Shop elevates espandrilles to high style

May 6, 2013
By

Braided hemp shoes with squishy, comfortable soles suited Spanish farmers well in the 14th century. As peasants tended fields, they wore canvas shoes that allowed them to care for crops and livestock with ease. These functional shoes, known as espadrilles, can still be found in grassy fields, but they’ve traded days of plowing for nights on the catwalk.

La Manual Alpargatera, an espadrille shop in Barcelona, is responsible for this change. Opened in 1942 just after the Spanish Civil War, the shop was the first place to sell espadrilles as a fashionable shoe without a working purpose. Currently, Joan Carles Tasies Martínez runs the shop with his mother, who has been selling shoes there since 1942.

Though the store did not intend on bridging classes with a single shoe, Martínez said it was a consequence of the innovation.

“Here we sell to everyone, the pope, Hollywood and artists,” he said. “But also for the baker and the old lady on the corner. It is across class. It is transversal.”

At La Manual Alpargatera, shoes start at $26 and range to about $65, making them accessible for a variety of budgets. Since the espadrille came out of Barcelona, said it is part of Catalan fashion and culture.

“Espadrilles are very us,” he said. “They are very ours.”

The process of creating the shoes and the historical traditions of the shop are important to Martínez. Though the shoes are no longer handmade because the process is not economically feasible, Martínez works to preserve the craft of making espadrilles. Keeping tradition can be difficult, though.

Martínez said it is hard to find people in the villages surrounding Barcelona who can make espadrilles by hand. Traditionally, the process of making espadrilles has been an inherited craft, passing the skill of weaving hemp with calloused hands through generations. As many young people do not want to learn the trade, Martínez said the skill is now fading. In order to address the problem, he is trying to find a solution, possibly by offering classes to teach the craft as a means of cultural service.

“It’s not for the business. It’s a matter to remember,” he said.

Since the shop’s most recent renovations in 1982, celebrities such as Julianne Moore, Tyra Banks and Penelope Cruz have stopped in to buy a pair of shoes. Diandra Luker, Michael Douglas’ ex-wife, once left her Manolo Blahniks at the shop, walking out wearing a new pair of espandrilles instead.

Jack Nicholson promotes the shop by carrying the store’s business cards and encouraging fellow actors to visit, according to Martínez.

Despite its celebrity following, La Manual Alpargatera sells to a spectrum of customers and even designs traditional espadrilles, flats secured with ribbons, for the Catalan police force. With such a range, the shop carries hundreds of different styles for men, women and children. The camping shoe, one of the most popular styles, is a flat, closed toe espadrille that can be worn by men and women.

“I’ve always had a great passion for espadrilles, so it was shopping heaven for me,” said Emily Heston, a blogger for SplendidMarket.com.

The shop is busiest in the summer, flooded with locals and tourists. During the winter, La Manual Alpargatera has a calmer environment; but, during these months, customers can order custom shoes. With canvas and a down payment, the store will turn an idea into reality for its customers.

In an effort to preserve the history, La Manual Alpargatera tries to sell authentic, but fashion-forward shoes and to find balance between old and new.

“You can try to change and invent, but you’ll always be limited,” Martínez said. “You must keep that in mind and keep that alive. You cannot change too much or you throw tradition and history away.”