synthetics mass produced

Because I still tenaciously cling to the whole value proposition argument. That buying quality – economically speaking – always plays out best in the long term. And in the short term provides the added benefit of owning (and using) something that isn’t just another piece of common synthetic mass-produced crap.

So I am down here in Mexico, almost three years on, still struggling to build a viable sandal-making business. And in the immortal words of Abraham, “I am a stranger in a strange land,” here in mountainous Michoacán; the land of avocados, back to back to fiestas, ear shattering Banda music, carnitas, hot salsas, sultry women, hard mustached men, and laughing bright eyed children.

I came down here following the mythical huarache trail. A trail, so vague and so ethereal that it existed only in my mind. I started out in Mexico City almost three July’s ago and slowly worked my way north stopping along the way in the small colonial cities of Queretaro and Guanajuato before settling into Leon for a more serious look around.

I came to Mexico to learn the craft of sandal making from the best huaracheros that I could find. The only real reference I had before I left the US was the city of Leon; and then only because it was the oldest city in Mexico with a tradition of leather working. I like leather footwear and the nicer the better.

While sandal shopping around the world I found that my taste in footwear didn’t align with popular culture; what I wanted no one sold. I was forced to settle for a brand called ‘Reef’ which had a leather upper that was glued to a synthetic lower. I would buy a pair in the early spring, like April, and almost like clockwork the heel had worn through by October. I ignored this for the first couple of years but gradually this dependence and this cycle of planned obsolescence at my expense got me angrily rethinking about this new and troubled relationship that I was having with Reef. So I decided to make my own.

And then also somewhere along the way I got tired of spending a hundred bucks for my minimalist running shoes. I thought why spend that kind of dough for a few ounces of nylon and vibram rubber? So I decided to have a go at making some sandals that I could run in.

I had been seriously in search of alternate careers since 1985 when I started my first company with two other guys. In a short 6 weeks time both naivety and cash flow problems killed us dead. (I heard a reporter on the radio in North Carolina a few years back say how someone was ‘seriously killed’ in a boating accident and I have been enamored with such hyperbole ever since.)

Biographically speaking, I am 59 years old and have a relatively long history, to borrow from a once popular book title, of taking the path least traveled. I somehow miraculously survived the drug party culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s to which I might add was much to the surprise of the parents of my many childhood friends who didn’t. And for an unexpected follow on, I escaped the poverty of my then fraught existence by leaping at the first opportunity into the arms of higher education.

After floundering around for several wasted semesters I rightfully ended up studying electrical engineering and got a BSEE and subsequently entered the workplace full of confidence. I followed my interests in low-voltage communications systems and in the doing somewhere along the way got sucked into the whole IT funnel cloud.

I began my career in oil and gas down in Texas back when engineering was still a gentleman’s game but ended it when rampant technical worker immigration and Cisco certificates began to undermine the profession. So I got to enjoy about 30 years of banal prosperity before my interests in running and making my own sandals finally over took the lagging interest in my professional career.

And luckily for me I was in a pretty good spot financially when I decided to downshift. I had been living frugally my entire life. I lived well but managed to save a good part of my money. The first time I downsized was involuntarily when I got divorced in ’91. I dropped some more weight in ’99 when I sold my last California house and moved to North Carolina. The third and more serious downsizing came when I sold the house, the one I built in NC, and moved more or less permanently into my small apartment in Washington, DC.

I got into the sandal making business down in Mexico because the problems that I had encountered – tools and materials related – couldn’t be solved in the US. And there were alternatives to be found in Mexico, so in the final analysis, Mexico was the hands down choice; but that’s another story.

The problem was nobody was making the running shoes or the sandals that existed in my head. The corporate manufacturing standard practice of planned obsolescence had been so firmly embraced by popular culture and for such a long time it seemed that only the rich and cognoscenti remembered what quality goods were anymore. And quality goods handmade with the best materials by the best craftspeople generally come with big dollar signs. My buddy’s grandfather used to have a saying, ‘Buy the best you can afford and cry only once’.

Walk into any Macy’s today and without trying too hard you’ll discover if you just look around a little bit that there are no alternative buying solutions; everything they sell comes from the same spectrum of crap. Same for Nordstrom’s; it’s slightly better but it is all pretty much crap too. If you want craftsmanship you have to go to Italy or France. But be prepared to get out your platinum card because you are going to pay for what you get.

And I thought, ‘why couldn’t someone other than the Italians make originally beautiful leather sandals but make them more awesomely comfortable and more long lasting by putting bottoms on it them that don’t wear out’? My daughter, Sarah and I were in Italy 4 years ago and I bought each of us two pair of sandals while we were on the island of Capri. Beautiful sandals. Expensive sandals. Comfortable, not so much. Durable, not so much. Sarah wore the back bottoms through in 4 months time; of course she wore them every day, but still. I thought if those same sandals were more comfortable and had a more durable bottom then you’d definitely have a home run.

Material speaking airplane tire is to automobile tire what carbon fiber and titanium is to cast iron; its way lighter as well as way stronger. And because it is made for one of the most critical services in the world it is also pretty indestructible. And because the material is thin as well as a ubiquitous color of black it marries perfectly to the greater contemporary design aesthetic. So that’s what I am doing these days; combining fine leathers in an Italian style crafted upper, double-lock stitched to a recycled aircraft tire bottom (with just the hint of a mid-sole) to make for the most beautiful, comfortable and long wearing sandal in the world.

I should know, I wear them every day.

Advertisements