Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Invention Of Manolo Blahnik

Manolo Blahnik Drawings
Manolo Blahnik
Thames and Hudson

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

Manolo Blahnik Drawings

Manolo Blahnik is in a position to understand "the camber of making aspiration a reality" for those who wear his heels (and they are legion). Anna Wintour speaks for many when she writes: "The truth is, I wear no other shoes except his; and I see from my daughter's incursions into my cupboard that the former crawler has found her feet, which is to say her Manolos." Manolo is not the only man who understands this camber. I have come by my understanding of it quite honestly, if not innocently. My de facto love of art cannot be understood without it, let alone the de jure basis for it. Like all things worth considering, it begins at the very beginning with my earliest conscious memory.
     This memory consists in sound, not sight. I have no image that I can associate with this first memory. I have tried in vain over the years to access an earlier one. This aural memory is the limit of my analysis. This sound marks the beginning of my conscious life. And not without note, it is also the first time I encountered art. Art and life are therefore one with me. This deep‐seated aural‐fixation of mine is the elixir of Blessed Saint Teresa, the Whore of Babylon, my Lover, and my Mother (all combined into one). It is, in short, an aural manifestation of my inner anima, creating a sound that is refined, brutal, sensuous, archful, deviant, and ultimately joyful. Indeed, it is the kind of sound that is as graceful as it is irresistible (irresistible grace, indeed). No wonder Nietzsche said what he did about the sounds of music.
     Manolo dedicates this 2003 portfolio of drawings to his mother. I understand the maternal influence. I remember sitting at the end of a long hallway in my home when I was just two-years old. This is my second earliest childhood memory. I was busy playing with a toy. I looked up and saw my mother walking toward me. At that precise moment both sight and sound became one in me. I encountered a far reaching realization. She was wearing a pair of black heels. She walked up to me, stopped, and knelt down to pick me up. At that moment I realized that her heels made that primitive sound (when she stopped walking on the waxed hardwood floor, the sound stopped). I discovered the source of my earliest conscious memory (albeit after the fact).
     Ever since that discovery I have been trying to understand its artistic import. The maternal in Manolo is a force of nurture, hence the dedication. With this in mind, I can actively imagine young Manolo innocently walking into his mother's walk‐in closet. He sees rows upon rows of his mother's shoes, all neatly placed and displayed on mounted racks. He is memorized by them, so much so that he is afraid to even touch them ("Let's get to the love scene my friend," Donald Fagen writes, "which means look, maybe touch, but beyond that not too much."). Like the genius mathematician Ramanujan (who maintained that each prime number had a unique personality all its own), so the young genius artist Manolo too imagines each pair has a personality all their own. He closes the closet door, sits himself down in the middle of the room, and begins to become the myth that is Manolo.

Young Manolo Holding His Own



     Speaking of active imagination, Jung states that we should never cut ourselves off from the irrational fullness of life. I mention this because the people, the places, and the various things that have come into my life have only served to irrationally confirm my love for the visual and aural artistry of shoe design. Those of us who have read through treatises like Krafft‐Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, and laughed through novels like Nicholson's Footsucker, know just how much of one's sexual identity and sensibilities can be tied into the sight and the sound of this aesthetic heeling power (as it were). But there is more to this story than meets the eye and ear.
     I once knew a woman who worked her way through university by owning and operating an exotic club. She was a student of mine when I was a professor. She came to see me often during my office hours because of a remark I made in a lecture about the relation between high fashion and sexual power (I made it in passing when discussing the function of sexuality as an "analytics of power" in relation to what Michel Foucault calls "Scientia Sexualis" in his multi‐volume work The History Of Sexuality).
     This remark was the genesis of a story she wanted to tell me about her line of work. Her job required her to dress the part, which included her shoes. For her the allure of her work had less to do with the sexual context she created for her clients, and more to do with the sense of empowerment she experienced while doing so. Wearing heels was part of the power trip.
     When she mentioned this I was immediately reminded of something Manolo once accurately said (and artistically shows, through his beautiful designs): "When a woman puts on a pair of high heels, she changes." I did not say much in response to my student's disclosures (she only wanted my ear, not my advice - she was the mistress of her own domain), but I certainly understood them. My former student knew that the change is an important one, artistically and existentially. As Anna Piaggi puts it: "Manolo speaks through his shoes. For him, the foot, the shoe, implies the whole nature of a person, and expresses a story." This change is double-sided. To the extent that a person changes when s/he puts on high heels (I gladly include the "executive transvestite" comedian Eddie Izzard among those who change in the process), to that extent others change when they witness one wearing them, and working them, to perfection.
     Ruth La Ferla wrote a review in The New York Times Magazine back in 1991 in which she describes to perfection just what it means (and what is required) for a woman to wear a pair of heels. She wrote about the "coffee‐skinned Yasmeen Ghauri" whose "hard‐to‐get gaze was belied by the ball‐bearing swivel of her hips." There is an art to swivelling a ball. Some are artists and swivel accordingly. Others are not and squander the chance to ball it, despite how hard they try. In the spirit of Fran Lebowitz (who once remarked: "When Toni Morrison said that you should write the book you want to read, she did not mean everyone"), I think it only right to assert that only artists of Yasmeen's model can powerfully move through space with Wintour's confidence and Coddington's grace (creating their own artistic orbit in the process). Those who can't should not even try (she who has ears to hear, let her hear what her heels are saying in response to her lurches).

Yasmeen Ghauri


     "In the fiction of Martin Amis," La Ferla goes on to write, "there are two kinds of model: the glamour girl propped invitingly against the bright sedan, whose demeanour, Amis writes, "proclaimed you could do what you liked with her"; and the fashion model, a more rarefied breed, whose demeanour "proclaimed she could do what she liked with you." Art does what it likes with those serious enough to let it change them. I am sure Queen Esther of old swivelled her ball precisely because she personified this seriousness generously, if not politically. Such a woman knows how to use her money maker in order to get things done (the Book of Esther in a nutshell). Personal power is a private prerequisite for a woman to make the sound (in whatever fashion they choose).
     Speaking of Esther (and Queens), Daphne Guinness is correct to point out that what made Alexander McQueen's haute couture shows unique was that they were aesthetic theatre, not just an avenue to sell a garment (despite the politics of fashion). They were "modern couture" as Manolo once said. Artists understand why it matters that Michelle Obama wore Jimmy Choo to her husband's 2013 Inauguration Ball. Artists know why Warhol likened his post-Solanas shooting scars to sewed seams in a Dior dress. Is it any wonder, then, that someone as fashionable as The Material Girl chose 'Esther' as her Hebrew name when she went Kabbalistic? I think not: "Manolo Blahnik's shoes are as good as sex ... and they last longer." (Madonna)

Manolo Pumps On Marble Pedestal


     Helmut Newton once said that in his world the women always win. The same is true in Manolo's world, precisely because everyone wins. In his world women and men alike acknowledge, appreciate, and aspire a reality where the maternal arch of artistic camber gets manifested with every step we take. "My shoes are not fashion," Blahnik states, "they are gestures." His world is about the personal power that only an artistic gesture of the highest order can create. To be a "Manolo Girl" (as Veronica Webb puts it) is to understand that Manolo's heels are a metaphor for the existential heights we can achieve if we properly appropriate the idealistic power of art in our daily life (sidewalk as catwalk):

     She shows what she likes,
     She likes what she shows.
     In deed, she knows
     She is shocking
     Exposing her stocking
     While moving through space
     Like a limber femme feline.
     (How does she cat-walk that line?)

     The gestures in Manolo Blahnik Drawings are a selective recreation of the value of aesthetic empowerment. They are a sculptural symbol of the unifying reality that art is synonymous with a life stylishly lived (rightly displayed on a black marble pedestal). Part of Blahnik's power consists in breaking through barriers and knocking down columns that once covered and upheld the mistaken idea that fashion is as contingent as taste (which continues to change, as Sontag famously reminded us), whereas art is not. Instead, he reminds us that living is about contingently surviving in style. Like Darwin before him, Blahnik is a man who knows how to dress ... and evolve. Alexandra Shulman is right: "If God had wanted us to wear flat shoes, he wouldn't have invented Manolo Blahnik."
Manolo Blahnik

Alexander McQueen. Savage Beauty. Yale University Press, 2011.
Daphne Guinness. In Fashion, Daphne Guinness: Interviewed By Alex Fury. October 10, 2012.
Donald Fagan. "Century's End." Steely Dan Gold: Expanded Edition. Geffen, 1991.
Eddie Izzard. Dress To Kill. WEA Corp., November 26, 2002.
Geoff Nicholson. Footsucker. The Overlook Press, 1995.
Manolo Blahnik. Manolo Blahnik Drawings. Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Michael Foucault. The History Of Sexuality, Volume 1. Vintage, 1990.
Richard Krafft-Ebing. Psychopathia Sexualis. Nabu Press, 2010.
Robert Kanigel. The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life Of The Genius Ramanujan. Washington Square Press, 1992.
Ruth Le Ferla. "Fashion; Striking Poses." The New York Times Magazine. June 02, 1991.
Susan Sontag. "Fascinating Fascism." New York Review Of Books. February 06, 1975.


Front of  Manolo Blahnik Christmas Card 2013

Back of Manolo Blahnik Christmas Card 2013