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Foot fetishists, rejoice!

by Brian Bromberger

Foot fetishists, rejoice!

Marilyn Monroe once cooed, "Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world." She may have had the right shoes, but alas not a pair of Manolos, since she died before he appeared on the scene. Considered by the fashion world to be the greatest shoe designer of the 20th century, "the godfather of soles," Manolo Blahnik is the subject of the documentary "Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards," released on DVD by Music Box Films. The film is a love letter to the now almost-76-year-old artist, though he thinks of himself as a simple cobbler. Former Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley calls him a "visionary poet, up there with Baudelaire." Designer Isaac Mizrahi opines, "Manolo wearers have the happiest feet in the world." Model Iman comments, "Manolo has become part of every woman's language," and the queen bee of fashion herself, Anna Wintour, pays him the ultimate compliment by being interviewed without her trademark sunglasses, observing, "I can't remember when I've worn someone else's shoes. I don't even look at them."

Manolo entered the pop culture pantheon when Princess Diana wore his shoes in the 1980s, which made him a household name in England. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) in the hit HBO TV series "Sex and the City" praised him as if he were a god, in one famous episode being robbed of her Manolo shoes by gunpoint, which helped immortalize him here in the U.S. Directed by fashion illustrator-editor Michael Roberts, this documentary borders on being an advertisement for Manolo's shoes rather than a penetrating exploration of his life or his craft.

Manolo Blahnik was born on La Palma in Spain's Canary Islands in 1942 to a wealthy family. His mother nurtured his creativity, as he made foil wrappers from Cadbury chocolates into shoes for reptiles. All his pocket money was spent on fashion magazines. Sent at age 14 to school in Geneva, his parents envisioned him becoming a diplomat at the UN. Bored to tears, he went to Paris in the early 1960s and eventually immigrated to London in 1971, then the height of the fashion world. Talley introduced him to Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, who encouraged him to concentrate on shoes. At his first shoe show in the early 70s, he forgot to put steel into the rubber high heels, causing his models to stumble as they promenaded down the runway. He became a fashion item himself, famous for his lavender suits or dressing like a 17th-century Sicilian gentleman, the first man on the cover of British Vogue. Partying nonstop in the 70s, he worked nonstop in the 80s establishing his brand and a store in NY. All the major fashion designers had their models wear his shoes. He provided the shoes for Sofia Coppola's movie "Marie Antoinette," which helped costumer Milena Canonnero win an Oscar.

The documentary provides few biographical details, which is probably not Roberts' fault, as in interviews, Manolo is never unguarded, using humor as a defense against any real revelations. We learn some of his influences, such as the painter Goya, nature (especially flowers), gardens, fashion photographer-costume designer Cecil Beaton, and Lucian Visconti's film "The Leopard." The joy of his life is spending time at his factory in Milan. His gay identity is never mentioned, but it is inconceivable that a straight man could have designed Manolo's shoes. Still, any gay identity would be based more on aesthetics than on sexuality. If camp came in the form of shoes, they would be Manolos. Talley comments that Manolo has never had or sought a relationship, and is naive when it comes to sexual practices. Manolo has a severe case of germophobia, thus the idea of intimately touching another body is probably repulsive to him. Whatever sexual energy he possesses is sublimated into his shoes. His friend, the witty actor Rupert Everett, notes that some of Manolo's shoes "look like giant tattooed cocks with concord heads" and that he once bought a pair of zebra-skinned pumps for men that seemed more feminine than women's shoes, but has never worn them.

Manolo can be chatty in a playful manner, but one suspects there is a shadow side underneath this elegant exterior. Roberts begins the film with Manolo yelling to the camera that the project will be a disaster, and it's "sheer nonsense" that it has taken two years to create it. He can be caustic, telling English model Penelope Tree she has peasant's feet. Clearly Manolo's work is his life. While at his factory, he still makes his own legendary heels, and doesn't tolerate any opinion that differs from his own.

The movie is cluttered with cheesy reenactments from Manolo's childhood as well as (inexplicably) the "Hot Voodoo" scene from the Marlene Dietrich film "Blonde Venus." There is a scene of Manolo with his white gloves sketching a shoe design, but precious little on the craft behind his shoes, which most mortals cannot afford. More close-ups of actual shoes (which Manolo calls his creatures; to each one he gives a name, such as Agatha) would have helped, instead of presenting them in dreamlike, surreal environments. The ultimate film on Manolo will probably have to wait until after he dies. For foot fetishists, this film will evoke delight. But for most viewers, the fawning praise, however deserved, will become tiresome.

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