Normally, it would be considered rude to pull off a shoe in a group of strangers and present it for ogling and caresses. Yet Carolina Herrera Jr., the petite first daughter of the bouffanted designer, slips easily out of a navy Blahnik at a party in her mother's Madison Avenue store. "Whenever I can, I take a pair from the smallest model in my mom's show," she giggles, tracing the embossed CH on the toe with a delicate finger. "I'm an eight -- usually the models are nines, but I get foot pads. You manage."
A few champagne flutes away from the junior Herrera -- past several dozen women teetering in their very own Blahniks, beyond a lippy Melanie Griffith embracing a bejeweled Ivana Trump -- Manolo Blahnik, shoe designer, covers his face in mock horror. "They're my shoes, yet everyone is constantly taking them off and giving them to me like I never saw them before," he says in a low-pitched drawl that comes across more as deep South than English-as-a-fourth-language. "It's on your foot, eh? I don't want to touch it!"
Sipping from a glass of passion fruit and vodka the exact same color as his chartreuse suit -- "All this black, boring" -- the 57-year-old Blahnik is hard to miss, yet recognized by few. His appearances in New York are brief and rare: Last week, he was here for only 24 hours to promote his new coffee-table book, a tome from HarperCollins filled with Blahnik family photos, illustrations of shoes, and whimsical anecdotes (he made tiny shoes for his pet monkey as a child). The son of a Spanish mother and Czech father who brought him up on the family banana plantation in the Canary Islands, Blahnik relocated to London in his twenties and doesn't like to leave Europe. "New York for me is in-and-out," he explains. "It's not my favorite city."
Yet Blahnik's name here is synonymous with fancy feet, and those devotees in possession of a pair consider Blahniks to be much more than a shoe. "They can make an ugly foot look beautiful," says Ivana's boyfriend, Roffredo Gaetani, while he circulates at the Herrera party. "Mostly, women's feet are ugly." The choice of socialites and movie stars and anyone else who can afford a pair (they average a steep $500), Blahniks appear almost daily on the feet of the fabulous in newspaper columns, weekly on the feet of the wicked in Sex and the City, and -- one time only, one hopes -- as Jennifer Aniston's wedding shoes. Madonna said they're "as good as sex, but last longer."
"That quote!" shrieks Blahnik, shaking his head maniacally. "I'm going to have to put it on my tombstone with all the times I've heard it. I am so bored with it."
Blahnik, however, is never truly bored. When he is at rest, a rare occurrence, it is impossible to miss the excellent cut of his suit, the embroidered MB on his starched shirt, the way his white hair is parted in the middle and slicked back to meet in a neat "v" at his nape. Once he starts to speak, however, everything is rolled eyes, sibilant s's, hands aflight. "I am a serious person," he confides. "But I am a little flaky too."
As he always does when he's in New York, this trip Blahnik stayed at the St. Regis, right around the corner from his midtown shop. He was accompanied everywhere by George Malkemus, his blue-eyed cherub of a business partner, who is also on hand to answer questions like "Where are my glasses?," "Do you have my camera?," and "Can I have a cinnamon mint?" And he's got the choicest stories.
"In San Francisco," says Malkemus, "we had to have lunch with the best customer of Manolo's shoes at the Neiman Marcus store: an 80-year-old woman -- "
"I said, 'No, no, no -- ' " cries Blahnik, one hand over his eyes. "I could not believe this could be the woman!"
"She takes off her shoe and plunks it on the table, telling us she drank champagne out of the sole," says George. "So Manolo gets very excited over her, and says 'Oh, Tallulah Bankhead!,' and she says, 'No, Perrier-Jouët!' " He dissolves into giggles.
"They are always asking me to sign the shoes, too," says Manolo, making a wide curlicue in the air. "One time I signed 23,000 pairs one day -- "
"No," protests George. "We sold $23,000 in shoes that day."
"No, stupid!" cries Manolo.
"Well, okay," says George, pursing his lips. "I'm just the one who takes care of the dollars. I'm the money man."
"I," Manolo says often, "am the shoe man."
It's this role of shoe man that Blahnik has been asked to play the following morning, on a special Fashion Week edition of The View. The 9 a.m. call for Blahnik at ABC's studios was early for him, but the shoe models had already been there for a couple hours, and as they walked up and down the hallway in various states of almost-dressed it was evident that most of them hailed from that not very fashionable division of modeldom: the plus size.
Blahnik sweeps into the studio with Malkemus and immediately darts into his dressing room. "Oh, you've got to be kidding," he says, covering his mouth to laugh. "These are the models?"
"This is T.V., Manolo," explains Malkemus, pursing his lips yet again. "This is Middle America."
The producer sits down with Blahnik for a run-through. "I want you to be Manolo Blahnik," says the producer.
"I am Manolo Blahnik," says Blahnik.
"Sure," admits the producer. "But I want you to be Manolo Blahnik."
Blahnik throws up his hands. "All right," he says.
Star Jones appears, wearing only Lycra leggings and a leopard-print camisole. "Omigod, I just met the man of my dreams," she cries, embracing Blahnik.
"Are you Italian?" asks Barbara Walters; upon hearing that he's not, she runs off: "Joy! Joy! I told you he was Spanish!"
Finally everyone clears out, and the models enter Blahnik's dressing room to put on his shoes. "This is all so primitive," says Blahnik. "No place for these girls to change?" Once they start lacing up or slipping on, however, his attitude changes.
"Look how fabulous this girl looks!" he exclaims, pointing at a woman in over-the-knee black boots. "Like Julia Roberts! Honey, the nineties are back!"
"Oh, sweetie, your first time in those shoes?" he asks a woman teetering in a pair of his four-inch-high satin stilettos. "You poor thing, they must hurt."
Then he turns his attention to a denim shoe with oversize oblong pearls jiggling on the front. "I made it eleven, twelve, twenty years ago -- I don't know -- and we sell one every single day, who knows why, cluck-cluck-cluck with the pearls all the time," he says. He waves a hand in the air. "I am so bored with this shoe."