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The penchant for peasant shoes

Rebecca Willis considers the vogue for avarcas

Rebecca Willis | April 24th 2015

Summer footwear has an easier design brief than its winter counterpart: it doesn’t aim to be warm or waterproof. A sandal need be little more than a sole with a rudimentary means of attaching it to the foot. Witness the strappy, leather “Jesus sandals” favoured by Seventies hippies, or the spectacularly un-waterproof espadrilles, both of which are traditional peasant shoes from southern Europe.

Espadrilles, with a canvas upper and a rope sole, have been made for centuries in Catalonia, and were famously worn by local boy Picasso. They had a tale to tell by the time they reached the catwalk. Castañer, the company that Yves Saint Laurent contracted in the 1970s to realise his vision of a wedge espadrille, had been nationalised by the Republican government during the Spanish civil war; according to Castañer, espadrilles “were regarded as a product of military interest”, and soldiers went to the front in them. Today, they are summer staples, flooding the shops at this time of year in many different incarnations, from flat and plain to high wedges with ankle ties.

In recent years, another Spanish shoe with humble origins has gone mainstream: avarcas or abarcas. They are the ones with flat rubber soles and just two, strategically positioned leather straps: a wide one across the front of the foot that conceals the toes, and a narrow one slung around the heel to keep it on. They are now available everywhere from Zara to UGG in all the colours of the rainbow, and many others besides. Metallics are popular, perhaps as a way of offsetting the sandal’s somewhat unflattering shape.

Of the four design aspects of footwear that can damage our feet—and which I investigated in my quest for the perfect boot—avarcas avoid two: they have no heels and are not stiff-soled. But whether they crush your toes or force you to claw to keep them on is, I think, a grey area. Traditionally the rubber soles were made from recycled tyres, which means they are first cousins of the shoes worn by Masai tribesman in Africa, where they cut the soles straight from the tyres so the shoes retain the original curve and tread.

Avarcas are also known as Menorquinas, because they began life on the Balearic island of Menorca. I have a clear memory of a family holiday there when I was in my early teens. We drove into the hills to a little place where we watched these shoes being made, and an old man was keeping shop in another room crammed with rows of avarcas. My father bought me a pair (they were white and I treasured them for years), then he asked, somewhat optimistically, whether there was a choice. The old man disappeared into a back room and came back waving a pair of lace-ups, also cut from just two pieces of leather, and with the same rubber sole. “Choice! Choice!” he kept saying, triumphantly. So my father bought them for himself—they also lasted for years, and we always referred to them as “choice”.

In a been-there, done-that sort of way, I haven’t been tempted to buy a mass-produced pair of avarcas during their current vogue. I find the versions in Prada, with a price tag of almost £290, especially resistable. Ditto the black-leather-with-gold-studs variety from Valentino. Perhaps I’ll be tempted if they become a classic that really endures, rather than a fashion craze that lasts a few seasons. Meanwhile I will just sit back and marvel anew at fashion’s ability to recycle the old, the way it swoops down like a fairy godmother, waves its wand, and turns a common shoe into a princess. Until midnight, at least.

www.avarcacastell.co.uk

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