You don’t expect to see a tall bearded Mancunian stitching shoes on the pavement even in Arles, that most endearingly quirky of southern French cities. But he wasn’t a performance artist, it wasn’t an installation, he was working outside his designer espadrilles shop, Jute.
By chance we’d run into Ian and his wife Elena earlier in the day at a Japanese-run sandwich place up the road (as you do … ) and got chatting. Turned out he’d had a chequered career He’d been a builder, plasterer and tiler and manager for a parcel delivery company. They thought I was mad when I left. “You’re going to give up your career and go to France and you don’t even speak French?” But I’ve loved France ever since I came on a school trip at the age of 14. I liked the way the French boys spoke to each other - I thought “these lucky boys - imagine living here!” It was so different from home. Salford is pretty rough. I started my own building business in Nimes then I came over to Arles one day with a camera and was blown away. That was it, my mind was made up. I’d never go back now. Never."
The idea of setting up a customised espadrilles business was Elena’s. Her family had made espadrilles for some 40 years and still make the semeilles or soles
They renovated the bright, white shop in the rue Jouvène themselves. The front is the showroom, the workroom's at the back. Every so often they take off to buy fabric. "We never seem to have a holiday - it always revolves round material."
The espadrilles or alpargatas as they’re called in Spanish are made in two styles: more elegant pointed toes for sandals, rounder ones for lace-ups. The lace-ups are their signature style. Each shoe is lined with brushed cotton for extra comfort, hand-stitched with waxed cotton and tied with leather laces. There’s such a range of colours patterns and fabrics it’s hard to make up my mind. Ian suggests I might like a William Morris pattern he doesn’t use that much as it’s hard lining up the birds. “But we’re leaving in the morning, I wail”. “Don’t worry - we can do it. We’re often up until 4. What time can you collect them? 10.30?”
When we arrive only one shoe is finished. We’re nearly there, he reassures me, stitching frantically. Elena punches the eyelets in between throwing balls for the dog. “Do you want to wear them now?” Need they ask? They’re beautiful. I feel a different, more flamboyant person once I put them on.
They bring out a collection twice a year. “We’ve already bought the materials for next summer” Ian tells me. “We get most from Spain although the corduroy comes from England.” For a handmade product they’re really well priced - 90€ for mens, 80€ for women. “The locals tend to order before the tourists come. The summer collection, which includes silk, is usually ready by the end of March.”
At the moment they only sell in Arles though they’re in the process of responding to requests from other potential stockists in Berlin, London and New York “We don’t sell online because it’s so complicated dealing with returns if they don’t fit” explains Ian. “If we could find a way for people to scan their feet so we get their exact shoe size ….” he wrestles with the thought.
In the meantime you’ll just have to go to Arles to buy them. An excellent excuse to visit one of my favourite French towns.
A footnote. If you’re a young fashion designer or art school graduate and fancy living in Arles, they’re looking for someone else to join the team. “We need someone to help take us to the next level …someone who can bring something new to the table” says Ian. Job advert placed.
Jute is at 3 Rue Jouvène, 13200 Arles, France
+33 4 90 97 94 91. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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