Photo: Misan Harriman
On this week’s episode of In Her Shoes, editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples talks to Kristina Blahnik, CEO of the Manolo Blahnik brand. For Kristina, who “grew up in a shoebox,” there is no separating her work from her life, no dividing line between career and family. It’s all part of the journey, and she’s simply stewarding the Blahnik clan’s latest chapter. “I definitely don’t think it’s my own moment,” she says of her role. “I think it’s our moment, our family moment.”
Listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to hear about Kristina’s experience growing up in, and eventually taking the reins of, the family business.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay Peoples: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples and I’m editor-in-chief of The Cut. On this show, I get to talk to people that we love and admire, or some that we just find interesting. We explore how they found their path and what may have gotten in their way, and how they’ve brought others along now that they’ve arrived.
Kristina Blahnik walks in the footsteps of her incomparable uncle, Manolo, and as the CEO of the Manolo Blahnik brand, there’s no doubt those shoes are absolutely divine. Since taking over the position in 2013, she’s been able to expand the company from just six employees to 80 globally, and from two standalone shops to 20 boutiques, all while keeping the staple artistry of the luxury shoe brand her uncle started just over 50 years ago. We talked about maintaining the Manolo Blahnik legacy, the brand’s impact in pop culture, and her vision for the future of the brand.
So usually when we do this show, I always ask my guests what kind of shoes they have on, because of course this show is called In Her Shoes. I’m assuming you mostly wear Manolos, but I’m curious if they are Manolos, what kind? A backstory. Manolos are obviously so intricately beautiful, so I’m wondering what shoes you’re wearing now, or what are your favorite shoes to wear right now?
Kristina Blahnik: I am actually wearing a shoe from the family of shoes that is my favorite family, which is I’m wearing a flat Maysale pump, which is a little flat pump in red, black, green and blue plaid. So I’m harnessing my autumnal fabrics at the moment.
The backstory to it is, it was originally a design that was done for Isaac Mizrahi’s runway show in 1990, and there’s some fantastic pictures of Linda Evangelista wearing them with this fantastic, huge skirt. It’s got a little pilgrim buckle on the front of it, and in the last I’d say six to eight years, it’s had a renaissance and we now have a little family of them in flats and in higher heels, in pumps, in slings, in boots. But that is my favorite shoe, because one, I can run around in it. I can wear it from the morning up until midnight. Not that I ever go to bed at midnight, that’s far too late. Also, it’s just got a little bit of detail that just makes it more than just a simple shoe, but it is so understated that it’s elegant in whatever situation. It’s flat, either flat or five centimeters, and I’m very tall, so I prefer to go for very low heels or little flat shoes.
Lindsay: That sounds very chic. I’m going to ask you for a picture later so I can see which shoes you’re talking about.
Kristina: I will send them immediately.
Lindsay: Love, love. You are part of such an amazing incredible family, and just Manolos as a shoe have so much heritage and are part of culture so much. But what was that like as a younger person? What were some of your earliest memories of being brought into the fold of the family business or just knowing and being surrounded by shoes so much? I was also just wondering if you had a favorite pair when you were a child or what was that experience like?
Kristina: Well, I’ve said to people in the past, I grew up in a shoebox. I genuinely did and it’s not just a metaphor. I remember the shop on Old Church Street, which is in Chelsea, which is still a little flagship historical shop, was my living room. It was where after I came back from school at 3:00 PM, I would go upstairs and do my homework in our little teeny tiny little office, and I’d watch my uncle and my mother selling shoes or unpacking shoes for the new collections or sending shoes out for the press. I mean, they did everything. So it was an extension of our home.
Then when the big new collections arrived, of course it was just my mother and my uncle and maybe a couple of other people from the team that were helping, and it would go late into the evening. Out of the cartons that the shoes were being delivered in, they would make these little Wendy houses. I don’t know if you call it Wendy houses in the States, that little kind of houses that children play in. They used to cut a big giant mouse hole out of it like a door, and I’d just play in this little house. So it was a shoebox, so I did grow up in a shoebox, but it was magical. It was my playground.
At the end of the day, I had my little jobs. I had to get my suede brush and I had to brush all the suede shoes. At 5:30 PM every day I’d hoover the shop, and it’s really where I kind of learned and observed my mother and my uncle truly working hard to make the business a success every day and doing every single little part of it. That’s what I very much carry into everything I do now. I want to be involved in every aspect, so that I can support or I can also roll my sleeves up and do whatever is necessary, whether it’s selling shoes in the stores or going to the factories or helping with press days. I learned that work ethic from my mother and uncle, watching them.
But then when you asked me about my favorite shoe, well, I’ve kind of evolved, I have so many of them. But I think at that moment in time when I was a little girl, there was one particular pair of bright red patent pumps and they were on a four and a half, five-inch heel, and they were U.S. size four, so quite small. I must have been about eight years old, and I had this fantastic school uniform, which was bottle green tights — wool tights, really wooly, scratchy tights, those horrible ones — a gray flannel kind of pinafore dress and then a little bottle green wool cardigan. Jamie, who’s our house historian now and supports in the archives and with all our visual merchandising, he was working in the shop and they say, “Oh God, put these shoes on, put these shoes on.” I put these shoes on and I’d dance around the shop, because we have these two giant mirrors there. If anyone ever goes, they’re still there. It’s exactly the same shop that it was in the ‘80s. They used to make me dance to all these songs with these giant red patent shoes. I’ve never seen them since I was about eight years old, but they’re my very first shoe memory.
Lindsay: I know that you went to school for architecture, and you didn’t go into the business until you were in your thirties. What was the thing that changed for you, wanting to do something different and then coming back to it?
Kristina: I never left it, because even through school, university, even when I was an architect and I had my own practice, we always helped in the business in some shape or form. So as a teenager, I used to help in the shop, in my early 20s, I used to help in the press office on my holidays. Then when I had my architecture practice, it was in the very late ‘90s, early 21st century, we had a digital camera, so we used to do all the look books for Manolo Blahnik.
So I never left it. I always had a tiny little toe in the door. But in my mid-30s, there was an alignment of all sorts of different things happening for myself, in my own life, in my own career as an architect, in my family’s life, in my uncle’s life, in my mother’s life. It was one of those moments that I’ve heard about where things come together and it slightly shifts your path. It was a moment where my uncle couldn’t go to the factories. This was in summer 2009. We were developing the 2010 collection, and I was just a juncture in my life where I said, “You know what? I need to support my family now. I need to take some time out from my architecture practice and support my family.” If I can build a building in some parallel universe, translate the same concepts of proportion and structure and construction and materials, even though they’re very, very different, the logic of it, I can probably apply to a shoe.
So Manolo entrusted me with his drawings and we set up all sorts of complicated … At the time, internet was virtually still dialing up and we set it all up. So every day I’d be in the factories working and we’d send all the photos to Manolo in the evenings and we would then talk on the phone. It was before we had Zoom and video and FaceTime. Every day it would be the same sequence of events. We’d send it in the evening, in the mornings we’d talk, and then I’d spend the day in the factories working with the factories and the patent cutters.
But the first day was quite interesting. I know I was sitting at a table and the patent cutters, there were three or four of them. We were all looking at each other going, “Oh goodness, are we going to be able to do this?” We did and it was a beautiful collection and it was the best way to be baptized into the business full-time, because I wanted to tell the story of that collection. That’s really where my journey started with spring/summer 2010. But I never ever, ever thought I would go into the family business full-time, but now that I’m in it, I knew this was my destiny. It’s where I’m meant to be.
Lindsay: I love that. There’s a quote in Forbes Magazine. You said you never had shoes to fill, and you came in with your own shoes and your own vision and dream for the brand and things that you wanted to do in moving it forward. What was going through your mind to actually take over as CEO and really find the path that you really wanted for the brand? Obviously, there’s so much history with the brand, but moving things forward, new brands pop up all the time. What was going through your head as far as you starting and going on this path on your own in a new direction to keep the brand in a really modern presence, but also bring it forward into the future as in your own moment?
Kristina: I definitely don’t think it’s my own moment, I think it’s our moment, our family moment. I don’t feel like I’ve put my own stamp on this. What I hope I’ve done is kind of opened the doors to opportunities that in the absence of me having been there, we might not have considered. I feel like I’ve been part of the journey of evolving the narrative and the product and our little world.
In my mid-30s I had already set up from scratch our own little business, our architecture practice, which is still very much operational and doing very well and is still the lead designer for the majority of our stores worldwide. I’d already set a path of maturing in a professional world on my own. I suppose I already had a certain set of values and views of the world and perspectives that were my own. It’s like going to university, you can be indoctrinated in a way of doing things, as opposed to evolving into a way of doing this or learning them or making your own decisions about them. So I came to a point where I felt I was mature enough and confident enough to have my own voice, but also humble enough to go, “Okay, I need to learn everything, even though I did grow up in it.”
So I didn’t step into the CEO role immediately. I needed to start right from the beginning. Whilst yes, my first full day was on an airplane with Manolo’s drawings, as soon as that was developed, I then took a big step back and I went into the press office. I was working in the press office doing the send-outs, just making sure we could get our story out, and little by little, through curiosity, I wanted to learn more about every aspect of it.
It took me four years before I was ever in a position to even consider starting to lead the business. My mother was the managing director up until I joined as CEO. We did it jointly for many years and then eventually she’s kind of taken a slight step back, but still very involved in the business. I wasn’t put in at the deep end, I learned to swim.
Lindsay: How have you balanced that transition? It’s obviously a big role, and balancing being a CEO and upholding your family legacy, your own life being a mother, how have you balanced that and tried to also make space for self-care?
Kristina: I suppose I sit in a fairly unique position where this is my life, and not because I’m living and breathing work, it’s because this is my family, and that goes beyond my mother and my uncle, it goes into the whole team here. It doesn’t feel like I need to switch one thing off and switch another thing on. I don’t feel like I’m multitasking, I feel like it’s all just part of my journey. So I don’t feel like I’m needing to juggle things, because there’s only one direction or one object, one ball if you like, that I’m holding and I’m evolving with it. Having children, stepchildren, I’m co-parenting, it adds another perspective and their curiosity in the shoes, they get excited about it. We even had a couple of years ago, they were designing collections, which is quite fun. It’s easy I suppose, because it’s my life, it’s all I know.
Lindsay: What would you say is the challenging part about balancing it all, or what would you say is something that you are still trying to figure out and learn on this journey?
Kristina: Oh God, many, many things. I hope I never stop learning. I think trying to be a better person every day, trying to be a better parent, a better leader, a better human. I think that’s the constant challenge I suppose, but it’s also the thing that keeps me motivated and invigorated every day is that I’m safe in the knowledge that I have a lot to learn and I will never end learning. It will never cease. One of my big, big passions is mental health and mental wellbeing. From my own personal journey, the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. That is a constant challenge of how can I share my experiences? How can I help other people? How can we help other people? But there’s such a power in vulnerability that actually something I never appreciated until I was in my forties, and I think that’s something I want to continue to share and evolve in myself.
Lindsay: You talk about vulnerability, which I think is really important and beautiful. I know that you love cooking. What are things that you’re interested in outside of running a company and balancing family? What are things that you’re solely interested in or that you feel like have been fruitful to you just in your own development?
Kristina: I love cooking. It’s like a meditation, because it’s one of the few things for me where it will not permit me to think about anything else. I need to be fully in the present. It’s also using your hands. The chopping and the cooking and the thinking about the time, you don’t have to think about anything else. I love it as a meditation. Of course, also, it’s highly rewarding at the end of it. Hopefully, if I’ve cooked a good meal, that is.
So that and I’d say in the last six to eight years, I’ve gone from being an urbanite to a ruralite. I’m very, very connected to nature now. Just by physically being in it, I feel that my energy changes and I feel much more grounded. We moved to the country about six years ago, and now coming into the city, I just feel it’s a different energy, it’s a much faster paced one. I love it, but there’s an inner peace in nature. In my world, there are only three things that are luxury and that’s time, freedom, and safety, and nature for me really embodies that. Being in the countryside, being in the forest, being with my dog, that’s luxury.
Lindsay: How do you balance that creatively? Obviously, having your quiet time in nature and the country with your family, but then also designing for women and femmes who live all over the world and they live in very different places. What is that journey like and process like in your mind of designing for people who live in different spaces and creatively being in different spaces as well?
Kristina: I love that. I love being in the office. I love it. Creatively, I love it. I love both for different reasons. One is that introspection and the other one is that expression that you have in a work environment with people around, because it’s so dynamic when someone can just say one sentence and it can slightly shift your creative direction, or it can give you a new idea.
So when Manolo has done the initial sets of its designs and then I start working with him and then I start working with the teams, it’s that feedback. In-person is really for me how magic happens. When you can feel someone going, “Well, what about that?” Or they’re touching something, and you go, “You’re touching that, is that something of interest to you?” It’s just a faster pace, more dynamic way of communicating for my mind to work. So creatively, I find the energy of being in the city fantastic.
Then to answer your question around how do you design for a global woman or man or anyone who’s passionate about what we do, it starts, I suppose, with what Manolo’s passions are. Because he doesn’t design to fashion, he designs to culture and intellect and collages of all the things that have inspired him over the years. I think you can design for anyone anywhere in the world, as long as you design it beautifully and comfortably and with the best quality.
You think of the person that’s wearing flats to the person that wants to wear the towering heels. It’s going to talk to someone somewhere, but really beauty and proportion and quality and comfort I think are universal. It doesn’t matter where you are. So that’s how I believe and I hope we are taking everyone’s needs and desires into consideration.
Lindsay: Do you feel like there is any pressure to mass produce or to make more? Obviously, there’s a ton of brands right now and fast fashion I think is faster than ever. So how do you also develop a perspective around that?
Kristina: Brings me back to we’re one of the few companies in our sector of fashion that is completely independent, and that brings me back to that luxury of time and freedom. I’m very, very cautious and quite deliberate in not putting pressure on our direction, because there is no need to grow. That’s what I find worrying when I hear other people going, “Oh, we’re going to grow 20% year on year.” From my perspective, that should be a byproduct of nurturing all the other pillars and foundations, whether it be values of beauty, creativity, artisanry, the product, our commitment to responsibility.
If we’re doing everything that we can to create the best things in the best way with trying to be a force for good, growth is a byproduct of that. By never altering your path or compromising, I hope that over the last 51 years we’ve nurtured a loyal and ever-growing community that look to invest in us because we don’t want to be fast fashion, we’re very much about timelessness.
I have shoes and I hear so many stories of people that have shoes that they bought 20 years ago and they still wear them, and that for me is what my legacy is. It’s about creating something that will be relevant, either to an individual or in history, beyond in the short, medium, and long-term.
Lindsay: I’m sure people always ask you about the Sex and the City satin, blue heels.
Lindsay: I have them, I’m sure you have them. I’m pretty sure everybody has them at this point, but I love those shoes so much. How do you take success of that shoe, and just obviously Manolos were such a big part of Sex and the City and just the storyline throughout that show. How do you take that and build on it and I think introduce people who are just coming across it in the show now and re-watching the show or seeing the show for the first time? It’s funny how kids see the photos on TikTok and they discover it for the first time. So how do you capitalize on that moment, but also bring things forward?
Kristina: That moment, at any popular culture moment that we have had the privilege to be part of has always come as a surprise, first of all. Secondly, it’s kind of just slightly shifted our journey. In late ‘90s when Candace Bushnell wrote the book, she was a genuine authentic fan of Manolo. And then that translated into this wonderful show, and it was formative for me. I was in my early 20s when that came out, and it does, it brought Manolo from being a very successful, small brand of the people in the know to, it brought it into every household.
What an amazing way to let people know what you are and who you are. One of the very important things for us at that time and continues to be is to not let that change what we stand for, so that people can come and explore us and go, “Oh, okay.” And be more curious and learn about Manolo and who he is and what he stands for and the product he has, because every single season he designs 200 new styles with new heels and new last. I mean, he’s so prolific creatively, but that opens the door for people to go, “Who’s this Manolo Blahnik?” It allowed Manolo to express himself even more to a wider audience.
All those things just shifted perspectives and also opened opportunities to wider audience to learn about Manolo, because he is one of the most cultured and academic people I have ever and probably will ever have the opportunity to meet. If he can share any of that with even one other person, that for him is success.
Lindsay: That’s really beautiful. I mean, how do you feel like the aesthetic has evolved since all of those big moments that you mentioned, Rihanna and JLo and Sarah Jessica Parker, all those people? How are you looking to evolve just the aesthetic and overall creative vision for the brand since you’ve had such big moments? What are you looking forward to doing?
Kristina: I don’t think it’s shifted, there’s been no revolution. Manolo stands for beautiful shapes, beautiful silhouettes. He did the platforms in the ‘70s, because that for him was his moment to do it, he hasn’t done it since. Even though whatever it was, a decade, decade and a half ago, platforms were very much front of everyone’s minds. Again, this season I’ve seen amazing shoes running down the runway, but they’re not Manolo. Manolo is more about being the jeweler of feet, the jeweler of shoes. That doesn’t necessarily need to have a jewel on it, it’s that moment of magic.
The only way we’re really going to evolve is having better quality materials and even more comfort and standing by our values. Manolo, there’s a beautiful quote that is actually his life motto. It was given to him by Luchino Visconti, who he sat next to at dinner in the early ‘70s: Without tradition, we are nothing. But in Manolo’s mind, with fantasy, we are free.
So bringing those two worlds together of, he references culturally so many traditional elements from all parts of the world, whether they be visual, in words, in sound, because those are the collages that he has in his mind to create a new form, a new idea. That newness, that excitement that we haven’t seen before, but actually it’s not coming from a vacuum. You can’t create from a vacuum. It comes from traditions. That elegance and that quietness and that beauty, and sometimes very whimsical as well is what Manolo is and always will stand for, and that’s what I am an apprentice to, to continue that journey.
I think the reason that blue Hangisi really resonated for so, so, so many years, I think we’re now in its 13th year, its 13th birthday I think, or maybe even 14th birthday, is because it’s the perfect piece of jewelry for the foot. It’s understated, but it’s elegant. It’s got enough, but not too much. It just sits in that perfect space. And that’s why I think it’s really resonated for so many years with so many with people. And I’m so glad you have one. Do you still wear it?
Lindsay: Yeah. Oh my gosh, yeah.
Kristina: Good. Someone was telling me yesterday, “Oh, I have these shoes. I’ve only worn them twice in 10 years.” Oh no, poor little babies. They want to come out and party.
Lindsay: Oh, yeah. I don’t like to do the behavior where people save nice things for only nice occasions. I feel like that’s a waste of time. And I will literally just be like, I need to run two errands and put on a blazer and some jeans and wear them.
Lindsay: I don’t want to save them for like, “Oh, I’m going to this gala or this work thing.” I’m definitely more the type fit. I love the shoes and I want to wear them whenever. And I also just feel like that’s kind of the magic of them, that you can wear them whenever.
Kristina: Manolo, I watch him in the factories and even when he’s drawing, but when he’s in the factories cutting the patterns on the last, he is talking, he’s saying, like you said, Lindsay, “You went to the shops at 6:00 AM in the morning because you ran out of milk or you went dancing at that ball in 1700s or you were on these… ” He literally tells their story and breathes life into them. But then when you own them, when you’ve invested in them, you breathe another whole life story into them. And it’s amazing how many memories people talk about when they say, “Oh, I have these Manolos and they did this, that, and the others.”
So I think there’s a whole world of Manolo memories that if I could probably put it out there and went, “Tell me your memory of your favorite Manolos.” They probably have five or six ones from the most beautiful romantic to the naughtiest you could imagine. There’s a story I think behind everyone’s Manolos in a cupboard and you’ve got to wear them. They need to live their lives.
Lindsay: Yeah, yeah, totally. I mean, ultimately, what do you envision as the legacy under your watch?
Kristina: My legacy is to protect that, to build all the foundations to protect that, and also to give back. One of the things that we did during lockdowns is that we bought forward a project, which was one of these long term dreams that I had of giving back the archives to the world because I couldn’t think of anything more sad than shoes collecting dust in a basement or a building or whatever climate condition spaces that they need to keep archive items now. I wanted it to be out there for people to share and see and appreciate and learn from and be inspired by, which is why we launched the archives on our website.
It’s a modular journey of Manolo’s drawings, objects, shoes that he’s designed. Next year, we’re launching another room, which goes much deeper into what we do and how we do it. And year on year, we want to add more and more. So that’s one part of giving back. And then the other part is our foundation in supporting mental health, animals, animal welfare, the next generation, very, very important to us on all fronts, both creatively, but also all the other skill sets that are needed in our industry. So that is my legacy, is to keep people smiling and for us to be telling the story into the future, beyond my lifetime.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Thank you so much. This was so fun to chat and looking forward to hearing this episode. So thank you again.
Kristina: Aw, thank you. Yes, I can’t wait. I don’t like the sound of my own voice, so this is going to be interesting. Thank you so much.
Lindsay: In Her Shoes is hosted by me, Lindsay Peoples. Our producer and editor for this episode is Tarkor Zehn. Our engineer is Brandon McFarland and our executive producer is Hanna Rosen. The Cut is made possible by the excellent team at New York Magazine. Subscribe today at thecut.com/subscribe. I’m Lindsay Peoples, and thank you so much for listening.
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