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Sat 10 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Made for Manolo

Creating unique retail outlets to home some of the world's most beautiful shoes is no mean feat - especially when those shoes are designed by your uncle. Kristina Blahnik talks to Selina Denman.

Creating unique retail outlets to home some of the world's most beautiful shoes is no mean feat - especially when those shoes are designed by your uncle. Kristina Blahnik talks to Selina Denman.

Thanks in no small part to a certain Ms. Carrie Bradshaw, the name Manolo is synonymous with women's shoes of the most sought-after variety. Since setting up shop in London in the early 1970s, Manolo Blahnik has dominated the world of exclusive shoe design.

But the task of creating Manolo Blahnik stores to house the highly sculptured, self-indulgent shoes has increasingly fallen to Data Nature Associates - the London-based international architectural, interior and design company founded by Manolo's niece, Kristina Blahnik, and her husband, Nicholas Leith-Smith.

While Manolo Blahnik boasts no formal training in shoe-making - "I didn't need it," he once half-jokingly told a friend, "because I've got the best taste in the world" - his niece boasts degrees from the University of Cambridge, a diploma from London's Architectural Association, work experience at Krause & Golderman and Haverstock Associates, and eight years at the helm of her own company.

With Manolo Blahnik stores in Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Turkey, Ireland, Athens, and Jakarta already sporting the Data Nature design stamp, Kristina Blahnik was in Dubai last month to mark the opening of the Manolo Blahnik outlet at Dubai Mall. Commercial Interior Design caught up with her to talk shoes, family ties and the banality of bling.

Tell us about the new Manolo Blahnik store at Dubai Mall.

The Manolo Blahnik concept is that every shop has to be unique to its identity, to its culture, to its artisanry, and to its nature. When we started looking at Dubai we realised that the danger of looking too much into Arabic culture is that spaces can become a little bit of a cliché.

We wanted to take it one step further, so we started looking at Dubai in terms of its geological and natural elements.

I didn't realise this but there are huge coral reefs being killed because of the expansion of Dubai and these are beautiful and unique types of corals. So we started looking at the patterns of those.

We also looked at crystallised salt, because I understand that there are these incredible salt fields outside of Dubai, called sabka. Obviously, we also looked at the desert and the Bedouin lifestyle - the shapes of the desert and those beautiful ripples as the wind flies over it.

In a space that is 5.2m high, something as small as a shoe is going to get swamped. So we've brought in a very plain grid to give scale to the object. We had to lower the ceiling somehow, so we thought why not take this opportunity to create a datum of Tom Dixon lamps, which absolutely captures that Arabic feel and is offset against this almost lace-style, coral and salt pattern, which we then curved.

The shape of the shop is tricky but we wanted to get the softness of sand dunes, so we've curved everything into five pockets of seating. The idea is that you can sit here and relax and have a cup of coffee or tea and just look at the objects around you.

There is a diversity to the objects around you. The idea is that you have to experience the shape of the shoe and the humour in it, which is why we've gotten rid of shelves. We don't do any shelves in any shops anymore. Here we are hooking the shoes, in Istanbul it is plugging, in Athens it is magnets, in Hong Kong it is clamping. In Jakarta it is hooking again but sort of self supporting.

What is your favourite element of this interior?

The screens. We gave the franchise holders the impossible task of creating a four dimensional object and every single one is different. We were researching in London and they were researching here, with Huget Design, the contractors.

We looked at CMC cutting, we looked at moulding, we looked at every different thing. Fantastically, we came back to the artisans and used all hard wood. Enormous trees, fortunately from sustainable forests, were carved by hand.

The lamps were brought in from England but the furniture was custom-made here. The fabric was from Designers Guild - there's a little distributor here in Dubai. We wanted to get some brightness in and were originally looking at pony skin but thought coloured velvet was softer and more comfortable, especially with the heat.

My husband, Nicholas Leith-Smith, who is my partner, very much led this project. We design together and it is very much both of us working together in an absolute partnership.

We have to give credit to Huget, the contractors on the job, as well as the franchise owners, Samara and Ritesh. We gave them a hard time and without them it wouldn't have happened. How fundamental are the interiors of a shop to the whole shopping experience?

Everything and more. If you can't capture the essence of what you are selling in the space, then you are not producing anything as a spatial designer.

Do you think enough attention is paid to that connection in Dubai?

I think there are the little gems that you are excited about going to see because you've never seen anything like it and you will never see anything like it. I think that we walk around in a globalised coma right now - you can go into a giant fashion-label store and have exactly the same experience every time. I might as well not move out of my home.

Why not give people the opportunity to get excited? I also think people should be comfortable.

If I am going to buy something and I am going to spend a lot of money buying it, I want the full package, from beginning to end. From service to space to product to quality to the bag, to the experience of unwrapping it.

What five words would you use to describe the new Dubai store?

Luscious, comfortable, quirky, subconscious and Manolo. It's his favourite store.

How much pressure does the family connection create when you are designing a Manolo Blahnik store?

The pressure is enormous. A lot of people might think: ‘How easy it must be, she's the niece'. They might think it's an easy contract but we had to prove ourselves.

We've had our business for nine years, my husband and I, and the first opportunity we had to work with Manolo was to do his exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2003. And it wasn't even his idea.

It was actually [the fashion writer and historian], Colin MacDowell who suggested it. As he said, Manolo Blahnik is a family business after all - my mother is the managing director and Manolo is the designer.

We did that and it was a great success. We ended up having to look at 20,000 different styles and having to pull together 1,000 to try and tell his story. It took two years to be realised.

After that, the Asian Manolo Blahnik franchise holder was so impressed that he wanted to give us a chance to present to him because he wanted to do a whole homogenisation of space - which I am now hugely anti.

We've since agreed that Manolo is so progressive, you can't hold him back. If a fashion designer threw out the same collection twice a year, that would be the end of them, so why shouldn't shops be the same. Everything should be different all the time - you should constantly be challenging.

What was the initial brief?

We initially went to Manolo and said we've been given this opportunity, what's your brief? And he came up with: ‘I want to have Brancuzzi meets Donald Judd meets southern California meets Visconti's Il Gattopardo.' I mean, how do you begin with that?

But we came up with something and he was happy and that was his first shop in The Peninsula Hong Kong. We then did another shop in Hong Kong and then one on Korea, with the last one of that series having opened in Singapore in March 2007.

Franchise holders are entitled to design their own stores. In Moscow and Paris they have their own shop designs. In Singapore they first looked at a few designs from someone I was at college with, a very talented designer.

But he hadn't met Manolo, he didn't know him, he didn't know the energy that he exudes, so the franchise owners asked us if we would be happy to present an idea to them.

How do the stores that you've worked on differ from one other?

The Istanbul shop is incredibly beautiful, with mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture. There is an amazing carpet that is hand tufted and there are big metal screens and plug ins. The Athens store is very tongue and cheek.

The franchise owner wanted columns, so we've recreated that passage that runs along the side of a temple. When you look at a temple from the outside, beyond the façade of the columns, it is black because of the shadow so we've done the rest of the shop in black and steel. We've used magnets to plug the shoes into the pattern.The Hong King shop was more of an imperial bamboo forest, where the shoes clamp on to the rods and create little blossom trees. Dublin was a Georgian living room with patterns etched into the concrete, while Jakarta is like a woven hut where the shoes hook over the rods.

It is about creating that sense of comfort and living. Manolo Blahnik is all about being cocooned in his world, which is why we try and create an enclosure, which it is almost anti-retail. When we did the first shop we came up with the phrase ‘anti-retail, pro-object'. It is more important to look at one single object than it is to look at 20 objects all at once.

What makes good design, in your eyes?

I don't think you have to be too clever. You just have to be natural. Chrome is my one big hate. I don't understand why everyone needs things to be so shiny. I like things to be muted, natural, rough and earthy, because people understand that. There is something inherently natural in our minds. I can't relate to all this bling and all this chrome - I can relate to wood.

What projects are you working on now?

Right now I am recovering from this! We're also currently working on the offices for Hiscox a leading insurance company in the UK. We've done their trading floors and we're now working on their art café because Hiscox has a very large art collection; the chairman is a great collector.

We're working on that and we are also working on a cosmetics and accessories hall, which I think will be the most difficult thing that I will ever have to design. Cosmetics brands are so strong and they are very rigorous about how they want things displayed, how their logos are and so on, so I think its going to be a very long process of negotiation, and of explaining concepts.

We're also doing a private residential project in London. Touch wood it's all going well, even with the credit crunch. We've just go to work hard and try and survive. I think we're lucky to be at that age where we really appreciate how it can affect us but we are also young enough to recover and have really learnt something from it.

How did you get into design?

My father is a banker and I always thought I wanted to be an economist. I had it in my head from the age dot that I was going to be an economist. But I also always loved art. My grandmother is an artist and so is my uncle, obviously. My mum is absolutely the most uncreative person when it comes to design but in terms of style, she is fantastic. She just knows style.

I grew up with a hot-blooded Spanish mother and a very organised Germanic father, which was a great dynamic.

I started looking at economics at universities and also ended up designing the set for the new drama building in my school when I was 18 - it was this 5m x 5m high, three-panelled set that was reversible. And I loved the designing, I loved the making, I loved the science behind it.

The coin dropped and I knew I had to do architecture. It wasn't that I knew from the age of two - although I did always love my Lego blocks. Consciously, I only knew from the age of 18.

How difficult is it working with your husband?

It is the best and worst of times. If I wasn't with my husband I would be the most perpetually single person in the world because I work too hard. But the dynamic that we have is incredible.

We are very very different, which is what makes it so exciting. We are so passionate about design and when we design, that's when we fight the most. Designing this shop, we were pretty much in a three-month-long battle. It's like going to war!

Do you differ much in how you approach things?

Yes. He's very creative and is always thinking and dreaming. He's the one always reading magazines and showing me things and I'm the one saying ‘just get on with it'. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. But we design very well together.

What is your favourite space, design wise, in Dubai?

There is some amazing design here. I've been to Dubai very little but hotel wise, the last time we came we stayed at the Park Hyatt and it was so comfortable. I love Moroccan design - you can't really go wrong. Dubai Mall, when finished, is going to be great. It's got the right size and the right scale and the right rhythm. It's not like some malls in Hong Kong, where the shops are trying to attack you, almost.

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