Espadrilles, trans-Pyrenean nobility – Culture / Next

One of Béatrice’s pairs of espadrilles. Photo DR

Love it or hate it, the espadrille has the power to immediately transport us on vacation. This shoe with braided soles in jute or hemp, emblematic of the Basque Country, carries with it 4,000 years of history. At Béatrice Pène, 53, from Bayonne, they are an integral part of the family culture. “My grandfather had his beret and his espadrilles. It was passed on to us very early on, to my three sisters and me, by our grandparents. ” This food columnist remembers her first pair very well. “I must have been 6 years old. My grandmother made us a Basque dancer outfit. On this occasion, we each had red sneakers. ” She remembers, hilariously: “We remember the firsts because they are deserved. These are rustic shoes and, at the beginning, a child wonders why we give him itchy hair under his feet. ” The linen canvas should also relax. Before reaching the holy grail of comfort “Slippers”, the ordeal goes through a few hours of compressed feet.

According to archaeological excavations, shoes with braided soles have been found at the feet of a skeleton in Andalusia. What is closest to the current espadrille would however date from the 13the century: the infantrymen of King Peter II of Aragon were decked out in it. On the other side of the Pyrenees, the craft industry around the espadrille developed in Béarn and the Basque Country in the 18th century.e century before exploding in the XIXe. The small Basque town of Mauléon-Licharre is still considered today as the capital of the espadrille.

First carried by the peasants, it then conquered the new working class. Using their know-how, the Spaniards from the Aragon Valley come to help with production, which is growing in the region. In transit for the season, they are nicknamed the “swallows”.

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Manufacturing rituals

Member of the Cercle des Créateurs Basques association, Béatrice has been entrusted with certain manufacturing secrets by the artisan company Don Quichosse based in Mauléon. “The company was sold to a young boy Timothée Cangrand a few years ago by Jean-Jacques Houyou. They do exceptional work for ready-to-wear and luxury alike. ” The day is punctuated by certain rituals. “Timothée gets up very early in the morning to make the sole, you need humidity in the air, it’s like a baker. Jean-Jacques did them at 5 o’clock. Once a week, he also went on a mop to drop the pairs in the “swallows” between France and Spain, to have them sewn by hand. There is something noble in the work of the espadrille. ”

La Bayonnaise remembers this sparkling pink pair that Jean-Jacques Houyou had made for his daughter. “I even saw him sew them. It was priceless. ” She is delighted to have transmitted the sneaker virus to her children. “I waited for them to ask because I raised them with a lot of autonomy. While my daughter was studying in Japan, I sent her a package including sakari sauce and a pair of espadrilles in the middle, which made her very happy. “

In her closet, Beatrice has three pairs, “But they don’t last long”. The number 1 enemy of this unisex shoe without right or left foot: moisture. One of his favorites? A pair of red wedges with a cord at the ankle. A heritage from Yves Saint Laurent, who reinvented espadrilles in the 60s, with an elegant heel and ribbons model. At the end of the First World War, the espadrille had already modernized by acquiring a more solid rubber sole. The worker’s shoe then turns into a leisure pair, with the first paid holidays. In Catalonia, the culture of “vigatanes” also continues to thrive. Imposed in 1964 by royal decree in the uniform of the infantry, they are still worn by the Catalan police during demonstrations in ceremonial uniform.

Basque identity

Françoise Sagan, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Grace Kelly and even Ernest Hemingway have contributed to the notoriety of the pair. In the wake of Yves Saint Laurent, luxury brands like Chanel, Louboutin, Valentino, Céline will all reclaim it. A movement also followed by ready-to-wear. Mistreated by low-cost Chinese competition that landed in the 1980s, French craftsmanship resisted, driven by the desire of consumers to buy local and quality products. From now on, China but also other Asian countries like Japan import espadrilles “made in the Basque Country”.

Flat, wedge, in linen, leather, lace, the espadrille plays the chameleon without denying tradition. “I like that they symbolize a Basque identity, a certain way of life, roots, trades and villages”, pointe Beatrice Pene. In the region, these braided pairs are ubiquitous, on the feet as in local folklore. From the espadrille throwing competition to the races, including his party dedicated to Mauléon. “Competitions are fun but it shouldn’t be a gimmick, for many it’s a serious subject”, she warns. All the more serious when the sensitive issue of paternity is raised. Basque or Catalan shoes? Beatrice comes out with a pirouette: “The important thing is that everyone claims, uses and respects this beautiful shoe. It’s a shared story, I don’t know who is behind it. ” Raised to the ranks of essentials in these two regions, the espadrille does not always achieve consensus. “Seen from Paris, it’s la savate. But that’s not a big deal, it’s like Corsican cheese, it’s better when you eat it in Corsica. The espadrille is more popular when you walk in the Basque Country with it. ”

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Marlene Thomas

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