by Suzanne Daub
If it’s true that you can judge a person by his shoes, then it’s shoes from Respoke that I want to reveal my character! Stylish in a fun and sophisticated way, colorful, and full of life, these handcrafted shoes are wearable art. And this season, designer Michael Tonello has brought them to Nantucket.
Respoke began with espadrilles, then patrons began snapping up his designer wedges, mules, and slides. With sneakers now added to the selection, you’ll be finding Respoke shoes on people of all ages and fashion-sense.
Michael Tonello describes his success as a shoe designer as being “a bit of an accident.”
I sat down with Michael recently to hear his story, which begins with the end of his witty bestseller Bringing Home the Birkin (it’s a perfect summer read). The book “leaves off with me having a closet full of Hermes scarves. I was living in Barcelona, and all Spanish people in the spring buy a pair or two or three of espadrilles… they are cool & comfortable… it’s a two-century tradition. I wanted to be like a native, so I did the same.” But, he explains, the espadrilles never really changed: they were available in the same styles, the same colors, the same fabrics.
“When I realized I had all these scarves I wasn’t wearing, I thought it would be really cool if I could get someone to make me a pair of espadrilles from a scarf. I sent out a lot of emails.” Finally one traditional, family-run workshop said it was “an interesting idea…I went to see them in La Rioja with a $400 Hermes scarf, met with them, and the woman said ‘The problem is: if we make espadrilles with a scarf, your toenails will slice through the silk.’” Tonello left the scarf with her– “she thought I was crazy”– and months later, she emailed to tell him she was sending a package. “I thought she was returning my scarf…the next day shoes came…They were the most beautiful pair of espadrilles.” The shoes arrived with a note explaining that the workshop had developed a process that makes it possible to create durable shoes using silk scarves.
He posted a photo of the hand-crafted espadrilles on his Facebook page, and many of his friends replies with requests. Tonello sent more scarves to the workshop in La Rioja and “within a few weeks 25 pairs were gone, but I still wasn’t thinking of it as a business.” A month or two later Michael traveled to New York City and met with Fern Mallis at The Polo Bar. “I gave her a pair of espadrilles during dinner, and when Ralph Lauren came to our table, Fern introduced me and showed him the espadrilles. He said ‘these are BRILLIANT’ and brought me over to another table to tell them about my espadrilles…” Seated at that other table were creative directors and buyers from Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. They all wanted to carry the unique espadrilles. “We made them, handdelivered them, and that was the start of Respoke.”
From inspiration to business and from wholesale to opening their own stores, Tonello and associates Chris and Adrianna have barely a moment to spare. They travel to Paris and Florence to buy new scarves and look for vintage scarves at auction houses. “We find something new and different every time. That keeps it exciting and fun.” Respoke shoes are still completely handcrafted in the 200-year-old workshop in Northern Spain from vintage designer scarves, though Tonello’s designs now include scarves by Pucci, Gucci, Chanel, and Alexander McQueen in addition to Hermes. “The whole [process] is magical.”
Tonello had vacationed for years in Provincetown, MA, so that is where he opened his first store three years ago. “We only sold espadrilles, and we blew it out of the park!” Last year he signed a lease on a shop here on Straight Wharf, but pandemic restrictions made it impossible to proceed. They gave use of the space to the Artists Association of Nantucket for the 2020 season to open a satellite gallery. This June, Respoke opened its doors on Nantucket.
Nantucket is not new to Michael Tonello: he grew up on Cape Cod and came to our island every summer with his parents. He’s confident that Respoke shoes will be a perfect fit for Nantucket style. “There’s a side of Nantucket that loves something unique, opulent, special… but it has to be durable: people go to the beach, they sail… it’s an old Cape Cod mentality… it checks all the boxes,” he explained. Respoke shoes “are durable, super comfortable, opulent, but not that precious.”
Respoke carries shoes to fit all sizes: men, women, and children. Tonello says his team loves being creative and taking on new projects. He describes their brand new sneaker designs as “spectacular…they contain no plastic: only gum rubber with silk uppers, and they’re lined with French terry so they can be worn with bare feet.” Respoke also just started doing ready-to-wear: “Italian cashmere with scarves, linen bucket hats…all embellished with silk.” And on the horizon, they are developing more silk footwear (high-top sneakers and some new women’s designs), and they’re looking to add some new categories.
“I’m one of those people who feels if something once was beautiful it is still beautiful.”
Respoke is open daily at 41 Straight Wharf and online at respoke.com