To any woman who hasn’t lived under a rock in the last twenty years, the sheer mention of the name “Manolo” sends shivers down our spine. Possessing a great last name, Blahnik of course, but known perfectly by his famous, inimitable first one, Manolo makes the kind of shoes a girl’s dreams are made of.
At this year’s Dubai International Film Festival, fashion is in the air, along with film. I mean, movies are always enough for me, but when documentary filmmaking is mixed with the wonderful world of style, I find my pieces simply write themselves. This one certainly seemed to float out easily, because Michael Roberts’s ‘Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards’ is a wondrous work of fashionable cinematic art. There I’ve said it.
I caught up with the film’s producer James Cabourne via email, before the DIFF screening of the film at The Beach on Monday, December 11th. For anyone who loves fashion, this is a must-watch, yet beyond our love of style, it’s a feel-good film about a really cool, grand, funny man who happens to be an icon of our times.
What were the biggest challenges in getting someone like Manolo Blahnik, who despite his worldwide fame is quite reserved, to open up for a full feature length documentary?
James Cabourne: This was harder than you might think as Manolo is semi reclusive. The real secret was to get to know Manolo through friends and colleagues that he has worked with over the course of his career — he was instantly relaxed in their company and having their trust enabled Manolo to feel comfortable with us. Our director Michael Roberts has been a trusted friend of Manolo’s since they both started out in the fashion industry and knew how Manolo’s life worked and so apart from just being relaxed they had a shorthand between them that enabled an informal method of access to Manolo and his lifestyle. We were very lucky and privileged.
How and when did you come on board for the project, with Nevision?
Cabourne: The project came to us through Michael Roberts who knew firsthand that Manolo’s life was both little known and fascinating. Michael had been working on the concept for a number of years before it came to us and for one reason or another it hadn’t really gotten off the ground. Once we became aware of the project and how endearing and fascinating Manolo was, we got full square behind the project and gave it the impetus required to make the leap from development to production.
What is your proudest moment when you see the finished product of ‘Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards’?
Cabourne: Believe it or not my proudest moment was seeing that we had managed to portray Manolo in an affectionate but amusing light whilst not detracting from his genius. It would have been very easy to make the movie just about shoes but that would have been to miss the best part which is Manolo himself and would have made it very boring for non-shoe lovers.
If you had a chance to host a dinner for Manolo Blahnik, and could invite anyone living or dead to it, who would you sit at that table?
Cabourne: Easy, that would have to be Cecil Beaton, Isabella Blow, Tina Chow and Anna Piaggi. Although I suspect it would result in me not getting a word in edgewise but seeing the pleasure that this would give Manolo would be enough reward for me.
What is your go-to outfit when you need to look great?
Cabourne: A suit, preferably a Mark Marengo suit. Mark was also kind enough to donate to the movie the red and white tablecloth suit that River Hawkins wore when he played the young Manolo. It was a labour of love because apart from having to be made very quickly, tablecloth material is not easy to make into a suit.
I have archived the suit for posterity as it is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship.
Do you think film can change the world?
Cabourne: Definitely not but I do hope it changes the world’s perspective on Manolo.
Before I became involved in the project, I — like the average man in the street — saw Manolo as a luxury shoe brand only. I had no idea that this artisanal genius created every shoe individually with the starting point being a beautiful watercolor.
My impression was this was an expensive brand of shoes but my perception at the end was actually that this was a very cheap work of art from the most gifted shoemaker of our generation, much like I would view a Picasso ceramic.
I now totally get why people would collect his shoes in that same way one would collect works of art from a living artist. One of my prized possessions is one of the 6 pairs of shoes he made specifically for the movie that feature on the poster. They are in a glass dome with pride of place in my office and everyone loves to look at them as the detailing is amazing and don't get me started on his use of color!
I hope that in a small way I help people recognize Manolo for his artistic genius and humor rather than just a producer of shoes.
What is the importance of a film like ‘Manolo’ in today’s world?
Cabourne: I think it is important that people are able to glimpse into other worlds and to see how exceptional people tick. Apart from being interesting to those who have an interest in Manolo’s shoes, it give a historical perspective into how the man came to be as he is now and hopefully provide inspiration to those who want to follow in his footsteps.
Manolo is very keen on the next generation coming through. By generously allowing us to see his journey hopefully it will inspire others to realize that this could be a possibility for them and that Manolo’s “fame” was gradual and that he had to work at it from a humble start.
Is there a message in particular you would like audience members to walk away with, after watching this film?
Cabourne: Not a specific message but hopefully it is an inspirational story of perseverance from a humble start and the beauty of humility in the face of great recognition.
And fashion, how important is style in the great scheme of things?
Cabourne: I think style is a lot more important than people give it credit for. If you are in a beautiful place or surrounded by beautiful objects or amazing design you cannot help but feel better. I believe we are genetically programmed to enjoy and seek out beauty so how could that not be one of the most important features of life.