The historic interiors of the Wallace Collection are the background for the special selection of Manolo Blahník’s shoes and design drawings. The acclaimed Spanish shoe designer collaborated with the museum on this temporary exhibition. His stylish creations complement the 18th century works of art located on the first floor of the building.
Sofia Coppola, the director of Marie Antoinette (2006), commissioned Blahník to produce several pairs of shoes for the film. This is how she explained her choice of a designer – ‘Who would Marie Antoinette ask to do her shoes, […] she would have asked Manolo Blahník’. 
We can easily imagine Marie Antoinette (1755-1793, Queen Consort of Louis XVI) or Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764, chief mistress of Luis XV) wearing one of Blahník’s designs. The young lady from Fragonard’s famous painting known as The Swing (one of the highlights of the Wallace Collection, painted 1767-68) carelessly tosses her slipper in the air, a slipper not unlike one of the pink shoes designed for the film Marie Antoinette, displayed next to the painting in the Oval Drawing Room, where the portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1795) by François Boucher is also located.
Another fashionable 18th century lady who would have loved Blahník’s shoes is Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), the most famous socialite of the Georgian period. There is a lovely miniature double portrait of her and Lady Elisabeth Foster (painted in 1791 by Jean-Urbain Guérin) in the Boudoir Cabinet. Locked in the display cabinets among the exquisite miniatures and enamelled snuff boxes are shoes decorated with jewels and pearls, for example Profumo (1996). Dressed in silks with frills, ruffles and laces and wearing elaborate powdered wigs, the 18th century society ladies are often shown in portraits and genre scenes wearing similar shoes, which peep under voluminous dresses.
Apart from the shoes in shades of pink, suitably paired with the French Rococo paintings and decorative objects, there are shoes in various styles grouped together to reflect specific themes. Some are relatively simple and restrained, while others are highly decorative and can be described as opulent. There are several botanical-themed shoes with wonderful details, for example delicate flowery Trellis (2000) and more avant-garde designs, such as the Kanun boot (2007), or the heeled mule adorned with coral Tortura (2000). Hopefully the name Tortura is not descriptive of the feeling one experiences when wearing this particular shoe. These and other avant-garde designs exemplify the uninhibited imagination and creativity of their maker.
Arranged inside glass domes, the shoes are sometimes unobtrusively tucked in the corners, or in the centre of attention on table tops and resembling cupcake displays. For a more interesting effect it would be nice if at least some of the shoes were displayed without those glass cases, perhaps scattered on mantelpieces, pieces of furniture or mounted on the walls. I suspect the reason was practicality if nothing else, to protect the shoes from dust, and of course to protect the antique furniture and works of art from damage.
The designer has been living in Bath, England for many years. He opened his first boutique in London in 1973 and he mentioned specifically the Wallace Collection as a rich source of inspiration for his works from the early London period. The display titled ‘A British Interpretation’ in the West Room where the shoes are surrounded by paintings of iconic British portrait-painters Gainsborough and Reynolds is meant to reinforce the designer’s ties to Britain. Manolo Blahník was awarded honorary CBE in 2007 for his service to British fashion industry.
Not meant to be comprehensive the exhibit does not chronicle Blahník’s career in a chronological fashion. Aside from the shoes there are several drawings on display, almost hidden below the staircase on the ground floor. The designer is known for his hands-on approach. He always makes the first shoe himself to make sure that the design works and makes adjustments if necessary. But it is the effect of the final products that steals the show. As some contemporary fashionistas would undoubtedly agree, the ‘Manolos’, as they are known in the fashion world, can aspire to be considered works of art in their own right.
An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahník at the Wallace Collection, London – free exhibition, runs until 27 October 2019
References and further reading:
 Manolo Blahník: The Boy Who Made Shoes For Lizards (2017) dir. Michael Roberts
The exhibition website: https://www.wallacecollection.org/enquiring-mind-manolo-blahnik-wallace-collection/
The Wallace Collection website: https://www.wallacecollection.org/