September 6, 2016

Luke Frydenger


In late summer of 2015, K23 traveled to the luscious and fertile country, Euskal Herria— a region better known as Basque Country. Our mission was to create a film for Stories and Objects, a digital magazine where each month a new destination is brought to life through immersive storytelling in the form of short films, interviews and photos that share stories of culture through the mastery of creators and cultivators around the world. We were spoiled and lucky.

Upon arrival, the infectious nature of this free spirited region was palpable and obvious. Euskal Herria spans the western coast of Southern France and Northern Spain. Nestled between green, rolling hills and craggy ocean cliffs, we drove along winding roads and crossed through tiny villages to arrive at a lasting foothold of an old tradition: Espadrilles. Our task was to capture the venerable process of creating these popular shoes and the family-owned business that does so.

We consider it a gift to have spent some time with Jean-Jacques Houyou in his atelier (workshop). Houyou’s shop is the smallest of six Espadrille manufacturers in a town of 3,500 people; Houyou was mentored by a third generation artisan and is considered a master of his trade— and it shows. His product emits quality and heart, which he admittedly pours into each pair. These days, the idea of inheriting a craft that is old as the stones on the street is a hard sell. But here, in the quiet town of Meleon, France, we came to understand the grace and simplicity of a shoe, and the culture who proudly stands behind it.

These humble, flat-soled Wonders date back to the 13th century. They are made of rubber, jute, and cotton. Before being mass produced in China (aghast!), they were a fundamental part of the Basque region’s development. Now, due to the conditions of modernization, their origin and history is practically unknown to the common wearer. Filming the manufacturing of this product and the people who defined it was bittersweet— much like witnessing an endangered animal in a sanctuary. The production of these shoes is, at once, a beautiful and tenuous process on the edge of extinction.

The biodegradable Espadrille is a perfect example of a product that is born of nature and able to fully return from whence it came. The new world is slowly beginning to embrace this closed loop approach to production, as product-value has begun to shift away from obsolescence towards sustainability. Hand sewn, Espadrilles are the result of old, well oiled, human-guided machines, which coil the jute, cut the fabric, and melt the rubber. The process of construction is a meditative practice, which one could compare to the ebb and flow of a potter sculpting a vase: smooth, consistent, full of slight intricacies only a well-learned hand can find.

Espadrilles have always been known (and loved) for their comfort. Today, they are sported by mega stars like Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift. However, not so long ago they garnered their iconic status from more unlikely celebrities. During a time when trends were started by visionaries and heretics, the Espadrille was a favorite among the likes of Picasso, Dali, and Hemingway. Back in day, the shoe was worn by those critical of bougie bullshit, embracing the common plight and elevating the working class through their art. Back even further, the shoes were worn by farmers living off the land. They were valued because they were so durable and practical.

There is something to be said about the old adage regarding quality over quantity. Yes, these shoes are pumped out of China’s factories in order to meet the ever increasing demand of consumption. And, yet, the Romantics in us were happy to be stammering drunk on Rioja to the tempo of antiquity. How rare and sweet it was to witness a family-owned business still using the same techniques and tools handed down in a lineage that represents the old world way of being. Who would have imagined filming the production of a shoe would be so transformative?

Enjoy the pictures below. You can watch the full video here.