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Sathya Saran  (click here to know more about this blogger)

I was most excited by one line in the St Tropez itinerary. "Visit to a sandal maker," it said. 

I love watching artisans at work. Not being nimble with my own fingers, which even took their own time mastering the computer keyboard, I find it fascinating to watch how gifted hands can shape beautiful things out of nothing. Craftspeople have a special gift that makes them creators with the ability to startle, surprise and delight the world with their creations, however humble they be.

So, it was with a light step that I walked into the shop that proudly bore the name "Sandles Tropeziennes". The owner came to greet us, as I stood admiring sandals on display. They were simple designs, and one particularly was my old favourite: a simple strap between the big and first toes, bisected by a strip of leather running at the highest point of the foot, below the ankle and round the heel to be buckled on one side. 

The owner was called Rondini, and the making of sandals was a business he had inherited from his father who had in turn been bequeathed it by his father. In short this was the third generation of Rondinis handling the footwear business. I marvelled at the way the workshop was run. As he took us on a quick tour through three floors, we saw a battery of men and women on each floor, working with concentration at their allotted tasks. Every step of the making of a sandal, from the first drawings, to the choice of leather, the cutting, the toughening and softening for the lower and upper parts of the sole, the stitching and the finishing had dedicated hands working … the industry of elves at work.  We were shown the large sheets of leather of different colours and thicknesses, which came in from Italy and other parts of the world. Rondini handled the heavy sheets as if they were swatches of gold cloth, with a professional pride shining in his eyes. 

By the time the tour was over, we also knew that the company was the only one in St. Tropez; that the very select designs they created catered to the sun seeking crowd and were inspired by the designs seen in Egypt, India and  other warm climes. And yes, he had a website and exported to other countries on order. I also knew that by then, the marketing spiel had worked its magic. I wanted one of the strappy sandals, and was debating in by mind whether I should go for a warm gold one or one that was a cool, smart white. The price tag put an end to my indecision. The design I wanted, almost the simplest in the shop, cost upwards of 170 euros. I baulked at the amount my calculator was showing me when I converted the euros to rupees, and the temptation slunk away, never to show its face again. To be fair, the price was justified. The leather was first grade, and I noticed that the straps were attached strongly between the two layers of leather that made up the sole, so there was no danger of their coming loose or breaking with wear. Also, though the price was significantly higher than that of machine made sandals, some of which were on display in a shop across the road from Rondini's, it was the price one paid for something crafted individually, by hand. Especially in countries where handwork had practically vanished from manufacturing. 

Which brings me to the crux of my story. I could not help thinking, as I left the store, of the old man who I have befriended in Udaipur. He has a little shop on the street lined with shops on the slope leading down from the city palace, and he makes mojris and soft open-heeled slip-ons in camel leather. I stopped at his shop many years ago for the first time, as he was the only one who had the slip-ons which I like wearing at home. He was irascible, and shooed me off when I tried to bargain, or tell him that at 300 a pair, his slip ons were more expensive than the full fledged mojris of other shops. I bought the pair anyway, and wore them for more than two years, till they fell victim to my dog's rage over my ignoring his demands for play and I was reduced to wearing rubber chappals like everybody else. On my next trip I sought the old man out. The stop was shut, and I wondered if he had died, or just gone off on a trip somewhere, when three consecutive visits did not yield any result. Last year, in Udaipur on an assignment, I tried my luck, and there he was, the old man, sitting at the edge of his tiny shop, watching the world go past. A little prompting and he recognised me. And without my asking, got up to pull down the slip-ons. One of the two pairs fitted me perfectly. But I was wiser this time. Could I have another, I asked, wanting to insure my feet against having to wear rubber chappals again. He shook his head, and told me, there was little demand for slip-ons, so he did not make them quite as often as before. But, he added, if I had a day in hand, he could make another pair for me.

I paid him an advance and left singing. When I went to the shop the next day, he was just finishing. I watched him, bent over his task, completely absorbed, his hands steady, his eyes fixed. He did not notice me watching. I did not disturb him. I must have stood there, unmindful of the sun, for half an hour. And when he finally placed the piece down, approached him. He smiled, and got up to pull out a newspaper and tenderly wrapped his creation in it before handing it to me. I unwrapped the package and tried on the pair, which of course fit perfectly. And he had not even taken a measurement of my feet! Somehow the money I had paid seemed inadequate. I had paid for a pair of slip-ons, but the years of experience, the passion he brought to his task, the fact that despite his age he ensured his hand and eye were steady enough to create poems out of tough camel hide, were not compensated for.

I forgot for a moment I was in sunny St. Tropez. With its beautiful blue sea and pretty roads lined with quaint shops and imposing buildings. My mind lingered in Udaipur. And I thought of my old friend, and the million, unknown skilled crafts people like him, working in leather and dyes, in metal and stone, and how unlike in the West, we take their craft for granted and haggle with them, and keep them teetering on the brink of poverty. And, I was ashamed!

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21-MAY-2016 Sathya Saran
No Meher, they were being made there. Very expertly.
20-MAY-2016 Dionyzia Fernandes
So well written Sathya in your inimitable style. I felt I was standing with you all throughout and experiencing the emotions you felt. Also there is no need for me to visit these places. I have seen them through your eyes.
19-MAY-2016 Meher Castelino
Interesting piece! We don't appreciate our craft people and only notice their work when it is sold abroad. I'm sure the sandals in St Tropez were made in india!!
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