When looking for the Athens shop that famously sells sandals to Kate Moss and Queen Sofia of Spain, it’s fair to expect that your destination will be a chic boutique in one of the city’s smarter neighbourhoods. It’s some surprise, then, to discover that Stavros Melissinos is a tiny, cluttered workshop in a neglected alley shadowed by the Acropolis. Unprepossessing it may be, but this hasn’t prevented the likes of Sophia Loren, Maria Callas, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Jackie Onassis and The Beatles from making pilgrimages here since the early 1960s.
The shop, a cosy cavern overflowing with scraps of leather, shoes, bags and other ephemera, is rarely empty. Visitors from all over the world arrive in a state of high anticipation and wait to be fitted with simple but exquisite handcrafted footwear, made famous almost half a century ago by the man known as ‘the poet-sandalmaker’.
The Melissinos story goes back three generations to 1927, when Gheorgios Melissinos, a cobbler from Crete, began producing rubber-soled shoes and boots for Athenians. It was not a success; when Gheorgios died in 1954 his son, Stavros, then 25, inherited a business on the verge of collapse. Stavros had learnt his father’s trade, but was also a gifted poet, whose work, inspired by Greek mythology, found international acclaim and was translated into several languages. So, when a British choreographer arrived at his shop to ask if he could make six pairs of sandals for the dancers in a performance based on Ancient Greece, he happily agreed. His trial-and-error process resulted in a few extra pairs of the leather thong sandals with criss-cross lacing being made, and Stavros hung these outside the shop door. They were all eagerly snapped up by some visiting Americans, who adored the traditional styling. Melissinos had unwittingly created a look that embodied the spirit of 60s youth on Europe’s hippy trail that summer, and these youngsters bought pair after pair of his authentic, handcrafted, open-toed leather sandals.
Now with a thriving business, Stavros worked on more designs inspired by the ancients; styles named Aristotle, Hermes, Plato and Socrates can still be found in the shop today. He became known as ‘the poet sandal-maker’ when he gave out published poems to customers (his books can also be found in Harvard and Oxford University libraries). When The Beatles showed up in 1968, John Lennon wanted to talk to Stavros about poetry, not shoes. Nevertheless, the band left having bought numerous pairs.
Today the store is run by Stavros’ son, Pantelis. Also a talented aesthete, he returned to Athens after studying painting at Parsons, the prestigious New York art school. Carrying on the family business alongside his father, who these days prefers simply to talk to the customers, Pantelis crafts flat-soled sandals from light-brown calf leather, tanned in Crete. There are now 28 designs, and some 5,000 pairs leave the store each year, personally fitted by Pantelis, who makes tiny adjustments depending on the height of an instep or the thickness of an ankle. This close attention to detail is precisely why Melissinos doesn’t switch to mass production. For a short period he sold his sandals online, but claims the stress almost gave him a nervous breakdown. ‘I don’t feel satisfied unless I see the footwear I create precisely fitted to your feet,’ he says, ‘but since every pair of feet is different, I often take measurements and readjust the straps on the spot, so that they’re perfect.’
Asked about visits from celebrities, he replies, ‘I don’t watch television, so often I don’t recognise them – after they’ve gone, someone might tell me “That was so-and-so”.’ He then admits: ‘Kate Moss was here a while ago – she bought a pair of Cleopatra gladiator sandal boots.’ For those not blessed with the slender limbs of Kate Moss, there are many more styles that are easier to wear: for example a minimal, two-strap design – mysteriously named Jeremy Irons – retails for just €23. Customised sandals cost around €80.
Melissinos’ sandals may be fit for supermodels and royalty but, a true craftsman, Pantelis remains humble. ‘I’m an incurably romantic person,’ he says. ‘My true reward, believe it or not, is the happy customer who tells me that my shop has been the highlight of her trip.’