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Czech Embassy Honors Famous Shoemaker

By Indira Gumarova and Austin Mistretta

The United States has long celebrated its cultural diversity. However, in the great cacophonous blend of the melting pot, different voices have a tendency to drown one another out, leaving some smaller groups feeling unheard — oftentimes in spite of their significant contributions to mainstream American life. Such is the plight of the nearly 1.7 million Czech-Americans — or “secretive Czechs” — who make up an important cross-section of the population, and who for the last century have had an oft-overlooked but reckonable cultural influence.

The Embassy of the Czech Republic in D.C. is working to shed light on the major cultural contributions of the Czech diaspora by hosting a series of programs highlighting famous individuals whom “you would never suspect to be Czech.” The ultimate goal, according to Ambassador Hynek Kmoní?ek, is to combat an attitude he describes as “let us be Czechs and nobody needs to know about it.”

The first of these events took place on March 2, showcasing the work of Czech-Spanish designer Manolo Blahnik — in particular, Blahnik’s shoes, which have earned him world renown. They have appeared on television and computer screens all over the United States, perhaps most notably in the sitcom “Sex and the City,” which remains popular through reruns and streaming services over a decade after its production ended.

A display case shows renditions of Manolo Blahnik shoes made from sugar by the Czech Embassy chef. (Photo: Embassy of The Czech Republic)

More recently, Blahnik’s footwear designs have made waves of controversy right here in Washington. Last September, a photograph of FLOTUS Melania Trump leaving the White House with her husband to visit a hurricane-ravaged Texas went viral. In the picture, she was wearing an expensive pair of Blahnik’s stilettos, which many people saw as insensitive and inappropriate given the context.

Blahnik, however, made a widely publicized defense of the first lady, saying that Mrs. Trump was “working nonstop to make [hurricane relief efforts] work” and that she simply “was wearing what she was wearing.”

Mr. Blahnik is no stranger to the spotlight. The Spanish-born designer — who currently lives in Bath, England — is actually the subject of a new documentary, a special screening of which was granted to guests at the embassy event. “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards” provides an intimate look at the life and creativity of the man whose striking, intricately crafted shoes have adorned the feet of everyone from ambassadors to celebrities.

Czech ambassador Hynek Kmonicek poses with his wife, Indira Gumarova. (Photo: Embassy of The Czech Republic)

As Kmonícek would likely point out, Blahnik is just one of many influential Czech artists. Notwithstanding their relative obscurity in the history books, America’s “secretive Czechs” have made quite an impact, especially in the arts and entertainment. Without Czech playwrights like Jerome Kern, Broadway as we know it might not exist; the same can be said of Hollywood soundtracks, which Czech composer Erich Korngold helped pioneer.

In fact, a substantial amount of America’s cultural history is entwined with that of the Czechs. For instance, the iconic “New World Symphony,” which helped put Carnegie Hall on the map, was penned by the world-renowned Czech composer Antonín Dvo?ák. And Czech-American singers like Renee Fleming helped make New York’s Metropolitan Opera House the La Scala of the Western Hemisphere.

In the world of politics, Secretaries of State John Kerry and Madeleine Albright are two prominent figures with Czech roots; so, in fact, are first family members Ivanka, Eric and Donald Trump Jr.

One of Blahnik’s more ornate designs. (Photo: Embassy of The Czech Republic)

Stiletto master Blahnik, although born in Spain, also boasts Czech roots.

One guest, Melinda Keppler, already has a vast personal collection of Blahnik’s shoes so extensive that it is insured for a substantial sum by Lloyds of London. She says she is collecting the shoes for the sake of her children and grandchildren. “These beautiful works of art have been my treasure, and they will be passed down to my descendants for generations to come.”

One pair of the shoes displayed at the embassy early this month will go on sale to the general public next fall. Meanwhile, the embassy is preparing to unveil its next “secretive Czech.” Who will it be?

Indira Gumarova is a publicist and wife of Hynek Kmonicek, ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States.

Austin Mistretta is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.




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