Fashion and Beauty

Blahniks: From ‘Sex and the City’ to the Wallace Collection

ART DE VIVRE - Ricky Toledo, Chito Vijandre - The Philippine Star
Blahniks: From âSex and the Cityâ to the Wallace Collection
The Oval Drawing Room, the perfect venue for shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette

Horrors! What on earth are shoes, contemporary ones at that, doing at the Wallace Collection?

You can almost hear the sniffs and snorts from art enthusiasts who have always considered the home of unsurpassed 18th-century masterpieces as a haven for connoisseurs and one of London’s best-kept secrets.  And now, the tourist hordes have discovered it, thanks to the current exhibit of shoes by Manolo Blahnik, one of the world’s most influential footwear designers, who became a household name when his footwear played cameos as the most covetable fashion item on the TV series Sex and the City.

No doubt shoes attract more people, making the museum more accessible and helping finance future temporary exhibitions appreciated by the Wallace’s regular patrons.

“I think it’s a great way for people to discover the Wallace, to see the many artistic disciplines found in the museum through fashion, inspired by one of the greatest fashion minds,” said Xavier Bray, director of the museum and co-curator of the exhibit, together with Blahnik. 

Blahnik himself has been a frequent visitor for the last 49 years:  “The Wallace Collection has been a point of reference for me since my early days in London. It was — and remains — one of my favorite museums with the most refined selection of art. I am incredibly humbled and honored to be a part of the project and have my work displayed at the museum.”

The collaboration actually marks the first time that the venue has allowed its permanent collection to be “disrupted” by another designer’s work. “To start with, I felt a little embarrassed to be around these types of beautiful things and then I thought, ‘why not do something that brings a connection between a piece of silk and a piece of art?’ I think it is important to see where something came from.” 

Blahnik’s beginnings were actually in another realm, as his Czech father and Spanish mother wanted him to be a diplomat and enrolled him at the University of Geneva, majoring in politics and law.  He eventually shifted his majors to literature and architecture and later moved to Paris, where he studied art and worked at an antique decorating store at the same time. But it was his move to London in 1969, working as a buyer for a fashion boutique and writing for L’Uomo Vogue, that would alter the course of his life.

Making a trip to New York, he met with US Vogue editor Diana Vreeland who, upon seeing his sketchbook of drawings and recognizing his talent, advised him: “Make things, make accessories, make shoes!”

Eight years after this encounter, he would break into the American market with his first collection of footwear, which reached the height of popularity when his muse, Bianca Jagger, made her 27th birthday party entrance to Studio 54 on a white horse with a red gown and glimmering gilt sandals by Blahnik.  After opening his first US boutique in 1979, many others followed worldwide, as his shoes became legendary for their blend of style, workmanship and luxury. Ever the consummate craftsman, he still oversees production in Milan — ensuring that his vision is accurately realized, hand carving each last personally and rigorously checking each piece before it leaves the factory.  

This exhibit, then, is a chance to be privy to this creative process, to get a glimpse of the designer’s intellectual search for the new and the beautiful in art and life, literature and film, the past and the present.  “With an artiste’s eye for visual detail, he has drawn inspiration over the years from the Wallace collection’s paintings, furniture, porcelain, sculpture and works of art.  His shoes evoke a world of luxury and beauty, and echo the qualities of skill and creativity found in the art,” said Bray. 

The galleries form a sympathetic setting for a judiciously curated selection of 160 pairs of shoes, with each one assigned a theme that evokes the spirit of creation for particular sets.  There is a resulting dialogue between the old and the new, the art and the craft, the real and the fantasy world.  The exhibit underlines the importance of fashion in the creation and understanding of 18th-century art, and helps us understand the thrill and the novelty experienced by the owners of these works.

“Just as the collectors of the works of art in the Wallace sought to acquire the most beautiful, the most captivating and the most precious, Blahnik also seeks to produce shoes of exquisite quality and elegance,” said Bray.

The journey through Blahnik’s imagination begins with his sumptuous Parissa at the museum’s historic balustrade and ruby-carpeted staircase, followed by the delicate Trellis set amid the lush Bouchers with a similar palette and depiction of nature. At the Small Drawing Room, the divine fêtes galantes by Watteau, Lancret and Pater that reflect the 18th-century fascination for theater and spectacle find a kindred spirit in Blahnik’s light hearted creations that evoke the bright costumes of the commedia dell’Arte and the passion for multi-colored porcelain. The longing for the classical, noble ideals of Antiquity that permeates the Large Drawing Room with its magnificent Boulle wardrobes, Dutch and Flemish paintings, porphyry vases and bronze sculptures have particular resonance for the designer whose pieces here use materials that pick up the textures, colors and brilliance of the works of art. 

Easily the most popular is the Oval Drawing Room, home to two icons of romantic painting — Fragonard’s Swing and Boucher’s Mme de Pompadour, which are perfect for the candy-colored shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed film Marie Antoinette.  The Boudoir Cabinet, on the other hand, has jewel-encrusted shoes facing off with elaborate diamond-encrusted boxes and miniatures.  

At the Study, fashion goes avant-garde with the architectural shapes of neo-classicism,  as seen in Riesener’s secrétaire and the contrasting colors, bows and costume jewelry of the style à l’espagnole in Vigée le Brun’s Mme Perregaux, works considered cutting-edge during their time to partner with some of Blahnik’s more daring creations. 

The exhibit reaches a climax at the Great Gallery, where  some of the most revered paintings of Western art like Velázquez’s ‘‘Lady with a Fan,’’ Rubens’s ‘‘Rainbow Landscape’’ and Hals’ ‘‘Laughing Cavalier’’ go hand in hand with some of Blahnik’s own masterpieces, a testament to the designer’s five decades of taste and artistry.

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For details on “An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection,” log on to www.wallacecollection.org.  Follow the authors on Instagram @rickytchitov; Twitter @RickyToledo23; Facebook - Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre.

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In the Philippines, Manolo Blahnik is available at Rustan’s.

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