As in all the arts, whether paintings, literature and theatre, one of the delights of fashion design is the historical references. A NEW exhibition An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at The Wallace Collection opened this week and explores the inspiration behind the genius in ‘art’ shoe design and production. Blahnik takes his love of art, interior design and fashion of the 17th and 18th centuries and creates the most exquisite footwear, literally works of art. This is an exhibition to make Sex and The City’s Carrie Bradshaw swoon. I certainly did.
Blahnik’s career spans over 50 years. The exhibition offers a journey through his imagination, and wide ranging interests from the theatre and spectacle of the Commedia dell’arte to the fashions inspired by Blahnik’s native Spain and 18th-century Rococo style. A pair of tartan shoes adds a playful interpretation of Englishness. There are the candy-coloured shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s award-winning film, Marie Antoinette, seen here alongside Fragonard’s Swing and Boucher’s Mme de Pompadour, to his carefully worked, jewel-encrusted shoes which reflect the diamond-mounted gold boxes and delicately painted miniatures of the Wallace Collection’s Boudoir Cabinet.
The exhibition is beautifully curated by Wallace Collection Director, Dr Xavier Bray, and Manolo Blahnik himself. The shoes are displayed here and there in the different rooms alongside priceless works of art, and are not at all out of place. On the contrary, the juxtaposition of contemporary design influenced by the historical cabinets, paintings, ceramics, glassware, clocks and more, both harmonise and provoke the senses.
A feast for the eyes
As always, I found I became a little tearful with emotion when gazing upon such magnifcent objects. It’s not only the visual gaze but the recognition and enjoyment of the craftsmanship, and the aspiration behind the art. The brushstrokes of a Monet, the painstaking lines of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing, the metamorphoses of the ethos of a 17th century painting into une chaussure extraordinaire.
The exhibition provides a unique exploration of Blahnik’s creative process. In Diego Velázquez’s The Lady with a Fan, a woman wears a black lace veil on her head and a dark dress with a low-cut bodice. Her sensuality and elegance is reflected in Blahnik’s black lace court shoe, featuring a rounded toe, and trimmed with clusters of virginal white beads, reminiscent of the dainty, white flowers of the Gypsophila plant, often added to bride’s bouquets.
The exhibition partnership is a celebration of the exceptional Collection and the iconic designer’s fascination with the exquisite objects. The shoes displayed were personally chosen by Blahnik from his personal collection. It is an intense, intimate exploration of craftmanship (old and new), fantasy and reality (shoes are also very practical items), and a coming together of the historical and contemporary worlds. My dad was a textle chemist and passed on to me a love of tactile materials, complimentary and contrasting colours and textile design. The colours, the materials, the fine quality of work in the construction of Blahnik’s shoes are entirely comparable to the same elements in, say, the superb marquetry applied to a piece of furniture, or the detail inherent in a tiny miniature painting.
The fine enamelled fruit on a beautiful marble and marquetry cupboard reasonates in the tiny pink, silk rosebuds on a slipper shoe. Below tiny white daisies decorating a pair of luscious ceramic vases are reimagined in stunning sixties-style ankle boots.
“The Wallace Collection has been a point of reference for me since my early days in London. It was – and remains – one of my favourite museums with the most refined selection of art. I am incredibly humbled and honoured to be a part of the project and have my work displayed at the museum,” says Manolo Blahnik.
Hertford House in Manchester Square, the former townhouse of the Seymour family, Marquesses of Hertford, is home to the Wallace Collection which opened in 1900. It’s a national museum which displays the wonderful works of art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. The Collection was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard’s widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897. An Enquiring Mind: Manolo at The Wallace Collection runs 10 June to 1 September. Entry is free. www.wallacecollection.org