MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS – Review
There is a quote near beginning of the documentary MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS from Marilyn Monroe: “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” Designer Manolo Blahnik seems to have taken that message to heart.
Manolo Blahnik, white-haired, sharp-tongued, fussily dressed, with round black frame glasses, seems to barely tolerate being photographed, telling him the film is “taking as long to make as Gone With The Wind.” The scene which sets up a snapshot of his personality – funny, sharp-witted, not suffering fools gladly – and restless nature. A quick montage of celebrities touting his shoes is capped by the filmmaker coaxing Manolo to tell an oft-told tale. When he was a boy growing up in Spain’s Canary Islands, he would make shoes for lizards. Manolo tells us the lizards were small, easy to catch and non-resistive. He made the shoes out of foil candy wrappers. “Then I didn’t think about making shoes for years,” he concludes.
There is a lot of charm and humor in this documentary about the fashion designer of the shoes popularized on TV’s SEX AND THE CITY, which rocketed Manolo Blahnik, the already successful and famous shoe designer, into even greater fame and the pop culture lexicon. The documentary is directed by fashion editor Michael Roberts, in his first feature film. A friend of Blahnik, Roberts packs the documentary with celebrities, both the designer’s clients and friends, and figures from the fashion world. Big names include Bianca Jagger, Princess Diana, Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, and Anna Wintour, all admirers of both the shoes and the man.
Manolo has a breezy, upper-crust, theatrical manner that is delightfully entertaining but also comes across as modest and unpretentious man. He brushes aside those who describe him as an artist, preferring the title “cobbler” or shoemaker. Manolo, who wears white gloves throughout much of the film, narrates part of this story, along with a host of fashion celebrities and important figures from his childhood. Charming, entertaining, energetic, eccentric, kind-hearted, and independent-minded, Manolo seems surrounded by friends.
Black-and-white film footage, still photos, period color footage of Paris and London in the ’60s and ’70s combine with the interviews and some playful black-and-white re-enactments of Manolo’s island childhood and youth in Paris and London. Archival footage especially evokes the energy and fun of London in the early ’70s.
Manolo (no one in the film calls him Blahnik) grew up on an isolated estate on Santa Cruz, Canary Islands, with a happy childhood. His mother was inventive, creative person, good with her hands. His father was Austro-Hungarian, spoke several languages, and ran the household like clockwork. The combination of creativity and discipline shows in his adult work but Manolo says in the film he was a rather wild boy and to tame him, was sent to boarding school in Geneva, Switzerland, when he was 14. Well-educated and cultured, his parents wanted him to be a diplomat. Instead, at 21, he moved to Paris to become a set designer.
An encounter with Diane Vreeland led to a suggestion he focused on designing shoes. He took her advice, and after a move to London in 1971, found success with his wildly original shoes. “London was…wonderful,” Manolo gushed about the city in 1971. Vogue editor Anna Wintour notes “It was also such a democratic time, you know, hairdressers sitting down with duchesses for the first time. I mean, all the rules were being broken,” London was the center of the fashion world in the ’60s and ’70s. “All eyes were on London. It must have been exciting to be here,” Wintour says in the film. The images and narration gives a sense of the fun and freedom of the era. A London boutique owner gave him a job, based on his exuberate personality, which gave him a “green card” so he could stay, since he had Spanish citizenship. He set up his own shop and when Princess Diana turned up and bought a pair of heels to wear at a formal event, he gained fame among the fashionistas.
Manolo socialized with jet setters such as Bianca Jagger, and provided shoes for runway shows and counting Bianca Jagger among his friends and clients. Even for that flamboyant time, Manolo was an eccentric but elegant dresser, looking like no one else, He might wear clothes of 18th century Italian nobleman (and knew the fashion history) or dress in colorful suits. as a form of self-expression. While he made shoes for men and women, it was the women shoes that shone. His shoes were beautiful but several admitted not always comfortable, a problem he worked to remedy. Manolo was charismatic, fun, and, as one speaker put it, “a sexy young man” He did some work as a model but didn’t like it. He prefered designing shoes.
In the documentary, Manolo says “The ’70s were non-stop fun. The ’80s were non-stop work – and then even more work.” When Princess Diana bought and wore a pair of Manolo shoes, his fame took a leap, becoming a household name in Britain. “The ’80s was about excess” says one speaker, and archival footage of one ’80s fashion show includes a shot of Donald Trump among the attendees. Manolo expanded to New York with a new shop. One person interviewed notes “There was a time in the 1980s when there wasn’t a designer who didn’t have Manolo shoes on the runway.”
The documentary features lots of shoes, which are often shown with the flowers and garden themes that inspired them. The shoes reflect Manolo’s thorough cultural education and his interests, in art, film, gardening and the natural world. He admits to loving the photos of Cecil Beaton and his home in Bath, England, although he spends a lot of time at his factory in Milan.
“My joy in life is to spend time in factories. It is quite sad to say but it is the only thing I love!” Manolo says, raising his tone for the last words but with a chuckle in his voice. Indeed the film focuses more on Manolo’s career, and he states a preference for a solitary home life despite his many friends. A tireless, exacting, even difficult worker, Manolo is one of the few big name designers who do all their own design work and prefer to work alone.
While difficult in business, he is different with clients. In one interview, Anna Wintour says “He sort of sees it as almost as his duty to make women look beautiful and feel great about their shoes. It’s very touching.” She describes him as “almost a Dickens character, bowing and humbly calling clients ‘madam’ and making them feel taken care of.”
One does not have to care about shoes or fashion to be charmed and delighted by this documentary about this unique and appealing character. MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS opens Friday, Oct. 6, at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.