Jul 10, 2012
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French espadrilles: Asian sales help revive the 'real' thing

Jul 10, 2012

MAULEON, France - Cheap Asian imports nearly killed production of "espadrilles" in the birthplace of this iconic summertime cloth and rope-soled shoe, but in a twist of fate Asia is now coming to their rescue.

As Basque as berets and espelette peppers, the shoe originated centuries ago as cheap and easy footwear for peasants in the Pyrenees region that straddles the border between France and Spain.

It's boom time again at Marzat's Megam Creation, one of the last ateliers producing the famous espadrilles (AFP/File, Gaizka Iroz)

They became a unisex hit for all classes and just about everyone in both countries has spent a summer in a pair of their own.

The trend went international, helped along by fans like Pablo Picasso, Lauren Bacall -- whose ankle-laced model in the 1948 hit "Key Largo" triggered a US craze -- and US actor Don Johnson who cooly fought crime wearing espadrilles in the hit 1980s TV series "Miami Vice'.

Then came the slump.

"The 1990s were terrible. Bangladesh-made espadrilles, whose cheap price defied all competition, invaded the market," said Armand Marzat, 37, whose family has run an espadrille factory in the southwest city of Mauleon for three generations.

However thanks to two businessman who spotted a niche -- and a need in their native Basque country -- it's boom time again at Marzat's Megam Creation, one of the last ateliers producing the famous footwear on the French side of the border.

Nothing predestined childhood friends Mathieu Labat and Julien Maisonnave, 36 and 37, to start an espadrille revival. The first studied law, the second went into banking but after several years working both found themselves fishing for a new project.

They launched their company, the Art of Soule -- named after the provincial capital -- to market the local, hand-made espadrilles in pop-coloured fabrics, with stars or stripes, "Hawaiian" or "punk" designs, even the red-white-green Basque flag, as well as traditional solids.

One line is called "Espadrilles 2.0" -- using web jargon for what's cutting edge -- with models that drop the old rope sole for latex, i.e. machine-washable. All are produced in Marzat's factory and have "Made in France" stamped on the bottom.

Then came strategy. Five years ago, "we started by selling them in markets in Biarritz, Hendaye and Guethary," three popular Basque resorts on the Atlantic coast, notably "trendy Ghethary which now has lots of lots of Parisians in the summertime...fashion-setters, well-dressed, chic," said Labat.

-- 'Beret, baguette and espadrille' --

Next came luck. Last June, at a ready-to-wear trade show in Florence, Italy, the partners caught the eye of Yoshi Watanabe, chief executive of Daidoh Limited, a distributor for the Japanese retailer United Arrows. He "found our product exceptional," said Maisonnave.

"He wanted 'Made in France' authenticity, he even asked to come see the production in Mauleon. For the Asian market, culture is very important," said Maisonnave, "and for them, French means beret, baguette and espadrille."

"Our clientele is ready to pay more for an espadrille if it is really made in France," Watanabe told AFP by telephone, saying the Mauleon espadrilles are now sold in Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan -- where they go for up to 80 euros ($100) dollars a pair, as compared to about 19 to 45 euros for the brand in France.

For this summer, Labat and Maisonnave ordered 50,000 pairs from Marzat's factory, with more than half -- 65 percent -- set for export. Asian sales alone soared in one year from 0 to 20 percent of all exports.

Marzat, who once feared for his business, now has 10 to 25 workers, depending on the season, toiling year-round in the cavernous atelier, cutting, pressing, glueing and sewing.

They use cotton fabric woven in Spain and the jute for soles now comes from Asia, but Marzat insists the savoir-faire is strictly local.

"Our secret is the finishing stitches sewn with traditional machines that are no longer made. And only my mother (63) and I know how to repair them," he said proudly. "It's our proof of quality."

In the five years since they started, Art of Soule's turnover has jumped from a modest 35,000 euros to 600,000 euros. They now hope to open stores in Tokyo and Hong Kong but remain faithful to the Basque region, already mulling over ways to revive other regional products.

High on their list? Makers of the once-ubiquitous pancake-shaped headgear, the Basque beret.

by Colette Larraburu

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