Nobody clads a foot quite like Manolo. Women fantasize about having a pair of his arty concoctions in their shoe rack. My eldest daughter asked me for a pair of Manolos for her eighteenth birthday. We know he was Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe designer of choice in Sex and the City, and who better to adorn Marie Antoinette’s dainty feet in the Sofia Coppola film but the great man himself? It’s no surprise that Manolo Blahnik loves the Wallace Collection so – it has one of the world’s largest collections of art and furniture owned by Marie Antoinette. And this summer, the Marylebone museum plays host to a dazzling exhibition Manolo Blahnik: An Enquiring Mind, a dramatic display where art and design put on an Oscar-worthy show.
I always think of the Wallace Collection as the museum equivalent of a decadent, luxurious cake filled with crème anglaise. Tucking into the art here is an operatic experience. Pairing the jaw-dropping collection of art with the world’s most desirable shoes makes perfect sense. The Blahnik exhibition features over 100 shoes displayed across ten of the Wallace’s resplendent rooms. From Madame de Pompadour’s Rococo, to the candy-coloured shoes worn by Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, the theatre of the Commedia del’Arte, and the baroque, Blahnik also explores the English penchant for pastoralism and the natural world.
Hand-picked by Blahnik himself, the shoes are leather sculptures; perfectly formed works of art sitting amongst the Wallace’s collection of fleshy art. Every shoe tells a story, although none of these are theatrical shoes – they were all sold in Blahnik’s shops at one point.
Blahnik is intimately acquainted with the Wallace – he’s always been a big fan of the museum. He worked with the Wallace curators to select masterpieces from his archive, planting his shoes next to porcelain, paintings, furniture and sculpture, the result of which is a dialogue between old and new, craft and imagination.
The Oval Drawing Room is home to Fragonard’s The Swing and Boucher’s Mme de Pompadour, making this the room of choice for the Marie Antoinette shoes from the Sofia Coppola film. In Fragonard’s Rococo masterpiece, the erotic thrill contained in the lost shoe from the Swing is mirrored by the collection of Blahnik shoes celebrating the passion of eighteenth century Paris.
Every shoe has a narrative in the exhibition. Kristina Blahnik likes to think that her uncle was thinking of Madame de Pompadour when he designed this rose trellis boot, set amongst Boucher’s pastoral paintings.
The West Room focuses on Blahnik’s interpretation of British masters such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. This shoe reflects the British love of nature and could easily be mistaken for perfectly preserved shoes from the eighteenth century.
Kristina Blahnik is CEO of Manolo Blahnik. She stands next to one of Marie Antoinette’s chest of drawers above which sits a Vigée le Brun painting. The Wallace is one of her uncle’s favourite museums and was the source of much of his early inspiration. She explains that Blahnik is not about fashion – he is about curiosity, and he never suffers from creative blocks.
The high baroque East Drawing Room displays a collection of black and gold shoes which complement the grand Boulle furniture.
Blahnik’s jewel-encrusted shoes strike an intimate pose inside the Boudoir Cabinet with its charming collection of painted miniatures.
The Blahnik shoes in the Great Gallery are amongst the designer’s favourites. Carefully-curated creations from the 1980s on one end of the gallery face off against footwear made in 2014 and 2015 on the other end.
A high-heeled boot is the footwear of choice for the Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier. Both the painting and the boot reflect arrogance, subtlety, and a dash of humour. Blahnik and Hals are having fun with the viewer here.
So, do I need to give you a good kick up the le derrière in a pair of 10-inch heeled Manolos to get you over to the Wallace? I hope not. Go. It’s fabulous (and it’s free).
An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahník at the Wallace Collection is on until 1 September. Check the website for a series of talks, some of which are led by Manolo Blahník himself.