Many would be surprised to learn that the espadrille, with its signature jute-rope sole evoking long Mediterranean summers, has its roots in menswear. The espadrille can trace its history back over several millennia – Granada’s archaeological museum has a primitive example thought to date back around 4,000 years – and it was standard footwear for the King of Aragon’s infantry troops in the 13th century. Espadrilles have come a long way since then, being seen on the feet of some of the most famous names of the 20th century, including Salvador Dalí, Lauren Bacall and John F Kennedy Junior.
Until the turn of the 20th century, espadrilles were designed more for function than fashion and were worn mainly by the military and rural workers. They were comfortable and practical; the natural sole moulds itself to the foot while allowing the skin to breathe – ideal for Spain’s hot summers. An alpargatero [espadrille maker] would make the sole, while a seamstress would sew together the upper in a black or natural-coloured linen or cotton. Each Spanish region had its own version of the shoe; participants in the traditional sardana dance of Catalonia, for example, always wore a white design.
It wasn’t until 1948, when Lauren Bacall wore a pair of espadrilles in the film Key Largo that the shoe gained worldwide attention. Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth soon followed suit and the shoe became universally popular with women throughout Europe and the US.
Today, the espadrille offers a ladylike alternative to flip-flops or flat sandals – the wedge version, with ribbons that lace up the leg, adds an elegant touch to beach attire or floaty summer dresses. The shoe’s classic model features cotton and jute rope, but in recent years each season has brought new colour, fabric and style incarnations. That said, the original design remains a fashion favourite, with its leading makers celebrated for creating handcrafted products that remain true to the espadrille’s heritage.
From the fields to high fashion
Castañer is the company often credited with taking the espadrille into the mainstream, as well as for creating a more fashionable style of the shoe. The Castañer family has been involved in the industry since the 18th century when Rafael Castañer, the family’s first alpargatero, was born. In 1927, the family opened its first workshop, in Banyoles, though its products were still aimed primarily at working labourers.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the brand’s focus began to change. The company – now run by the second generation, Lorenzo Castañer and his wife Isabel – began to play with the basic espadrille design, gaining a fanbase of artists, actors and other famous people in the process. However, it was a chance meeting with Yves Saint Laurent at a Parisian fair in the early 70s that literally changed the shape of Castañer’s shoes, as well as its business.
A visionary idea
‘Yves Saint Laurent was a great influence for us,’ says Rafael Castañer, the company’s current menswear designer. ‘He was always a visionary and his idea for a high-heeled wedge was a simply brilliant one.’ The style of espadrille that Yves Saint Laurent helped to create quickly became a bestseller and since then it has evolved to become the Carina, a low-cut wedge-heel version with ribbons that wrap around the ankle, one of the company’s most popular models to this day.
A desire to stay close to its Spanish heritage was one of the main factors behind the company’s decision to open its first store – designed by Rafael’s sister Cristina, and recently remodelled by Benedetta Tagliabue – in Barcelona in 1994. ‘The town was, and still is, very cosmopolitan and Mediterranean, which is also our brand’s ethos,’ says Rafael. Since then Castañer has gone from strength to strength, opening stores in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, among other cities.
Castañer’s shoes appeal to Spanish and Hollywood stars alike. Pedro Almodóvar uses Castañer espadrilles in his films - Penélope Cruz wore them in Jamón Jamón, most notably – while Scarlett Johansson donned a pair in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Every season, Castañer introduces new materials, colours and styles to its collections, but remains true to its heritage, producing and manufacturing all of its espadrilles in Spain. ‘Espadrilles are a traditional, simple and charming product,’ explains Rafael. ‘Yet we still manage to create a sophisticated and luxurious design without losing the craft and timeless essence.’ Espadrilles will always evoke that summertime feeling, with an added touch of elegance. And by maintaining its Spanish roots, Castañer continues to create a classic product that will never go out of style.