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FASHION

The world at his feet

Designer Manolo Blahnik earns official recognition in his native Spain

Elsa Fernández-Santos
Canarian shoe designer Manolo Blahnik shows off a creation inspired by Spain.
Canarian shoe designer Manolo Blahnik shows off a creation inspired by Spain.GORKA LEJARCEGI (EL PAÍS)

Just a few hours after accepting a lifetime achievement prize at the British Fashion Awards in London and celebrating his birthday in the privacy that he holds so dear, Manolo Blahnik received the National Fashion Design Award from the Spanish Culture Ministry. It is recognition in his native country for four decades' worth of imaginative footwear design that Blahnik's prodigious hands manage to turn into reality.

The 70-year-old Blahnik, who was born in the Canary Islands but in 1968 moved to London, where his flagship store is still located, is dedicating this latest award, which carries a cash prize of 30,000 euros, to his home town.

"I am very grateful, very happy. And I want to donate this prize money to the Canaries, to a charity in La Palma, my island. At a time like this, it seems absurd to keep it," he said, still visibly touched by the London ceremony, where he dedicated his award to his recently deceased friend Anna Piaggi, an iconic figure of the fashion world who was an early defender of the shoemaker's burgeoning talent.

But it was the famous fashion editor Diana Vreeland who encouraged Blahnik to make shoes after seeing some of his set designs. The son of a Czech father and Spanish mother, Blahnik had a unique education that provided the seeds for a fertile imagination equally grounded in the exuberant banana plantations of his home islands and in the English children's tales that his mother read to him and his sister Evangelina - who remains his top business aide to this day.

My father always listened to marvelous Arab music on Radio Casablanca while Antonio Molina played in other corners of the house"

"Africa and the Mediterranean," is how he describes his particular blend of colors, shapes, materials and senses. "My father always listened to marvelous Arab music on Radio Casablanca while Antonio Molina played in other corners of the house."

In fact, this cosmopolitan designer, who is much sought after by fashionistas the world over, still feels a strong connection with his homeland. "I cannot live without Spain, my roots are there and I cannot tear them out. I can't help it - I miss living there more and more."

A Blahnik design from 2008.
A Blahnik design from 2008.

A tireless craftsman who always preferred working by himself, Blahnik's work stands for a timeless elegance that knows no trends or brand names. His handcrafted shoes have not only withstood the passage of time, they have also become collectors' items and objects of desire for women the world over. "Patience, passion and work" is the motto of a man who is constantly shuttling between London (where he keeps his offices), Milan (where he creates his designs), New York (where most of his business is made), Bath (where he lives) and La Palma (where he thinks up and draws his collections).

From the films of Visconti and Cocteau to the paintings of El Greco, Velázquez and Zurbarán, his influences rest on two pillars that explain his creative universe: cinema and painting, particularly Spanish art. It is not unusual to see Blahnik rushing through the rooms of the Prado museum in Madrid, just as it is possible to attend one of his entertaining lectures on Italian film. His cultural interests are broad and devoid of prejudice - those of a man from another era who cannot understand the world without beauty, a beauty that he has contributed to, one shoe at a time.

If Madonna said in the late 1990s that Manolo's shoes were better than sex, in the early 21st century it was women like Kate Moss and Sex and the City character Carrie Bradshaw who popularized his creations. His legions of clients include his great friends Bianca Jagger, Marisa Berenson and Angelica Huston. To Blahnik, joy and vitality are conveyed through one's feet. "My shoes are not designs; they are gestures," he likes to say.

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