Unlike Mr. Blahnik, Mr. Louboutin seemed to revel in borderline vulgarity. What, after all, is a red sole but an update on the comedian Minnie Pearl’s custom of wearing her hat with the price tag attached? “It was a chic idea for a minute,” said George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik U.S.A. “You wore a red sole, and everyone knew you spent $1,200 or $1,400 for your shoes. And I would say there was a period when certain customers abandoned us and moved into that world.”
Even among those closely associated with the iconic Blahnik shoe there was a sense that the tide had shifted. A time came, Ms. Parker said, “when Manolo wasn’t defining the aesthetic,” when Blade Runner styles took over from smart patent pumps, and wearing Manolos was almost like announcing one had turned in one’s coquette card and started taking style cues from Judge Judy.
Mr. Blahnik, notoriously indifferent to fashion trends, stayed true to an aesthetic that he said was formed in his 1950s boyhood by women like Audrey Hepburn and the ultra-elegant model Dovima, nee Dorothy Juba. “The gimmicky thing I’m not very keen on,” Mr. Blahnik said last week from London. “I’ve never been tempted to do these hideous furniture shoes.”
But fashion, as we all know, is nothing if not fickle; Heidi Klum is merely reporting fact when she notes each week on “Project Runway” that one day you’re in and the next day you’re out. So it should come as no surprise that, suddenly, signs are everywhere that Blahnik is back in style.
When Kate Moss married last summer, she was shod in a pair of classic Manolos. When Ms. Parker was photographed in a multipage page pictorial for last August’s Vogue, she wore Manolo’s BB pump exclusively. When Marc Jacobs showed his spring 2012 collection last month in New York, he paid sly homage to Manolo and the designer’s classic high-heel Mary-Janes.
And at the recent spring 2012 shows in Paris, the style of footwear dominating runways had a lot less in common with the stunt shoes that held sway in recent seasons — the ones compulsively name-checked by Real Housewives and in songs by J. Lo, and that garnered Mr. Louboutin full-scale profiles in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair — than with the simple and ladylike shoe Mr. Blahnik has designed since his competitors were in their teens.
“In the fight for the shoe summit,” Ms. Parker said, Manolo is suddenly on top again.
The reasons seem clear. Not only did “the cult of the ugly shoe have to end,” as André Leon Talley, a contributing editor of Vogue, recently noted, but unbridled ostentatious spending has come to look a lot less chic when nearly 1 in 10 Americans is unemployed.
“Fashion had to turn on its ugly heel and return to beautiful shoes,” Mr. Talley said, citing among the appealing elements of Manolo Blahnik shoes their sleek lines and absence of gimmickry.
“They’re a staple, something you have to have in your refrigerator, like butter or milk,”’ he said, or Champagne and caviar, anyway.
“Manolo’s shoes are very much in the spirit of this moment’s clothes, pared down, with simple lines, and I hate to say ladylike, but classic,” said Linda Fargo, the senior vice president for women’s fashion at Bergdorf Goodman, where recent deliveries of a particular Manolo Blahnik pump sold out so fast, the store was forced to institute a waiting list, that forgotten symbol of ’90s excess.
“We do a very, very strong business in his shoes,” Jonathan Joselove, senior vice president and merchandise manager for Neiman Marcus Stores, said by phone from Paris, adding that the stores have difficulty keeping certain Manolos in stock, despite a cost of $600 or more a pair. “He knows how to make a woman look beautiful,” Mr. Joselove said.
Understandably, most Americans might struggle to understand the irresistible allure of a shoe whose cost is equal to about a quarter of the average annual household clothes budget for a family of four. Yet for retail analysts, the current rush on Manolo Blahnik shoes is an encouraging sign for the economy, over all.
“The upper end of the market is driving much of the growth” in retail, said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the NPD Group, a consumer research firm. And surprisingly, despite a near constant din of doomful economic news, that market is by all accounts robust.
“Luxury is strong,” said Mary Lou Quinlan, the chief executive of Just Ask a Woman, a marketing company with clients like Clairol and GlaxoSmithKline. “There’s an element among women who are still doing well in their jobs of, ‘I deserve it, I need it, I’ve got to have my fix.’ ”
As recently as a year ago, that shoe fix might have been delivered by Jimmy Choo, Sergio Rossi, Pierre Hardy, Brian Atwood, Walter Steiger, Nicholas Kirkwood or any of the other high-end players who got in on the lucrative market in keeping women well shod.
It might have had bondage straps or menacing spikes, ornamental elements that made it seem, during one recent season, as if Miuccia Prada had found inspiration in Rosa Klebb, Ian Fleming’s Cold War villain who secreted stiletto blades in her soles.
On certain Louboutin shoes, heels rose above six inches, the better to accommodate thick wedges and platforms and to justify prices that crept toward $2,000 a pair. “Louboutins were just so much cooler, spikier and more high-fashion,” said the writer Molly Jong-Fast, a self-professed shoe fiend. “If you’re going to spend $800 for a pair of shoes, you want something cutting edge, not something you’ll see everyone wearing at shul.”
Curiously, the reemergence of Blahnik’s restrained “classic” styles counters an apparent trend sometimes noted by footwear historians: the more depressed the economy, the more vertiginous the shoe. “But this recession has dragged on so long” that the playful vulgarity of wearing sinister and gravity-defying shoes is seen as unseemly, said Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “If the first wave was an overexuberant expression of wealth, the next is of ostentatious restraint.”
Or, as Ms. Quinlan of Just Ask a Woman said, “It’s tacky to strut around in your red-soled shoes when other people are trying not to get a pink slip.”
Yet it’s style, and not political correctness, that is driving a return to Manolo Blahnik. “For classic, timeless Jackie O dressing, it’s always back to Manolo,” said Lisa Bytner, a Manhattan publicist who owns 20 pairs. “I bought Louboutins to be in on the platform fad and now they’re sitting in the closet because they hurt.” In Manolos, say fans like Ms. Bytner, “I can jog down the street and run for a taxi.”
Why bother, Mr. Louboutin said in a recent interview timed to coincide with the release of a lavish 304-page coffee-table book (Rizzoli, $150) celebrating his designs? “I don’t have the pretensions that they are there to fulfill every need that people have,” he told The New York Post. “Who wants to run, anyway, really?”
Arriving for her Vogue shoot last spring, Ms. Parker entered a dressing room filled with the latest styles and a wall of shoes secured for the sitting by Tonne Goodman, a seasoned editor at Vogue. “I walked in and looked around and saw all these shoes, and then I spotted the Manolos and it was like water in a desert,” Ms. Parker said.
“I was just so excited to see a simple black pump.”
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