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Manolo Blahnik: high heels and high spirits

How to describe Manolo Blahnik?

He's a character, that's for sure. One that's warm and instantly lovable, brimming with as much personality, excitement and colour as the coveted shoe collections he creates.

He has impeccable manners (he addresses me at first as "the lady Elizabeth" despite my distinct lack of peerage) and a wicked sense of humour (he fake shivers at the thought of other shoe designers' work, before breaking into a soft chortle). He's creative with language (his Spanish accent flits between English and French several times) and is not afraid to share his thoughts on diverse subjects such as the proliferation of technology, "you cannot escape it, it's too late", and the untimely death of Mick Jagger's girlfriend, fashion designer L'Wren Scott - "the whole thing is sad that people don't help people like that".

Most of all though Blahnik is hilarious. We've been speaking on the phone for just 15 minutes and already he's had us both laughing out loud several times over wobbly rubber shoes, spitting on awards and being recognised when you look like "a hobo".

We'll get to all of that in a minute, but first let's get the formalities out of the way. Blahnik is a shoe designer, and a very good one. He is renowned for the beautiful high heels he has been designing for more than 40 years, which often sell for more than £500 a pair. The story goes that he was first encouraged to make shoes in 1970 by the then American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Since then his creations, which come in a riot of colours and are often tipped with stylish embellishments, have made several high-profile appearances on screen, most notably on Sex And The City. Madonna, never one to mince her words, once said his shoes were "better than sex".

Next week Blahnik, who was born on the Canary Islands but now lives in Bath, will officially open his first Scottish concession, in Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh - the first time that Blahnik's shoes will be sold in the UK outside of London. His fondness for Edinburgh might have had something to do with it. "I love that city," he says. "It's the only city in Scotland that I'm madly in love with." Although Blahnik has only been to Scotland's capital once, "en personne" as he says in a flourish of French, he loves the Edinburgh cityscape and thinks it would be a great place to go walking - one of his favourite pastimes.

Life, Blahnik says, is "a little bit hectic". As well as the Edinburgh concession, there is also the latest spring/summer collection and the film crew, documenting the 71-year-old's every move for a biopic, to take into account. Then there's the designing - something Blahnik never seems to take a break from. He finds inspiration everywhere: from books, old films, even the moth-eaten tassels hanging on a museum bed. He is always designing, always drawing those famously colourful shoe sketches that have become synonymous with his brand.

I ask him if he remembers the first pair of shoes he ever designed. "Of course," he says. "They could have been the first and the last shoes I designed." Blahnik laughs, that soft throaty chortle again. It was 1971, Blahnik had been asked to create a shoe for the 60s and 70s fashion icon Ossie Clark for his London catwalk show. Blahnik was "doing experimental things" at the time and had decided to make the shoes out of rubber. "It was a two-colour shoe, the front was red and the back was pink and the heels and the body of the shoes were made in rubber - crepe rubber," he says. "I almost ended my career. I didn't know much then about how shoes were made. This was 1971 and I didn't put in a spine." A spine? "A spine is a piece of steel that you put in to avoid the heel falling."

Blahnik only realised his mistake when he sat down to watch the fashion show. "I went with all these London people, all the people of the time were there - even the great Cecil Beaton was there. Anyway, I saw this girl come out with the shoes in rubber and she couldn't even walk. The heel was just turning one side and then the other. I thought: my God, this is the end of me. But somehow people thought it was curious and were talking about those rubber shoes."

In fact rather than ending his career, those wobbly rubber shoes probably helped catapult Blahnik into the limelight. He became a talking point - a name - and soon established a reputation for creating ahead-of-the-time footwear. Blahnik continued to work with Clark while growing his own label. By 1973 he had established himself as a serious fashion contender and opened his first shop in Chelsea. By the 80s and 90s he had worked with designers such as Calvin Klein and was being given awards, including three CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) awards and three British Fashion Council awards.

His favourite accolade though is a section of pavement. "That one is impressive to me because people can spit on me, kick me, walk on me," says Blahnik before dissolving into an infectious laugh. The pavement is a Rodeo Drive Walk of Style award - an embossed golden plaque embedded on the Los Angeles street, presented to Blahnik in 2008 by actress Lucy Liu. "It is kind of camp," he tells me. "Mind you the other shoe maker there is [Salvatore] Ferragamo so at least it's good company. Things like that make me happy. Some of the things that are given to me are touching."

Some forms of recognition Blahnik can do without, though. A private man, he prefers anonymity to fame and even avoided throwing a 70th birthday bash so that he wouldn't be the centre of attention. "It's mortifying," he says. I ask if he minds being recognised by the public - Blahnik's favoured dandy-esque look of bow tie and little round glasses makes him readily identifiable. "If I look good then I'm OK, if I look tired and I'm in the middle of going to Waitrose and look like a hobo or something like that then I'm not so pleased." He's laughing as he's talking, but there's a certain amount of vanity in the fashion world and Blahnik's not afraid to admit it.

The conversation is drawing to a close. Blahnik's a busy man, and I've already kept him late for a meeting, but there's still time for a few more pleasantries. He's keen to visit Edinburgh again, he says, and apparently he'd love to meet me for tea. Really? "I will call you and we can have tea or something, all right Elizabeth?" Tea with Manolo Blahnik? Let me think … Why yes, that's perfectly all right with me.

Visit manoloblahnik.com and harveynichols.com.

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