Manolo Blahník’s retrospective exhibition, The Art of the Shoes, has been making its way through Europe and Russia with stops in Milan, Madrid, St. Petersburg, and Blahník’s paternal home city, Prague. Its final, and only North American destination, is the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto where it arrived in May, 2018 and will finish its run in January.
Those who go to see the intimate exhibition will likely be there to catch a glimpse of over 200 of Blahník’s ultra-imaginative, highly-desirable and, according to some, surprisingly-comfortable footwear designs. What one does not expect to encounter though, are his gripping illustrations. Bestowed with Blahník’s own marvelous hand-lettering, each of the illustrations corresponds to a selection of his elaborate, handcrafted shoes. The framed shoe illustrations are a visual feast of their own and threaten to steal the show. In fact, it’s difficult to decide which of these two spectacles look at first: the handcrafted or the hand-drawn shoes?
Ultimately it’s impossible to separate one from the other. After all, Blahník is not only an impeccable draftsman, but also a craftsman, designing and handcrafting every shoe prototype himself, having learned the skills of shoe-making from his Spanish mother. Constantly dissatisfied with the various shoes on offer at at the time, mama Blahník decided to learn from the local cobbler and make her own. When Blahník began his career in fashion design, another powerful woman became a critical influence; Diana Vreeland, the then editor-in-chief of U.S. Vogue. When they met in 1972, she became enthralled by the young designer’s shoe sketches and advised him to focus on designing footwear.
48 years and 30,000 shoe designs later, Blahník’s iconic brand can be found all over the world. Made famous by celebrities from Anna Wintour to Rihanna, and incorporated into the brilliant Vetements 2017 spring collection by Demma Gvasalia, Manolo Blahník’s brand manifests elegance and newness at once. Whether a part of the fashion industry or not, that’s a magic mixture every brand yearns for. Lessons in spontaneity can be gleaned from the always curious Blahník; when asked about collaborating with Vetements, he admitted: “I didn’t know much about them, but I didn’t think too much. I always feel very curious to see how these youngsters are doing. So they came along, I liked them very much and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So we did. Everything I do is instant.”
With over 200 shoes and 80 original drawings, the exhibition’s thematic collection features 45 years of Manolo Blahník’s work, including his architectural, geographical and botanical inspirations. For cinema enthusiasts, the exhibition also features a film clip with a collection of shoes Blahník designed for Sofia Coppola’s award-winning film, Marie Antoinette in 2006.
Manolo Blahník’s traveling retrospective, guest-curated by Dr. Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz, The Art of Shoes, is on at The Bata Shoe Museum until January 6, 2019.