Poet/sandal-maker is among the more unusual combinations of the so-called ‘slash’ careers – such as model/photographer/designer – that have become a current trend. Pantelis Melissinos is a published poet and playwright whose play Bacchus ran in theatres for two years straight and whose new poetry collection will be published in Greek and English this summer. Yet most of his time is spent making sandals that echo the footwear of ancient Greece.
This third-generation sandal-maker follows in the footsteps of his father, Stavros Melissinos, now retired, who was approached by a choreographer, back in the 1950s, to make Spartan-style sandals for a production. Stavros made a few extra pairs on the side and these sold out in a day, making him more money than he would typically earn in a month.
‘The timing was right. It was on the edge of the hippy movement coming in,’ says Pantelis Melissinos. He studied illustration and painting at New York’s prestigious Parsons The New School of Design, and took over from his father a decade ago. He now produces some 4,000 pairs of sandals a year. Each handmade pair is custom-finished to fit in 20 minutes for around €38, or designed over one to three days, for up to €150, to the customer’s specifications, with, perhaps, pearls, stones, gold thread or a more elaborate cut.
‘Stars started coming in,’ Melissinos says of his father’s continuing success. ‘We get celebrities in now, too, but there are so many celebrities these days that I hardly recognise them. Back then celebrities were fewer and bigger; they had real influence.’
Sophia Loren, Rudolf Nureyev, Ursula Andress and Gary Cooper were among the glittering visitors. Most influentially of all, the Beatles came in 1967. More recently, Barbra Streisand and Leonard Cohen have become customers, while the 2004 Olympics in Athens saw a flood of athletes and coaches flocking to the store, convinced sandals were good for your feet.
‘My father studied the styles of sandals on vases and other ancient Greek artefacts in Athens’s museums, and simplified them to make them affordable,’ recalls Melissinos. In ancient Greece such sandals would have only been worn by royalty and the rich, he adds. Of course, now every shoe company makes a Greek sandal, he says, but Melissinos sandals are, in a way, the originals. ‘It’s a classical style, very Greek ‒ the ancient Greeks had a good design eye,’ he explains.
The look, he adds, is local to the area and the sandals are unique. ‘They mould to your feet and get softer the more you wear them. I wear them, though not all-year round.’ Winters in Athens are comfortable, he adds, but it’s too cold for a Greek to wear sandals. ‘Scandinavians might still wear them,’ he remarks.
Melissinos says his poetry comes to him as he works the leather, so he wears combat trousers with pockets to keep a notebook and pen to hand. ‘Making sandals is like psychotherapy. It’s very therapeutic,’ he says. ‘It gives you the opportunity to think and develop ideas. So does speaking with the many people who come into the shop.’
What is perhaps most remarkable about his unusual hybrid career is that it appears to be a family trait. His sister is a computer programmer and archer, and his father was also an established poet (Melissinos jokes that his father ‘only likes his own poetry and finds mine too modern’). The writings of Stavros Melissinos have been translated into multiple languages and his most famous work, The Rubaiyat, which is a celebration of wine, even appears on university curricula. Stavros Melissinos always argued that it was important for a writer to have a second career: ‘a writer needs first-hand experience, which only working in another field can give him. Otherwise he’s re-writing what he has read in other books,’ he once wisely noted.
In fact, the Beatles were first inspired to visit the store and buy sandals because John Lennon had read some of Stavros Melissinos’s poetry. Today the connection between art and sandals is made more obvious in the names of the 28 or so styles of sandal on offer. Some are named after their famous wearers (there’s a Jackie O style, for example, for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), others after ancient Greek philosophers. Indeed, according to some reports, a sandal-maker friend of Socrates, called Simon, ran a shop some 2,500 years ago on the exact spot of the store’s original 1920s site. Pantelis Melissinos is clearly maintaining a great tradition.