained, though it doesn’t much matter) as he first sketches and then paints a delectable jeweled sandal inspired, he says, by the “court of Cyrus.” His paintbrush barely skims the paper. With just a few flicks, he outlines an array of coral and emerald medallions that climb up the leg like vines.
The painted sketch alone makes you hungry for the future shoe, but it’s also a work of wonder by itself. It’s like a drawing of a dream—almost too good for a lowly human foot.