As in all the arts, whether paintings, literature and theatre, one of the delights of fashion design can be found in the historical references. In 2019, the exhibition An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at The Wallace Collection explored the inspiration behind the master of shoe design. In his over-50 year career, Blahnik has drawn on his love of art, interior design and fashion of the 17th and 18th centuries, to create the most exquisite footwear. It’s enough to make Sex and The City’s Carrie Bradshaw swoon.
Flights of fantasy
The arrangement of the treasures from the Wallace Collection and Blahnik’s creations opened the door to his imagination, and wide-ranging interests, from the theatre and spectacle of the Commedia dell’arte to the fashions inspired by his native Spain and 18th-century Rococo style. A pair of knee-high boots added a playful interpretation of the well-known painting, The Laughing Cavalier. Candy-coloured shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s award-winning film, Marie Antoinette, were shown alongside Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing and François Boucher’s Mme de Pompadou. Elsewhere, Blahnik’s exquisitely crafted, jewel-encrusted shoes reflected the diamond-mounted gold boxes and delicately painted miniatures of the Wallace Collection’s Boudoir Cabinet.
The exhibition was curated by Wallace Collection Director, Dr Xavier Bray, and Manolo Blahnik. The shoes were displayed seemingly at random in different rooms and alongside priceless works of art. In fact, the displays were beautifully curated and allowed visitors to ‘discover’ Blahnik’s creations in a delightful juxtaposition to historical cabinets, paintings, ceramics, glassware and clocks.
Manolo Blahnik’s knee-high boots sit alongside the The Laughing Cavalier (1624) by the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals.
A feast for the senses
Gaining an insight into the thought processes of an inspirational master designer is partly about the visual feast, as well as the pure enjoyment of the craft involved. For instance, the brushstrokes of a Monet, the painstaking lines of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing. In the same manner, the metamorphosis of a 17th century painting into une chaussure extraordinaire, was an unforgettable experience.
In Diego Velázquez’s The Lady with a Fan, a woman wears a black lace veil and a dark dress with a low-cut bodice. Her sensuality and elegance are reflected in Blahnik’s black lace court shoe with a gently rounded toe suggestive of the female form. Conversely, the trimming of clusters of virginal white beads are reminiscent of the dainty, white flowers of the Gypsophila plant often incorported into a bride’s bouquet
Blahnik’s shoes displayed were personally chosen by the designer from his personal collection. The ingenious curation resulted in an intense, intimate exploration of both historic and modern craftwork. Blahnik’s shoes are flights of fantasy, albeit combined with the practicality of footwear. It’s no wonder that Carrie Bradshaw curated her own collection of designer shoes, stored in boxes until Big designed the ‘engagement ring’ wardrobe.
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. Conversely, experiencing Blahnik’s work in this manner allowed a glimpse into the craftsmanship behind the historic artefacts. Craftsmanship revealed as an act of love, of style, skills and materials.
Above, 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.” Manolo Blahnik. @manoloblahnikTweet
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. The museum collection includes 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. There is an elegant restaurant in the central courtyard where you are able to enjoy coffee or lunch in a peaceful setting in the city centre. www.wallacecollection.org