The Wallace Collection, tucked behind one of the busiest shopping streets in London, is paying homage to Manolo Blahnik with a new exhibition featuring shoe designs from the footwear designer’s archive set amongst its masterpieces.
Blahnik, who has been a regular visitor at The Wallace Collection for more than 20 years, credits its 18th-century collection of paintings, furniture and sculptures as a source of inspiration in his designs, and this exhibition aims to provide a rare insight into the footwear designer’s design process.
‘An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik’, runs until September 1, and has been co-curated by Wallace Collection director, Dr Xavier Bray, and Blahnik himself, and sees more than 150 of his exquisite designs alongside pieces including Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1767 iconic The Swing painting, as the museum looks to create a “dialogue between the old and the new, the art and the craft, the real and the fantasy” highlighting the aesthetic shared between the collection’s baroque masterpieces and Blahnik’s very own decadent artistry and craftsmanship.
Manolo Blahnik said in a statement: “The Wallace Collection has been a point of reference for me since my early days in London. It was – and remains – one of my favourite museums with the most refined selection of art. I am incredibly humbled and honoured to be a part of the project and have my work displayed at the museum.”
The exhibition interweaves Manolo Blahnik designs across 10 rooms, with each decadent room exploring a particular theme in relation to the footwear designer’s work, spanning the theatre and spectacle of the Commedia dell’arte, the fashions inspired by Blahnik’s native Spain, 18th-century Rococo style, as well as his own personal interpretation of Englishness.
One of the clear highlights is the display of candy-coloured shoes Blahnik designed for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette in the Oval Drawing Room, showcased alongside two famed romantic paintings, Fragonard's The Swing and Boucher's Mme Pompadour. This is also the only room where the shoes are shown in pairs, as curator Bray states that is because they are “couples” in keeping with the love and passion theme of 18th century Paris that is evoked through the art.
The Small Drawing Room looks at how the theatre and bright costumes of the Commedia dell'Arte inspired the designer’s “light-hearted” shoes, while the Large Drawing Room, which curator Bray added has a “particular appeal” to Blahnik features his royal-like designs amongst the magnificent Boulle wardrobes that dominate the room, and in the Study the exhibition brings out the high fashion, with some of Blahnik’s most daring designs seen alongside Vigee Le Brun’s Mme Perregaux showing off the extravagant Spanish style of contrasting colours, bows, ruffs and costume jewellery.
In the Wallace Collection’s Boudoir Cabinet, Blahnik’s carefully worked, jewel-encrusted shoes are reflected amongst the diamond-mounted gold boxes and delicately painted miniatures, while in the West Room the collection highlights the “best of Britain” as seen through Blahnik’s eyes with shoes featuring natural motifs and plaid, alongside the portraits by British masters such as Reynolds, Gainsborough and Landseer.
The exhibition culminates in the Great Gallery, which houses a selection of masterpieces, including works by Rubens, Titian, Velázquez, and Frans Hals’s 1624 portrait of The Laughing Cavalier which is juxtaposed alongside a pair of ornate knee-high boots.
Bray explained that they wanted to highlight Blahnik’s signature style against the “colour, texture and drama of some of the greatest paintings of Western art” and added that the shoes on display were selected to “pay homage to Blahnik’s long career” with designs from the 1980s “facing off down the Great Gallery” with shoes from the 2000s showing the “intensity of Blahnik’s creations”.
Manolo Blahnik chief executive, Kristina Blahnik, said at the press preview: “The shoes modesty sit amongst the pieces of art and it is a great pleasure. These shoes aren't contrived pieces they were sold, Manolo doesn’t believe he works in fashion, rather that he works in beauty and curiosity.”
Dr Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection, added: “This is not a V&A exhibition, the shoes interact with the Wallace Collection.
“I think it is a great way for people to discover the Wallace Collection, to see the many artistic disciplines found in the museum through fashion, inspired by one of the world’s greatest fashion minds.
‘An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik’ at The Wallace Collection in London is open until September 1.
Images: courtesy of The Wallace Collection