Come late spring, Spaniards will again begin to queue up outside Antigua Casa Crespo, a shoe house in Madrid established in 1836, to replenish their stock of alpargatas.
It's not hard to understand the obsession as I stand in the Antigua Casa Crespo shop, surrounded by ceiling-high shelves overflowing with tempting, canvas kicks in every colour and size. Shop owner, Maxi Garbayo (self-described as a typical short, dark Spaniard), giggles in the background, slinging away joke after joke as fast as he comes up with compliments and anecdotes.
Maxi, whose aunt married the son of the original shop founder, has grown up working in the store, which is located in Madrid's Malasaña neighbourhood. He even married his wife Ana, whose family owns an alpargata manufacturing plant, creating a dynasty of sorts.
Antigua Casa Crespo Store.
Alpargatas, often referred to as espadrilles, originated in the Pyrenees region around the 13th and 14th centuries. However, in those days, they certainly did not scream "summer chic." Made for practicality, not fashion, the antiquated, athletic sneaker graced the feet of peasants, farmers and soldiers; a consumer market significantly different to today's stylish beach-goers.
Surprising as it may be, not much has changed in the design of the alpargatas from the original blueprint. "The classic version is just as my ancestors made them over a hundred years ago," Maxi chirps, running his hands along the braided sole and canvas upper. The basic style, along with the occasional ribbon-tie addition, has withstood the test of time, given its comfort and affordability. Although the jute rope used for the soles are imported from India, the shoes are hand sewn in Spain's La Rioja region, keeping the business in the country as well as in the family. Their seasonal popularity allows Maxi and Ana's business to weather the quiet winters, surviving off of the profits of bustling summer sales.
Beyond Antigua Casa Crespo, trend followers have undoubtedly spotted similar versions of the alpargata on and off runways for decades. During the 1960s, style icons such as Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and Jackie O were known to sport them. Enthused by growing interest at the time, the Castañer family, owners of the Catalonian alpargata business of the same name, set their sights on trade shows in Paris to popularise the shoe. By 1970, the unisex slipper made its leap from casual wear to couture. Upon the request of none other than Yves Saint Laurent himself, Isabel Sauras, who had revived the business some years earlier with her husband Lorenzo, created a satin version of the shoe with a wedge heel. The modification changed the course of espadrille history, catapulting them onto the luxury scene.
Since then, the Castañer brand and its alpargatas have made a permanent footprint in Spanish shoe history. Nowadays, the purveyor regularly collaborates with the likes of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Marc Jacobs, giving the shoe respect in the high-fashion realm. Then, of course, with the explosive popularity of the brand TOMS, which was inspired by the Argentine alpargata, the sandals' mainstream appeal continues to surge.
While designer labels cash in on modern renditions of the humble shoe, the basic construction of Antigua Casa Crespo's espadrilles - at only roughly 8 euros a pair - stands firm as a Spanish favourite. Beyond the traditional style, some come striped with navy and white, or pop with solids of lime green, bubble gum pink, aqua blue and more. Still others, such as the Pamplonas, stand out with red ribbon zigzagged across white canvas, then looped around the ankle like a ballet slipper. Clearly, the artisanal alpargata is anything but boring, and worthy of its continued fanfare.
Indeed, cheaper, poorer quality imports from China lure away some customers from Antigua Casa Crespo, but loyal Spaniards and word of mouth via the press keep sales growing. And while other reputable alpargaterías thrive, Maxi and Ana believe they offer something special.
"We've made these shoes our whole lives," says Ana, dismissing other shops as mere vendors rather than experts. "We take the time to give advice and explain the product." For this reason, she believes they offer a superior level of satisfaction to their clients. "We know they'll come back again next year," she declares confidently.
New, modern alpargatas by Castañer.
Despite the growing popularity, especially internationally, the couple remain content with their small local business, uninterested in expanding beyond the friendly workshop. "People look for the traditional, for a product that isn't mass-produced and can't be found elsewhere," explains Ana, emphasising the uniqueness of their creations. Adds Maxi, pointing at his dusty typewriter in the corner, "That's my PC. We don't do sales online- we believe that with shops like these, the client must come in. It's an experience."
A day later I returned with the same pair of shoes I bought the day prior; I had decided that I wanted them to fit more snugly. While Ana modified them, by strategically sowing on a ribbon tie, a pair of red wedges caught my eye. Coined the "Penélopes" after their appearance in the world famous Almodóvar flick Volver, at only 29 euros, I couldn't resist. Thumbing through my wallet for bills, I realise I've already proven their point; I came back.
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