Espadrilles – the chic fabric flats/heels with roped soles that have many summers over taken American fashion scene by storm and revolutionized wedged-shoes across the world. While many know these shoes are originally Spanish, few could imagine that in the early 14th century, these soles started out as being the common peasant footwear.
“Antigua Casa Crespo” it reads, with 1881, clearly imprinted on the plaque outside the vintage, wooden doors. I was in Spain, determined to find an espadrilles-maker and here I was standing in front of the most famous and one of the oldest ones in Madrid.
–Me: Elisa, I want to go buy espadrilles!
– Elisa: Espadri-what???
– Me: You know, espadrilles, Spanish people are famous for making them!
– Elisa: *WTF are u talking about look*
Okay, so no one I knew in Madrid had the slightest idea what I was referring to. Espadrilles were just so popular back in the States, and I figured the word must have come from the Spanish – considering the shoes are from there.
Turns out, history has it a bit different than that. In the 14th century, these flats were first recorded as being made in parts of the Basque Country in the south of France and Catalonia. The word “espadrilles” comes from the French word “espadrille“. The root of the word is “espart” which means the wiry type of Mediterranean grass that was used to form the sole of the shoes.
Yet, as production of the worker/peasant footwear grew in popularity across Spain in the next centuries, Spanish people used their own word “alpargatas” – which means a type of wired-sole sandals. Hence, the complete confusion with my Spanish mate :))
So then, how exactly, did the Spanish-popularized shoes come to be known internationally under a French/Catalan-originated name?
Sure, you could say, that it was because these shoes were first made in these regions.
But then again, it was Castañer – a Spanish alpargatas maker established in 1776 that *quote* propelled the shoes into the world of fashion * when he and his wife introduced the “laid-back glamour” shoes to Yves Saint Laurent.
My hypothesis, since I have yet to find anywhere else, why these shoes are not more known as “alpargatas” is that it was introduced to Yves Saint Laurent – and naturally, a Frenchman (and a fashionable, chic one to boot) does what he does best- speak and keep his “français” , if you will.
Alpagatería Hunt !
Once Elisa had determined exactly what it was that I wanted, we were off with her 2 friends Elena and Ana to search for this age-old alpargatas maker or alpagatería, where apparently, Queen Sofia and other members of the Spanish Royal Family have regularly visited every summer.
“Antigua Casa Crespo” sits on the quiet but chic Calle de Divino Pastor in the Malasaña neighborhood. The shop has quite the complicated opening times schedule and hence, it wasn’t too big a surprise that we were greeted with closed wooden doors. After all, this was a summer wear, and who was I to expect anything, wearing three layers of coat, standing outside a sandal-maker in the middle of December?
“I’m not going to get to see this shop“, I disappointingly thought to myself, when the bold Ana makes a go for it, as she starts ringing the bell. Much to our surprise, minutes later, a man came running down the street, spills out a series of Spanish, disappears through the door, and seconds and a few shackling of wooden panels later, we were inside the charming little shop.
The generous señor who came to our rescue is Maxi Garbayo – the fourth generation of a family that has been making alpargatas since 1836. Maxi’s great grandfather Gregorio Crespo started the alpagatería and with the tradition of children taking their mother’s surname in parts of Spain, the family business went under Maxi’s grandmother maiden name Garbayo.
In the 1970s, Maxi’s father Martin Garbayo introduced a colour-assorted catalogue for his shoes, and created a craze in Madrid, where alpargatas had always been black and white.
I hadn’t a clue what Maxi was saying, through his speed-of-lightning Spanish (not that I would understand normal-speed Spanish either *_*), but I could tell from his tiny puff of laughter that he thought I was just this weird Asian in his shop curious about things like how many shoes he makes an hour or where the cords come from.
You’d think a shop made for queens and royals would be way out of your league, but with 6.50 Euro flats and heels at 29 Euros, the shop is quite the quality bargain for anyone looking for handmade espadrilles/alpargatas.
“Business is getting difficult”, Elisa translates Maxi’s words, “I need to keep prices down because Chinese manufacturers are now making these shoes at mass at half the price, sometimes even less. I can’t compete with that” .
Maxi no longer makes these shoes and neither do his children, they rather only manage the store. One of Maxi’s siblings still make the shoes, with each pair of flats taking around 10 minutes and heels taking several hours to a day.
Leaving the shop, with my new black alpargatas heels ready for next summer, I start to think that perhaps that was how so many different alpagaterías had died out, purely against the rough competition from cheaper imported counterparts. And yet, at least for this roughly-180-year-old shop, perhaps the presence of annual royal support and the sheer passion of people for hand-made, traditional espadrilles and alpargatas will keep it going?
Let’s hope so 🙂
Here are more pics of the shop and my Spanish friends! (The pics are not really good quality, since I had only my phone 😦 sorry!)