Visiting the Victoria and Albert museum’s shoe exhibition, Pleasure and Pain, I wasn’t sure that I would have chosen this title to encapsulate our relationship with shoes. Manolo Blahnik puts it much better in the 12 minute film showing inside the exhibit, and by far its most interesting feature. The film features interviews with shoe designers, including Christian Louboutin and Sandra Choi but it is Blahnik that shines for his wonderful flamboyance but sheer passion. When asked what brought him to design shoes, he reels off a list: clothes, furniture, etc etc – all practical items, with a disgusted expression on his face. Then his expression changes; his eyes light up: but shoes are FANTASY!
And there is plenty of fantasy on display here, from fetish boots, like this wonderful pair of red and gilt button boots from early 20th century Sweden, to the “urban myth” of the Manolo Blahnik “Mary Janes”: shoes to fuel both male and female fantasies. There are Roger Vivier’s “pilgrim” shoes, made famous by Catherine Deneuve in “Belle de Jour” but today more associated with another Marianne, Ines de la Fressange. There is also the (almost) incredible: enormous wooden platforms for geishas and the tiniest triangular slips for bound or “lotus” feet. It seems that the ideal length was considered to be 7.6cm – smaller than a business card.
I also discovered the origin of the “co-respondent” shoe: it was named after a derogatory term for a certain type of decadent, wealthy man, typified by the “co-respondent” or culpable party in a divorce case. Despite this ignominious start, the shoes were made fashionable by the Duke of Windsor and now seem to have settled down into a somewhat dandy-ish but guilt-free existence.
I’m a Manolo girl, I confess, so I most enjoyed seeing the examples on display, including a deconstructed one, as well as the designer himself on screen. The finest moment in the short film, has him showing his contempt for that staple of modern design, the “moodboard”. He has no time for this. His designs emerge spontaneously in his mind, sometimes even when he wakes in the night and so he keeps a pencil and pad by the bed to record them. That’s genius and that’s passion too.