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TALK ASIA

Interview with Manolo Blahnik

Aired September 7, 2012 - 05:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: (voiceover): His name excites women all over the world. A so-called holy man of heels, Manolo Blahnik's shoes have been admired by models, royalty, public figures, and fans for almost four decades.

MANOLO BLAHNIK, SHOE DESIGNER: These are the shoes I love.

COREN (voiceover): But this shoe aficionado wasn't always destined for footwear fame. It was a chance meeting with legendary "Vogue Magazine" editor, Diana Vreeland, in the '70s, that would see this young Blahnik put aside dreams of set design and, without formal training, open up his eponymous label.

SARAH JESSICA PARKER, ACTOR: Do you know what these are?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not even supposed to be in here.

PARKER: Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes. I thought these were an urban shoe myth.

COREN (voiceover): Already popular by the '90s, it was the fictitious Carrie Bradshaw's obsession with Blahnik's designs on the TV series "Sex and the City" that made his shoes a household name.

PARKER: Well, they - they almost fit.

COREN (voiceover): Even the music world took notice. With hip-hop mogul Jay Z rapping in this music video about giving his then-girlfriend Beyonce a pair of the coveted luxury heels.

Today, Blahnik's distinctive pointed toes and enduring creations still carry a cult following. And, despite the recent economic downturn and price tags upwards of $500, his handiwork is sold in more than 200 outlets around the world.

This week on "Talk Asia", we catch up with the shoe designer in Hong Kong to find out about his latest collaborations, his relationship with the famed Bianca Jagger, and wearing his own high heels.

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COREN: Manolo Blahnik, welcome to "Talk Asia".

BLAHNIK: Thank you very much for having me in this wonderful channel.

COREN: Well, you opened your first store here in Hong Kong back in 1991. This was years before China had evolved into this economic powerhouse and Chinese consumers have become obsessed with designer brands. Back then, did you see this region's potential?

BLAHNIK: No, I didn't have a design, I never had visions all the time. I'm just - In 10 years - I love China, so I say, "Why not?" I always love China, especially the old China.

COREN: How important is Asia for your business?

BLAHNIK: I think it will be very important because people are getting more sophisticated. Everything is global now. It's not London, it's not Spain, it's not Italy - everything is everywhere. So you have to be everywhere, I guess. And people respond very well to me here, so I'm very happy.

COREN: You were born and raised in the Spanish Canary Islands off the Northwest coast of Africa. Your mother Spanish, your father Czech. You grew up on a banana plantation. Tell me what it was like to grow up in such a remote place.

BLAHNIK: To me, now, it seems romantic and it's kind of far away, because now the Canary Islands is another place. But to me, still, that kind of - I had the idyllic childhood. I had parents - the most exquisite parents that you could imagine. So, the Canary Islands is just that kind of memory nowadays.

COREN: Your mother had a huge influence in your life, didn't she?

BLAHNIK: My mother is incredible. I mean, still is today. My mother disappeared two years ago. And she's still - I mean, every day I think about her - all the time. I say, "I'm going to call my mother". But don't bother - you know - this is the kind of things that I just, like, find difficult to bear.

COREN: Because she used to make -

BLAHNIK: But it's a great influence still, now.

COREN: -- shoes. She used to make shoes.

BLAHNIK: Yes. During the war, I think in 1945, it was not things coming easy - no silks, no chiffons, no leathers. So my mother called this man, a shoemaker on the island - a cobbler. And she said, "Would you like to teach me how to do that". So she set up at home and she made the most beautiful - I still have a few things. Some of them has been eaten up by moth.

COREN: Do you think you got your creative flair from your mother?

BLAHNIK: Definitely, yes. Definitely. My father was much more plain tennies all the time and just like business. But my mother was the one who just, like, influenced my sister and I. I think.

COREN: Now, becoming a shoe designer, that was really a hobby for you. It wasn't really your trade.

BLAHNIK: It wasn't a hobby, it was like - was an accident. A hobby wasn't. No, I wanted to do - at the time, I wanted to do things on - I was planning in Geneva, going to maybe do theater. I was doing literature. I was doing international in Geneva.

COREN: Because your parents wanted you to be a diplomat, didn't they?

BLAHNIK: My father wanted me to put the United Nations and do one of those kind of boring jobs, because I have an uncle, which - he was doing something like that. And I worked two summers in those Notre (ph) conferencier (ph) and, you know, the delegates of the world come up. And you know, I used to do the programs on the tables of everybody around. So I was not very interested. And I thought that is not the life that I can sort of foresee. No.

So I went to university again. I did literature. I said, "I love literature, yes, but what else could I do?" More kind of - and then I went to Gautier.

COREN: And that's when you went to Paris?

BLAHNIK: I went to Paris. I wanted to do - finally, I wanted to - exactly what I wanted - I wanted to do set design for films. And I try a couple of times with friends that work in the movies. A man called Maurice Albray (ph). We used to do Chabrol movies. And so I went to see this man and I saw the way they work. And it was not very me either.

COREN: But your life really changed when you had that chance meeting with the U.S. "Vogue" editor, Diana Vreeland.

BLAHNIK: Vreeland - yes, indeed. That was one of the milestones in my life. And certain change. Because, I have this trip - it happened -- I was with my friend, Eric Bohman (ph) who was a photographer at the time and he wanted to get into photography. And I was at Telomapy (ph) Castle, which he was doing shoots. And he wanted to do Jews. So we went to New York, so here we are.

We arrived to New York and we end up sleeping in one of Andy Warhol's apartments, because he lend it to us. So it was like - I was very privilege. And somebody else, another photographer, say, "I'm going to get you to talk to Mrs. Vreeland, she has to see your work", because I have a big portfolio things with me. And I went to see her terrified to death. I almost was like fainting, in fact. But I met her and she was divine. She was so fantastic.

COREN: Was she that scary?

BLAHNIK: And she said, "Good, do extremities" - she looked all the drawings and everything and said, "You're very good for - you've got a gift for accessories and things". With all the hats and different actions I design. A shoe was full of cherries falling down. I mean, mad, unwearable things. But beautiful things, I thought. And she loved it.

Then, I went to London. Because, I mean, New York was tough for me. In London, I have, again, the people from "Vogue" - Ms. Coddington - Grace Coddington, Ms. Miller - Beatrix Miller, was the Editor in Chief. So, they loved my work and I was fortunate to have those divine girls. And it was like immediately sort of took off. Well, it took years to lean my trade.

COREN: Because you're not formally trained, are you?

BLAHNIK: No, no, no. I learned - it happened, again - another accident. Ossie Clark asked me, "Would you like to do the shoes of the next collection?" I say, "Of course I want to".

COREN: This is Ossie Clark, the English designer?

BLAHNIK: Ossie Clark in London, the English designer. Not here with us, anymore, but it was one of the most exquisite designer England ever produced. So I was very fortunate and lucky to be even offered that thing.

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COREN (voiceover): Coming up, we find out how Sarah Jessica Parker made one pair of Manolos and the designer himself an instant obsession.

BLAHNIK: My God, those shoes - it's just like cakes to us.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PARKER: Do you know what these are?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE : We're not even supposed to be in here.

PARKER: Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes. I thought these were an urban shoe myth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COREN: Manolos went from being a luxury brand to a household name, thanks to the show, "Sex and the City". Tell me, what did that show do for your brand?

BLAHNIK: Well, I got exposed to a different kind of customer, which, before, used to be sort of like somebody talking about the shoes at a party or whatever it is. And then there was exposure of media like that. This is an extraordinary thing about all these new technologies and everything. Everything is this second, boom. And "Sex and the City" was like that kind of thing. And those kind of women of like younger or mid age or whatever. They got to know me through this show. Which is the greatest - I feel gratitude to Ms. Parker till I drop that.

COREN: Well, Sarah Jessica Parker's character, Carrie Bradshaw, was obsessed with your shoes. So much so that, in one episode, she's being mugged and she pleads to the robber, you know, "Please take everything else but my Manolo Blahniks".

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And your Manolo Blahniks.

PARKER: What? No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give me the - Blahniks.

PARKER: These guys weren't just after money anymore. They were after fashion.

Please sir, they're my favorite pair. I got them half-price at a sample sale.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLAHNIK: Yes, we put that on the -- we did an exhibit of the - when the design was here was fantastic in 2003. Ms. Rophon (ph) did an exhibition of my work and we put a huge screen with that episode. So thank you for mentioning that, because I - it was great fun.

COREN: The other famous thing was the proposal scene in those famous blue shoes.

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CHRIS NOTH, ACTOR: See, this is why there's a diamond. You need to do something to close the deal.

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BLAHNIK: My God, those shoes - they're just like cakes to us. It's been one of the most successful shoes that we ever done. And it's just plain satin. I even proposed to people - "Why don't you get in another color instead of blue?" "No, no, we want the blue one". You know, it's been so incredibly successful.

COREN: Yes. I mean, how does it feel to have your name - your shoes immortalized that way?

BLAHNIK: It's great. It's flattering. Yes, it's good for business. But, do you know what? After all those shoes, you know, if there was some kind of exquisite word or something that would be very, very kind of - Oh my God, yes. But shoes are shoes, you know. It's just -

COREN: Do you have a friendship with Sarah Jessica Parker.

BLAHNIK: We have a friendship on the telephone, yes. And we met - she was having a baby. I don't even know how many years, because, again, I'm totally absolutely disaster for time. And she gave me this CFDA (ph) Award in New York. And she had the baby next day. And she was wearing high heel shoes.

COREN: But if could just raise some of the quotes of what famous people said about your shoes. Madonna said that your shoes are better than sex. Naomi Campbell says that you are the godfather of sole. Sarah Jessica Parker says that your shoes are pieces of art.

BLAHNIK: My God.

COREN: What is the best compliment that you have ever received?

BLAHNIK: The best thing that anybody could say, you know, they're comfortable. And they're just - the look - they feel fabulously beautiful in them or, you know.

COREN: Now, Mick Jagger's wife, Bianca Jagger -

BLAHNIK: Oh my God, Bianca was paramount, yes.

COREN: -- she was a big customer of yours, wasn't she?

BLAHNIK: Yes. I mean, she was - then we became absolutely good friends. But really, we're like brother and sister. But at the time, I didn't know her. I met her once in Paris in a huge ball. And she was fantastic beautiful. I mean, you cannot imagine Bianca - the idea of Bianca now and then is something. She's still fantastic, but then she was like a bird. Beautiful face - I mean, a face you've never seen before.

COREN: Well, she wore your shoes in 1977 to Studio 54.

BLAHNIK: That's right. On the horse.

COREN: That famous entrance on the horse.

BLAHNIK: How do you know that?

COREN: Because I did my research.

BLAHNIK: God, this is really like - not many people know that.

COREN: Well, tell us about that. I mean, for somebody as famous as what she was back then - married to this rock star - and she walks into Studio 54, the coolest place in the world, wearing your shoes. On a horse.

BLAHNIK: But you see, we used to go there all the time because those people were fantastic. But at the time, it was just like the place to be and it was so fun. I did nothing but sit down up there and look people, maybe dancing with friends like Andre (ph) Antaly (ph) and millions of people that I knew. It was fun.

COREN: You do have a list of privileged clientele. Now, on that list is supermodel Kate Moss. You made her wedding shoes. But I believe that was quite a stressful process.

BLAHNIK: I mean, this is like my children. I mean, this is like my - you know, I know Naomi, I know Kate since she's just like 14, 15. And so, of course, it was normal that I did the shoes for her.

COREN: Tell me about the process.

BLAHNIK: Up to midnight the day before the wedding - the wedding was in the afternoon - we had Richard in London waiting - midnight - for the things to arrive. Because the day before, we try the shoes and the shoes did have a lot of beads and things. And the beads catch up with the veil - it was silk, too. So we have to remove all the beads and do it again. So it was fun. It was fun, but stressful, yes.

COREN: Did you go to the wedding?

BLAHNIK: Of course I did - of course. I mean I was there. It was fun. It was really fun.

COREN: And did she look as beautiful as what she was in the photos?

BLAHNIK: She was ravishing. She was more beautiful in real life, yes.

COREN: Now I believe that you carry a drawing pad with you a lot of the time.

BLAHNIK: Unfortunate, all the time.

COREN: All the time?

BLAHNIK: Not now, but I mean -

COREN: Tell us about the process of making beautiful shoes. Where does it start and where does it end?

BLAHNIK: Do you know? People think it's like, you know, you have an idea, up, and then you do the shoe. Not at all. You have the idea, then you think about it. You just end up cleaning up the design or the drawing. And then you go to the factory, starting to do the last - if you want to change the last that season, or the heel, if you want to change a heel. And you do that in wood. You do that yourself. You have to sculpt it. Most of the people nowadays send their things by internet. But I cannot work that way. I like to do it myself.

COREN: Now, I believe that you make your own shoes. And that you did sort of flirt with the idea of having a men's line of Manolo Blahniks.

BLAHNIK: I still have a men line, but this I don't call "Men's Line". It is like a fantasy men's line. But you know something, I'm selling millions of those shoes everywhere. In colors and things like that, but in Europe, things are different, possibly. In England, people just like, you know, naturally - Anglo-Saxons, you know how they are - they wear anything.

COREN: So, are they for men?

BLAHNIK: This is for men, yes. This is matador pumps. And Matadors and other things do it.

COREN: Yes. So what about doing sort of a mainstream men's line the way that you have done a women's line.

BLAHNIK: But I've done sometimes. But I really find men boring. I like to do things that you can just let your imagination - and you know, unless men starting to wear high heels, why not?

COREN: Where do you get your inspiration from?

BLAHNIK: I'm totally - anytime, anywhere, any conversation, any face - anybody. Producing idea.

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COREN: Now, I read somewhere that you have worn high heels. Like, you've actually tried your high heels.

BLAHNIK: I did, in fact.

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COREN: Now, this is your exhibit. Give us a bit of tour, please, Manolo.

BLAHNIK: My God, here we are.

COREN: Talk about Bianca -

BLAHNIK: Talking about Bianca -

COREN: Oh my goodness.

BLAHNIK: -- don't look like that anymore. Pity. But Bianca was beautiful. Bianca was beautiful, and she had a baby about a year before.

COREN: That's fantastic.

BLAHNIK: This is the shoes I love. Particularly one - look at the heel. I love those heels.

COREN: Wow. That is sensational.

BLAHNIK: It's not allowed you put your hands on it.

COREN: Sorry.

BLAHNIK: You can't photograph the shoes in the hands of the man who does them.

COREN: Why not?

BLAHNIK: Bad luck. What they say about the manufacturers -

COREN: Really? Oh no. No.

Now, Manolo, tell me about these.

BLAHNIK: My god. This is about 40 years ago. I don't know, maybe not 40, but a long time ago. What does it say here? '77.

COREN: Wow.

BLAHNIK: And you know I was doing those spiky things, and I did it with metal, but they say, "No, they really hurt".

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COREN: Now, you opened your own boutique in London in 1973?

BLAHNIK: 197 - January, '73 was mine. Yes. So, it's been 40 years.

COREN: Yes. Tell us about the challenges you faced in setting up this business.

BLAHNIK: In setting up, I just went to the bank and asked for money. They say, "Do you have collateral?" I say, "What is collateral?" You know - I was a young man. I was stupid. So, somehow, I manage to convince people and here I am. I'm still there.

COREN: The rest is history. You make, what, about 125 designs a year?

BLAHNIK: Oh no, I wish it was 125. I do about - each collection about 300 and something.

COREN: OK.

BLAHNIK: Then I clean up about 100, 110, 120, 125.

COREN: OK.

BLAHNIK: But we have to do a lot.

COREN: OK.

BLAHNIK: And you know, sometimes, I have to really force to edit myself, because I could do more. It's that - it comes from me kind of second nature.

COREN: Now, you have five factories in Italy and you are very hands- on. You're sort of involved in every single process.

BLAHNIK: Unfortunately, yes.

COREN: Are you a bit of a control freak?

BLAHNIK: I guess - control freak - I mean - that I like to control everything, yes. Yes. Yes, maybe you can call me that if you wish to.

COREN: I don't want to label you. You're a perfectionist.

BLAHNIK: But I am a - no, I'm a perfectionist.

COREN: Yes.

BLAHNIK: And you know, to attain perfection is impossible. It's one of those things that you cannot attain ever. But you try. Near - to be near the perfection.

COREN: I also believe that you get your factory staff to try the shoes - to walk around in them.

BLAHNIK: Everybody. I mean, it's a process of - they come to London, they find some defect in London, they go back again. This is like the most difficult process of them all. Trying to be absolutely the right way to do it. If you do sell something on the market, you cannot sell something which it has faults or at least, I try to. Sometimes it's unforeseen accidents. But we try to do that. It's a control - the quality control is - I even wanted more, in fact.

COREN: Now, I read somewhere that you have worn high heels. Like, you've actually tried your high heels.

BLAHNIK: I did, in fact. High heels in a picture, which Helmut Newton took. And I look ridiculous. But I mean - and I was absolutely in agony. The picture is the one with the highest heel I could find. But it was fun. I would have done anything for Mr. Newton. So I did, yes. And sometimes I wear them in the factory to try myself.

COREN: You do?

BLAHNIK: Because they have big sizes.

COREN: Now, over the years, you've had many offers to sell your business. But you've never sold out.

BLAHNIK: No, I don't want to.

COREN: Why?

BLAHNIK: Not yet. I'm not here for the money. I'm here for the fun of doing it and the joy and the passion that I have for doing - working in the factories. But, you know, I can't stand to be ruled by this kind of economic societies. I mean, you know, companies and things that everything is like, "profit, profit, profit". Yes, you have to be realistic, but I mean, you know, it's not everything actually.

COREN: Has the economic crisis affected your business?

BLAHNIK: So far, I mean, I'm being very, very fortunate. Yes, in places like - I don't want to talk about that - but in places like Greece, yes. Because it's like a tragedy. But so far, very little.

COREN: Isn't it amazing, even in times of hardship, women will still go and buy expensive shoes?

BLAHNIK: Or expensive jewels, or expensive dresses - but maybe not five, but two or one. Because they don't want to waste money. I think it's obscene to spend money in difficult times like we are now. I think it's not right. I think it's like it's a moral obligation. Yes, you have to buy and you have to entertain yourself. You have to just keep going. And you have to keep the manufacturers going. But I think it's not right to spend too much money on things that you're going to throw away. I think it's this culture of, like, throwing away things is over.

COREN: Manolo, what do you believe is your greatest achievement?

BLAHNIK: Being alive and being here. Being - breathing. I mean, extraordinary. I'm very lucky that I'm doing what I like to do.

COREN: Now, I believe that you're 69-years-old.

BLAHNIK: Indeed. But I don't want to think about it. I'm 19.

COREN: Do you have plans to retire any time soon?

BLAHNIK: No. Not yet, no. I really have lot of things that I want to achieve and things that I - I mean, now I just got this incredible Asia planning in my mind. China and all these things. There's always something there that I like to do.

COREN: What is next in store, then, for Manolo Blahnik?

BLAHNIK: More work. More work and more work. I love that.

COREN: Well, I know that the women of the world hope that you continue to make shoes forever. Manolo Blahnik, wonderful to meet you.

BLAHNIK: Thank you very much. Thank you.

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