by Lynn Stanley
If you make your way to an archaeology museum in the city of Granada, Spain, you’ll find an example of esparto sandals that are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. These early examples of espadrilles—the classic canvas and plant-fiber shoe—have a long and colorful history. Over the centuries they’ve been worn by peasants and priests, and used as a cheap alternative to leather boots for the Spanish military. In the 1940s silver screen goddesses Grace Kelly and Lauren Bacall made the shoes a must-have accessory. John F. Kennedy wore them, as did Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. In the 1970s French designer Yves Saint Laurent conceived of a satin espadrille with a wedge, and the shoe took on international fashion status; 50 years on it continues to be a summer staple. Now, Respoke, Provincetown’s own designer footwear and ready to wear fashion brand, has brought us the latest iteration of this iconic shoe.
It all began after Respoke co-founder Michael Tonello was dreaming of ways to make espadrilles more visually interesting. Tonello had relocated to Spain after creating a successful business as an online reseller of Hermès; you can read about that in his memoir Bringing Home the Birken. He’d accumulated a substantial collection of his own Hermès scarves, and in a bolt of inspiration he wondered if the gorgeous patterned silk could work as a replacement for the functional canvas. Along with Barcelona, Tonello had made Provincetown his home; it was here he met the artist, graphic designer, and branding expert Chris Bartick.
Bartick describes coming to Provincetown for the first time in 2008 and immediately falling in love. An avid sailor since childhood, his work had included fulfilling yacht deliveries in the U.S., Caribbean, and Mexico. After leaving a full-time job in New York City as a graphic designer, he conceived of a business that would allow him to live in Provincetown—and bought and restored a 47-foot yacht he christened Moment. In 2013 he launched Moment Sailing Adventures out of Provincetown harbor, and a decade later the business is going strong.
In 2015 Tonello asked Bartick to meet him for a drink at Victor’s to discuss a new business venture: a shoe company that combined repurposed designer textiles with bespoke craftsmanship. Bartick immediately said yes to co-founding the company. Tonello returned to Spain, and after a search found a family business in La Rioja willing to try to fabricate the shoe. Tonello left a $500 scarf in their care and hoped for the best. Challenges included finding a way to fortify the delicate silk to make the shoe functional as well as beautiful. Monthspassed and eventually a pair of gorgeous, handmade espadrilles arrived at Tonello’s door. Bartick and Tonello went on to open their first store in Provincetown, and have since expanded to five other locations including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
What makes Respoke espadrilles so special? Besides the silk that comes from a range of famous fashion houses—including Gucci, Hermès, Pucci, and Alexander McQueen—each pair is crafted by hand with an expert eye for detail to ensure the patterns of the corresponding shoes complement each other. The components are ethically sourced, including the jute soles and natural rubber applied for durability. Through a proprietary process, a fine cotton is bonded to the scarves to protect them from wear. Spanish craftspeople who have produced espadrilles for generations guarantee products of the highest quality. Each scarf yields about two pair of shoes, but nothing goes to waste. Remnants are used to decorate bucket hats, ready to wear garments, and incorporated into works of art created by Bartick.
Bartick explained that from early childhood he had wanted to become an artist, but was warned that an artist’s life came with financial instability; as a compromise he went into graphic design. Today he’s come full circle, realizing his dream of artmaking, while being a successful business owner and the captain of his own ship. He says, “The creative freedom I’ve experienced here is in Respoke’s DNA. We’re delighted to be part of the latest iteration of Provincetown’s artistic legacy.” Like the art colony and fishing village where this unique business was born, Respoke is one of a kind. Respoke’s Provincetown location is 351 Commercial St. There are also shops on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Charleston, S.C., and Southampton, N.Y. For more information, call 888.343.5520, visit respoke.com or just stop in.