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Life - Entertain

An Insider’s Account of Manolo Blahnik

As a new documentary on the life of the shoe designer premieres, he and his director sit down to talk film, fashion and pink hair.

Michael Roberts, left, and Manolo Blahnik at the Manolo Blahnik headquarters in London. Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

LONDON — It began 46 years ago.

The British fashion writer and artist Michael Roberts recalled that he was on his way to Feathers, a boutique in London run by the trailblazing retailer Joan Burstein, when “this mad person came rushing out, across the road, in the traffic.”

“Me!” said the luxury shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, the owner of the Georgian townhouse in Marylebone where the two men were now gathered, having tea. “I did that to everybody when I wanted to know them.”

He succeeded, and this week the culmination of that friendship, “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards,” a documentary directed by Mr. Roberts, will have its premiere. The movie is a colorful collage of hilarious archival footage, poetic docudrama shorts, intimate moments with Mr. Blahnik and surprisingly touching interviews from fashion power players such as the Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the photographer David Bailey and the designer John Galliano.

What it does show, however, is the vibe between the two men, cultivated over more than four decades and the uncredited character at the heart of the film. At this stage, they riff off each other like fashion’s version of Bogart and Bacall, alternately needling, praising and encouraging each other. One cannot start a sentence without the other adding commentary. To experience that, you need to be in the room, to listen in on the whistle-stop tour of their history and relationship.

Beginning with that first meeting. Mr. Blahnik, 74, who grew up in the Canary Islands, had just arrived in London after studying politics and law at the University of Geneva, and art and set design in Paris, and took the job at Feathers as a sales assistant to secure his immigration papers.

“I was in charge of New Man jeans,” said Mr. Blahnik, nattily attired in a bespoke vanilla linen suit, sky blue and white striped knit tie, and saddle shoes. “They had jeans in the most beautiful acid green denim. I bought them.”

Mr. Roberts, 69, who was dressed in a faded navy raincoat, blue plaid Gap pajama pants, and saddle shoes, said, “And I bought them in orange.”

Manolo Blahnik became a household name in the 1990s thanks to the TV show “Sex and the City.” Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

Later they teamed up for a fashion collaboration in the 1980s.

“What did we call that collection?” Mr. Blahnik asked. “The Greek collection?”

“Yes,” Mr. Roberts said.

“And we were wearing it in the streets of ——”

“Chelsea,” Mr. Roberts said. “Lemon yellow crepe de Chine tunics, with cord belts. And we were walking around the back streets of Chelsea, trying to get a cab. And of course, no one would stop, because I was wearing the tunic, and my hair was dyed shocking pink, and I had no eyebrows.”

“That’s right!” Mr. Blahnik said. “You didn’t have eyebrows at all. How awful that was. It was horrific.”

“It wasn’t horrific.”

“It was horrific, Michael,” Mr. Blahnik said. “You looked like you were in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis.’”

When Mr. Blahnik started making shoes (the idea came from Diana Vreeland, then the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute), the fashion editor Grace Coddington became a fan, and, he said, she put him in British Vogue “all the time, with pictures by Norman Parkinson and the model Apollonia.”

“That was a major moment for you,” Mr. Roberts said. “The things you were doing back then. Bottines — nobody was doing bottines. And mules.”

“We still do mules.”

By the 1990s Mr. Blahnik had become a household name in the United States thanks to the TV show “Sex and the City,” whose Carrie Bradshaw character (Sarah Jessica Parker) wore “Manolos” religiously. Mr. Roberts at the time was the first fashion director of The New Yorker, where one of his jobs was working with the notoriously picky photographer Irving Penn.

Details inside the Manolo Blahnik headquarters. Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

“Every week I would meet with Mr. Penn down at the studio and present him with a list of potential people we would like him to photograph,” Mr. Roberts said. “And he’d say, ‘No, no, my dear boy. No, no, no. And then, in 2003, he said yes to Manolo.”

During the shoot in New York, Mr. Penn told Mr. Blahnik: “‘Now, hold something. Do you have some kind of jewel? No! I need a heel!’”

“So we ran to the office, and we got two heels,” Mr. Blahnik said. “And he said, ‘That one.’ Then he said, ‘Think about something.’ So I thought about Santa Teresa” — the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite nun — “and her memoirs. And he said, ‘Yes! Get yourself possessed by Santa Teresa! And now, hold the heel!’ And he took the picture.”

After leaving The New Yorker in 2006, Mr. Roberts made, among many other projects, a series of short films for and about Mr. Blahnik. The first, “Jealousy,” was a stormy tango-themed love story inspired by one of Mr. Blahnik’s shoe collections, starring their longtime friends the photographer Lucy Birley and the actor Rupert Everett, and shown on YouTube.

Sometime later Mr. Roberts produced several Super 8-style black-and-white movies about his friend’s childhood in the Canary Islands, with a boy in a crisp white shirt, dark knit vest and lederhosen scampering around a formal garden, playing with lizards and fashioning shoes for them out of the foil wrappers of Cadbury chocolate bars.

So pleased with how they turned out, Mr. Roberts thought: Why don’t we do a film of Manolo’s life? He proposed the idea, and Mr. Blahnik agreed.

Initially, the movie’s production went seamlessly. Mr. Roberts filmed Mr. Blahnik’s shoes as still lifes in flower beds and on swaths of silk, and he interviewed famous customers and friends including Rihanna and Paloma Picasso. To illustrate Mr. Blahnik’s inspirations, he dressed up Ms. Birley and the Chanel creative consultant Amanda Harlech as Victorian chatelaines and captured them strolling across the fields of a British estate.

“It was the day of a hurricane, with 100-mile-an-hour winds,” Mr. Roberts said.

“It was lovely, actually,” Mr. Blahnik said.

“It was perfect,” Mr. Roberts said.

Then, Mr. Roberts recalled, it came time to sit down with the star, and “Manolo said: ‘I don’t want to be in it.’”

“I didn’t, actually,” Mr. Blahnik said.

“So that caused a bit of a hiccup,” Mr. Roberts said.

“You know, his days of being very, very, very gregarious are done,” Mr. Roberts said.

“It’s true,” Mr. Blahnik said.

“He doesn’t do red carpets or anything like that anymore. He stays at home,” Mr. Roberts said. “All the people on the film were desperate to get him involved — he was like this myth, and they wanted to see him, to know what he’s about. So I wasn’t only the director, I was the diplomat, and the handler. So many roles that one had to play to get this film done.”

Mr. Blahnik said, “I changed my mind when ——”

“When you saw the little boy playing with the lizards. You said, ‘Oh my God, it’s so like how it was.’”

Not only did Mr. Blahnik change his mind and their friendship survive, but also the process of finishing the documentary has started something else.

“There’s another movie,” Mr. Blahnik said. “Together.”

“Yes,” Mr. Roberts said.

“But, it’s a secret,” Mr. Blahnik said.

They both picked up their teacups and smiled.

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