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If the shoe fits

review

Manolo Blahnik

At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 11 May

The Manolo Blahnik show at the Design Museum is an inspiration: in his hands, women's shoes become a medium for endless creativity and imagination. He is far more than couture cobbler. It is hard to believe that one artist can do so much, so exquisitely, with a simple shoe.

The exhibition demystifies the process of designing and making a shoe, beginning with Blahnik's worktable, his sketches, swatches and books; then how a shoe is made; the naming of the parts; how the heel is sculpted and shaped, how it is stitched and assembled, and how the design is refined.

The setting is made from walls of white Blahnik shoe boxes, inset with showcases, interspersed with darker areas that bring together his inspirations and interests:

Balenciaga's classic tailoring, Zurburan's paintings, films like The Leopard and L'Avventura, and his photographs of Moorish and Sicilian Baroque architecture. Film clips from the catwalk and classic photos of fashion icons are displayed with great sensitivity. And in the final sequence there is a film clip of Carrie from Sex in the City being mugged for her Manolos.

The design of the exhibition - by Data Nature Associates - achieves what this unique medium should. It presents a portrait in the round that connects with its audience and their lives. People leave smiling. The sheer range of Blahnik's work is breathtaking - it is like going to a Paul Klee exhibition and being amazed that one artist can find so many ways to explore pattern, movement and colour, and be humorous and uplifting.

There are parallels with the Versace exhibition at the V&A. Both designers can rework a classic, and stop you in your tracks.

Versace pays homage to Fortuny and Vionnet, and in the next breath can handle the wildest of assemblages and collisions. Blahnik can make the simplest pump or court shoe, and then line it with gorgeous chromeyellow leather. The next minute he is working with Galliano, constructing dresses and shoes with elaborate beaded African motifs, but with great control and elan.

What has this to do with architecture?

Blahnik and Versace are important designers because their work spans the epoch of PostModernism, and because they can manipulate and collage a Classical reference with a facility that few architects would dare.

In Blahnik's daring collages the references dissolve, whereas, even with Venturi, precedent is never far away - and ultimately it is self-conscious.

Venturi's intention was always humanist, to re-engage architecture with its public, using resonances from the historical, the contemporary and the ordinary that they would connect with. This is what Blahnik and Versace have done; and in three-dimensional environments. Few but Philippe Starck manage it with such consummate ease. But there is one architect who, I would venture, may have been inspired by the architectural and sculptural tailoring of Issey Miyake and the design sensibility of Manolo Blahnik.

As I left the exhibition, the image of a building in a park in Germany came to mind - its concrete forms curving out of the ground with the grace of a Manolo kitten heel and extending into the landscape like ankle straps; the switch to a sloping plane of timber like the change from leather to suede; the aluminium fenestration like a brooch or buckle. The building is a pavilion for the 1999 Landesgartenschau at Weil am Rhein - and Zaha has worn Manolos for years.

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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