The Cruel Shoe Master of New York

Foxy Brown, the fashionable, tart-tongued rap diva, couldn’t walk. She’d bought a pair of $750 snakeskin Manolo Blahnik stilettos with straps that slithered all the way up her calves, making her look like a marriage between a Roman philosopher and Linda Lovelace. “The sexiest, fiercest thing around,” she said. But her heels were wobbling and her cramped toes couldn’t find anything to hold onto.

Terror struck.

So Foxy Brown teetered over to West 55th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues and just around the corner from the Manolo Blahnik boutique at 31 West 54th Street, to the shop of Carlos Mesquita.

In a city of shoe passion, Mr. Mesquita, a 49-year-old Portuguese-born Frenchman who can reinvigorate any pair of Manolo Blahniks is–well, he is a man . In fact, he is something more than a man. There isn’t a plastic surgeon, a personal trainer, a Frédéric Fekkai in New York with more women who swear by him. For Mr. Mesquita is the man who can save Manolo Blahniks.

Manolo Blahniks are the latest incarnation of the shoe; their structure has the grandeur of a new urban architecture, indicating power, culture and femininity. And what a cargo they carry!

They are so phenomenally uncomfortable and expensive that they suggest the wearer doesn’t necessarily have to walk anywhere. But when the wearer actually hoists herself up and totters, her legs are suddenly longer and sleeker and more decisive, and it is clear to the world that she is a woman in command.

Oh, and they show toe cleavage.

Take Elaine Showalter, English professor at Princeton and former director of the Modern Language Association. She knows she’ll be hobbled. (“It’s kind of a geisha situation,” she explained. “It’s even hard to stand.”) Nonetheless, she really loves her shoes. “Princeton is a practical shoe place,” she said wistfully. But it didn’t come between her and a pair of Manolo Blahniks. “My trophy shoes! They’re so beautiful, I could exhibit them. It’s true! I could. They are works of art.”

Mr. Mesquita is the only cobbler in New York Manolo Blahnik himself recommends. And so he has the women of New York–who, if they are passionate about anything, worship shoes–on their knees.

For instance, when Foxy Brown, who probably doesn’t have to wait on line in many shops, got to Mr. Mesquita’s store–which has the delightfully proletarian name of Shoe Service Plus–he made her cool her pinched toes and wait on line. He also assessed Ms. Brown’s general style. “I can’t say she was sexy,” he said. “She just, you know, the belly!” Mr. Mesquita dismissed the whole midriff thing with a wave of his hand.

“Sometimes, a limousine will park outside, and they’ll come right in, and I make them wait,” Mr. Mesquita said. “I tell them to shut up. The rich one, the poor one. The nice little cute black one. The Chinese one. Everybody in line! And shut up !”

On one recent afternoon, the store was packed. Six-foot Danish models–Manolo sent them–in suede and mink ponchos zipped up each other’s boots. At the front of the line was a girl in a pair of Gucci alligator pumps. She clutched a Manolo knee-high ponyskin boot. “I’ve only worn it three times!” she said, then she looked at him with the pathos of a 6-year-old bringing her beloved pet Pekinese to the vet. “Can you fix them?” The heel had come completely unglued.

Mr. Mesquita looked at her over the rims of his glasses. He said … nothing. Mr. Mesquita shook his head, he filled out a ticket. He waved her out the door. She looked back over her shoulder as Mr. Mesquita wiggled the broken heel around. Shaking, shaking, shaking his head.

His next customer was a British girl with bleachy hair and a corduroy skirt. “The bright blue shoes, remember?”

Mr. Mesquita looked at her. “They’re not done.”

The girl left the store. Mr. Mesquita wandered to the stacks of shoes that fill the space behind the counter. He found the bright blue shoe: a glittery Dolce & Gabbana pump with a metallic heel. The British girl had left a neon pink kitten heel as the replacement.

“She’s crazy,” Mr. Mesquita said, holding the heel to the shoe. “I don’t even start it.”

Mr. Mesquita knows that shoes are a woman’s most coveted object, and a fascinating obsession for affluent women in a postfeminist society.

“You’re dealing with people who are under really conflicting demands,” said Catherine MacKinnon, the law professor and feminist scholar. “The demands are to succeed like a man, but to be a lady. The idea is that you’ve got to find some kind of way to be feminine. And wearing these shoes is one. They define it as sexy for a woman to be uncomfortable, thrown off-balance, physically contorted, in a posture in which she may fall over. And she can’t run away. This is a very specific setup for the subordination of women through sex in a constant, everyday physical presentation. A lot of women claim that a lot of things that are subordinating women make them feel powerful. And maybe they do. It doesn’t make them be powerful. It doesn’t mean that it gives them power.”

“What stilettos do is they present one’s rear end accessibly,” said Ms. MacKinnon. “That’s what they’re for. They also make it hard to stand up straight, and to walk and to run. They make one tippy, that is to say, easy to push over. They present one’s rear end pushed out in the back, and one’s breasts pushed out in the front for easy sexual access.”

Shoes in general have always been pleasing to women. They handle them; they model them; they are seen–and noticed–in them; they gaze at them; they pamper them. And, of course, they suffer for them. And when they do, Mr. Mesquita awaits.

“I see in the movies, the ladies remove the dress, and they’re in the skimpy little underwear, and their shoes!” explained Mr. Mesquita from the perch of a shoeshine chair in his shop. “You know, they sit on the bed, they cross the legs, and you see the shoes!”

Manolo Blahniks are about the sexiest shoe a woman can wear. They’re high, they’re sleek, they’re about $500 a pair. They have four-inch heels. And in our girlish, skin-flashing fashion culture, these crippling shoes, in some circuitous way, have come to mean power to certain women who are gleefully rejecting that whole Prada Sport sneaker-sole thing. They are a high-decibel declaration of femininity and, as anyone who’s ever even heard of pornography knows, sexuality.

“I have some of my mom’s Charles Jourdans from the 70’s,” said Melissa de la Cruz, who’s writing a book about a fashion victim. “Gold heel sandals with a gold cord that snakes around my ankle. Whenever I wear them, men offer to lick my feet.”

She confesses that her boyfriend has had, on occasion, to carry her home. “I think he kind of likes it,” she said.

“A lot of men throughout my life have said they’d like to put my shoes on their mantle and worship them,” said advertising designer Ronnie Newhouse, who once bought 14 pairs of Manolo Blahniks in one visit. “And I’ve always said No, I don’t want to give up my good shoes!”

But high heels in general have long been the stuff of feminine debate. Some claim they embody empowerment. “They are the ultimate dangerous-babe shoes!” said Ms. de la Cruz. “The epitome of femininity but with a hard, cruel edge! Most people tell me I could probably kill a man with my shoes. Especially these ones from Prada ’97 or so.” Others cry macho oppression. Of course, men are stronger: They’re wearing sensible soles and arch supports.

“Women think they’re communicating something about themselves in their shoes. It’s their sex appeal, their sexual availability,” explained Holly Brubach, the former style editor of The New York Times and author of A Dedicated Follower of Fashion who has definitely been carried–if not helped along –from cab to door before. “If it’s a spike heel, men see sex. Other than that, I don’t think they get the subtlety.”

At the Manolo Blahnik boutique on 54th Street, they do a brisk business in gift certificates. “The men come in all alone, and they look around, and they say, how much for my wife to buy these?” said store manager Abby Bennet. “They love to see their wives in high heels, not in these clunky, thick heavy-looking shoes that some people think are in fashion. I have 70-year-old men who try and force their wives to buy high heels.”

So Mr. Mesquita has his own territory of power. His customers come to him–some fly in from other countries just to prop their feet on his counter. He deigns to repair.

For Foxy Brown, he came up with a little alteration that made her shoes walkable, if barely. “She told me, Carlos, from now on I come back to you,” he said. “But what you did for my shoes? Don’t do it for anyone else. I want to be the only one with that style.” Did Mr. Mesquita keep his promise to Foxy Brown?

“I did it for a lady in Montreal. And a lady from Venezuela. And a lady from Puerto Rico.

“They don’t want to lose me,” Mr. Mesquita said. “And they know I turn down 40 percent of the business that comes in. I raised my prices, they don’t mind. They say, Carlos, can I pay you double and you do it faster, and I say, wait on line. Have some respect !”

“I understand his philosophy, I think,” said Robin Wunsh, the shoe editor at Mademoiselle . “And so I only ask for things I know he can get done.”

Mr. Blahnik discovered him in June 1983, when Mr. Mesquita worked at Top Service, a shoe repair shop on Seventh Avenue. But Mr. Mesquita has since taken matters into his own hands. His trademark is a thin rubber film with which he covers paper-thin soles. It makes the shoes last longer, but, according to some–including Mr. Blahnik–it also destroys the pitch of the shoe. “Manolo says, ‘Carlos! Don’t do that to the shoes!’ I say, ‘Don’t tell me what’s good for the shoes.’ And then I get in a fight with Abby [the manager of the 54th Street boutique]. I tell her, you don’t know nothing about that. Nothing! And besides. It sells like pancakes.”

Or take Ms. Newhouse, who lives in London and New York. She said she “had read somewhere that Jeeves in London had the best shoe repair. And they’re very expensive, so I brought in seven pairs of brand-new Manolo Blahniks, and I brought them one with Carlos’ rubber film on it, and I said, ‘Can you do this?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes. However, it will take two weeks.’ So, two weeks and twice the price, I got my seven pairs back and they were all ruined! Some were silk and they rubbed glue all over my silk! They made platform shoes out of most of them. You can’t even stand because they totally ruined the pitch. It was a very expensive lesson.”

Now, when Ms. Newhouse comes to New York, she carries a little bag full of shoes and heads to 55th Street.

Mr. Mesquita’s prices are low, especially considering the price of the shoes he handles: $18 for the legendary rubber film, $15 to fix a snapped stiletto; $30 to resole; $70 to mold a pair of boots to your leg; $10 to stretch a pair out; $12 to steam-clean; $16 to tighten stretched-out slingbacks.

Mr. Mesquita has a waiting list for the boot molding. “Normally, people can buy very expensive things, but they don’t have the legs to wear it!” He laughed and waved some boots–Gucci, green, suede, stiletto: “All the little ladies, they’re too small, or too roundy!”

Mr. Mesquita shook his head at a Gucci boot, which belongs to an Allure editor. It didn’t even fit over her calf. “I tell her, ‘Why you buy that shoe?'” he said. “‘Are you stupid or what?’ I have to be clear. And she says, ‘How come you tell me that?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s the truth! You have to know the truth. If I don’t tell you, nobody will!'”

“When we get off the wobbly cobblestone streets of Paris and Milan, deskinned heels get miraculously reskinned. Slingbacks get tightened,” said Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman, who always phones in her shoe repair requests, and then sends an armful of shoes down with a messenger. “Sometimes I’m too shy to ask for things, though, so I just go and buy a new pair,” Ms. Saltzman laughed. “Because I’m sure Manolo wouldn’t exist without me!”

Mr. Mesquita sees breakdowns fairly often. “Some people come in and say, ‘Oh, I’m rushed, I’m rushed’, and I say, ‘So come back tomorrow! You have some shoes to wear.’ Well, the lady came in and blah, blah, blah, she started crying, because I told her the truth. I said, ‘Look, don’t come to me nervous. Because you come to me nervous, you make me nervous.’ Too many nervous customers a day gonna drive me crazy. Then she starts crying like I was a little rude to her. She cried, cried. ‘Oh, Carlos, my shoes! My shoes! I can’t walk, help me!’

“And I told her, ‘It’s normal for me to put you in your place, ’cause if not, you’re gonna drive me crazy!'”

With deference and gratitude, the lady vowed to come back.