O Manolo!

They say you can't buy happiness. Tell it to Miami's footwear-craving fashionistas.

"Is there a Banana Republic here?" Manolo Blahnik calls out to a nearby Neiman Marcus staffwoman inside the Bal Harbour mall. Turning briefly to Kulchur he gushes, "I love Banana Republic!" Then he begins hollering out again: "I need underwear! Can you go to Banana and bring me twenty pair?"

The puzzled-looking staffer helpfully offers to run over to Ralph Lauren. "No!" Blahnik thunders back. "It's too much! I prefer Banana."

Blahnik's entreaty is falling on confused ears. After all, we are inside one of the nation's toniest shopping addresses, where the mere utterance of Banana Republic tends to send noses flying skyward. More to the point, ladies' shoe designer Manolo Blahnik's very name is synonymous with the steepest aeries of high fashion. His pointy heels, which average $600 a pair, have moved from merely the toast of the discerning foot fetishist (They're "as good as sex, but last longer," quipped Madonna) to a bona fide cultural phenomenon. It's a status best captured on HBO's Sex and the City, whose Manhattanites reverently invoke Blahnik in virtually every episode: Confronted by a mugger, the show's Sarah Jessica Parker hands over her pocketbook, watch, and ring -- but pleads frantically at gunpoint, "Don't take my Manolo Blahniks!"

Manolo Blahnik in Bal Harbour, making Miamians sexier one foot at a time
Brett Sokol
Manolo Blahnik in Bal Harbour, making Miamians sexier one foot at a time

Just as incongruous as Blahnik's everyman tastes is the appearance of Blahnik himself in this Neiman Marcus department store. Shouldn't he be jet-setting between exotic European locales, relaxing in a Lake Como villa, or at least chewing out a model backstage at a Milan runway show?

From a South Beach vantage point, it's easy to mistake the fashion world's enticing glitz -- catwalk-strutting giantesses, glossy magazine layouts, Academy Award outfit critiques -- as simply an end in itself. What's often forgotten is that all that time, energy, and money is expended in the hopes of eventually selling a mass luxury item. "There are only a certain number of women who can afford $600 shoes, and Neiman Marcus has that clientele," George Malkemus, owner of Blahnik's American division, explains with a knowing smile. Which is precisely why Blahnik is preparing to meet and greet his Bal Harbour fans.

Ensconced inside a Neiman Marcus fitting room, Blahnik schools Kulchur on the pitfalls of success. He's well aware that, paradoxically, the more shoes he sells, the more precarious his brand's preeminence becomes.

"Why this desire for corporations to buy, buy, buy all the brands?" he scolds, pointing to the ongoing travails of Prada. The Italian fashion house may have had a banner year in 2001 -- $1.4 billion in sales -- but that's balanced against a crippling debt load of $1.6 billion that was fueled by a spree of purchases of such marquee competitors as Helmut Lang and Jil Sander.

Now, Blahnik bemoans, it is backers such as Deutsche Bank who are calling the aesthetic shots at Prada -- he mimics a prim banker frantically barking into a cell phone. And driving down that massive debt requires ramping up sales even further. But given that Prada's original appeal was purposely elitist -- it was clothing not worn by the masses -- how do you add new customers without alienating the core base of urban hipsters, the very crowd that first gave the line its cachet?

"They've had to go beyond what Prada once was," Blahnik continues, with a curious accent that blends his mixed Czech and Spanish parentage. "Now they've lost a bit of the public that used to be Prada-to-the-death." He sighs and throws up his hands, a dramatic gesture he seems to fall back on virtually every minute. "It's got to do with greed!"

Not that Blahnik's own privately held company hasn't been approached with offers. "For the last four years, all I've been saying is no, no, no! Believe me, I've been tempted by gazillions of dollars. But I'm not into the money thing ... I don't want to open more stores. Money is just -- " Once again he throws up his hands and shakes his head: "How huge do you have to be?"

Of course Blahnik isn't exactly living a monastic life. According to Malkemus, approximately $50 million worth of Manolo Blahnik shoes were sold worldwide last year. The key, Malkemus says, is the careful nurturing of retailers. "We could be in every shoe store there is," he adds. Instead they've limited sales to a handful of specialty outlets such as New York City's Barney's and Jeffrey, just five Saks Fifth Avenues, and the cross-country chain of Neiman Marcus. Indeed for all of Blahnik's Euro-chic appeal, Malkemus says 80 percent of its sales are in the United States, and nearly three-quarters of that occurs in Neiman Marcus.

Which is why Blahnik himself is being packaged like a rock star, part of what has become an annual tour of in-store appearances. And if there's any doubt as to the effectiveness of trotting Blahnik out to autograph his creations, Malkemus points to last year's drop-in at the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus: $600,000 worth of Blahniks were sold.

Malkemus leads both Kulchur and Blahnik to the women's shoe department, where the Manolo Blahnik alcove is already packed with shoppers -- none of whom seem to have jobs to rush off to on this weekday afternoon. "This is our S&M sandal," Malkemus explains, admiringly holding aloft the fearsome-looking black Tricida. "It's all about the buckles and aggressiveness." Perfect for parting the waters of Mynt perhaps, but for the Palm Beach matron making the charity ball scene, there are plenty of more demure choices as well.

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