"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!"
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.
Kulchur breaks out his camera and begins circling the table where Blahnik now stands, snapping shots of the designer patiently chatting with his admirers and signing their shoes. Fiftysomething Gloria Brenner is about to make the $465 Molenbambos the 51st pair of Blahniks sitting in her closet -- husband Leonard introduces her as Aventura's answer to Imelda Marcos. Brickell's Astrid Bismarck is a bit more removed from that terrain. "I can only get a couple a year," the twentysomething brunette explains, eyeing a pair of slingbacks. "But what can you say? They're the best shoes."
Suddenly the view is blocked. "Did you get a picture of me and Manolo?" a well-heeled woman breathlessly implores of Kulchur.
Uh, lady, I don't work for Neiman Marcus ...
"I want that photo! I'll give you $100 for it!"
But before Kulchur can explain any further, the woman's eyes narrow. Her grip around the tiny Shih Tzu dog cradled in her left arm tightens and she leans to within an inch of Kulchur's face. She repeats herself, firmly emphasizing each word: "I-want-that-photo!"
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An eagle-eyed Neiman Marcus saleswoman spots the smackdown about to occur and smoothly intercedes, allowing Kulchur to carefully back away. Not all of Blahnik's devotees are quite this fanatical, but still, why do the ladies covet these particular shoes so much?
To Blahnik, the answer is simple. "I love women," he says matter-of-factly. "For me, it's all about making the woman look fantastic. When you put my shoe on there is an immediate act of transformation. It's instant! You walk fabulously because the high heel changes your sense of balance. Your whole body changes to be absolutely ultra-feminine." He pauses to laugh, "I don't want to get neurotic about this, after all they're just shoes for god's sake, but" -- here he raises a finger and turns serious -- "somehow they produce reactions that make women feel great."
He'll get no argument from the leggy blond housewife currently focused on some sleek turquoise heels. She has to leave shortly to pick up her son from school, she explains, but first she's going to demonstrate the true power of a pair of Blahniks. The woman -- we'll call her Mrs. Robinson -- slides her toes out of her old shoes and dips them into the heels. Extending her newly Blahnik-shod foot out for Kulchur's inspection, she coos: "Don't I look sexier now?" It's not meant as a question.