Manolo puts the 'who's who' in shoes

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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Manolo Blahnik isn’t above admiring his own work, and why should he be? “These I adore!” he said to a fan who handed over one of her pink satin, jewel-embellished pumps for his signature during last Friday’s heel hullabaloo at Neiman Marcus in Palm Beach.

When another admirer confessed to Blahnik that she owned more of his shoes than any other designer’s because his are so comfortable, he cooed, “Oh, I love you! That’s a great compliment!” and pretended to kiss her hand.

At 70, Blahnik remains as flamboyant as his spring crop of Peeps-colored, patent-leather pumps. He attended the Neiman’s meet-and-greet wearing a 20-year-old lilac suit, a pink-and-white bow tie and white oxfords, and a ready smile.

“Is it summer? No. Is it winter? No. I don’t even know what it is,” he said of his outfit, a few minutes prior to making his way — accompanied by a pair of swirling flamenco dancers, a nod to his Spanish roots — toward the ladies shoe salon, which was wall to wall, heel to toe, nothing but Manolo, just for the occasion.

“I always get surprised with the reception, that people know me,” said Blahnik. “Yes, they know my shoes, yes, but not me. It’s always a surprise — what the hell is this for?”

Born in Spain and raised in the Canary Islands, Blahnik’s first career was that of a set designer in Paris. On a visit to New York City in 1970, he showed some of his theatrical drawings to Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Vogue, and she decreed that he should focus on shoes.

In an era of earth tones and clownishness and clunk, Blahnik’s design signatures stood out: color, elegance, pointed toes and delicate heels. Over the decades, his work won the hearts of Jacqueline Onassis and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Princess Diana and Kate Middleton, Anna Wintour and Rihanna. Madonna famously said, “Manolo Blahnik’s shoes are as good as sex, and they last longer,” and thanks to Sarah Jessica Parker’s shoe-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City,” the Blahnik mystique reached a mass audience.

“He’s just a special person, and if you’re a ‘Sex and the City’ woman, you know his name, and you feel like you know him,” said Lenore Frost of Palm Beach.

Frost and her friend, Palm Beach’s Janet Levy, bought flats from Blahnik’s limited-edition, 14-style Palm Beach collection. Created solely for the island’s Neiman Marcus, the shoes in the series range in price from $595 to $1,685.

They guarantee happy feet, said Levy, who received double kisses and hugs from the designer. “He’s a great personality,” she said. “And he’s really working the crowd.”

And he did so, signing books, shoebox lids and T-shirts, despite seeming a little frazzled by his jet-set schedule. When did he arrive in Palm Beach?, someone asked.

“Yesterday? Is it? Um, I need to someone help me!” he said. “I was always like that. I wake up somewhere and say, ‘I’m going to Central Park,’ but I’m not in New York any longer. The thing is, if you do work in Italy, you live in London, you have a home here and a home there, you don’t have a proper life. I’m sorry, but I’m dying to be in one place with just one dog and some housekeeper.”

But Blahnik has no plans for retirement. “No! No, no, no, no!” said the designer-cobbler, who still perfects the lasts on which his shoes are built with his own hands. “Retirement? How boring! I enjoy what I do. I love my life.”

There are still too many women, and men, who require his exacting services, his eye for the extraordinary. Women have been fascinated with shoes as long as they’ve worn them, “but now I think men react much more to women’s shoes than women themselves,” said Blahnik. “I always hear from the husbands because (their wives) spend too much money on my things.”

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