The Way Business should be…


Traditional makers of espadrilles

Traditional makers of espadrilles

Its a little bizarre really…who would have thought it? This beautiful business is engaged with something which, more often than not, slips under the radar… essential but unassuming, worn by everyone but considered statistically inconsequential. However, this quiet icon is designed, produced and worn in their millions every year. I wouldn’t say I notice these things naturally but I’m told ‘shes’ wearing some and so is ‘he’. Celebrity ‘it’ people have been spotted wearing them and big brands are, as always, keen to get in on the act. What am I talking about? Espadrilles of course!. You know those peasant shoes, the ones you wear in summer and many people just throw away.

They may be taken for granted, but lets be clear; the humble espadrille is a fashion constant and has been for over fifty years. Espadrilles started life in the Franco-Spanish regions (Pyrenees) in the 13th century as a slip-on shoe for Pyrenean peasants, army recruits and miners. In the last fifty years they have been brought to life by fashionistas and celebrity wearers from Dali, Picasso, Grace Kelly, John F. Kennedy and of course Don Johnson from the eighties cop show Miami Vice. More recently they have been spotted on Jennifer Anniston and no less than the current couture darling, Princess Kate of Wales.

Espadrilles for beautiful people...

Espadrilles for beautiful people…

A frivolous fashion accessory they might be, but lets not forget their economic importance of the espadrille. In the early 1900s, cities like Castellon in Spain dedicated 20% of their economic activity and production to espadrilles, mainly through a close network of family and artisan cooperation. Though the small scale production of espadrilles is still in place in the Iberian peninsula, the traditionally spanish / french shoe has since attracted the attention of overseas producers and is now produced cheaply in their millions in Asia. It is estimated that 90% of total global sales of complete espadrilles now takes place in Bangladesh. A glance at the bulk prices of one of the main Bangladeshi espadrille producers such as Cotheeka and it becomes immediately apparent that it is very difficult to compete on price alone.

So, if not on price, how might espadrille manufacturers make their mark? Two words; distinctiveness and values. Two more words; Alice & Whittles.

The Alice & Whittles Story…

Nicolas & Sofi

Sofi & Nicholas

Founded in 2012, Alice & Whittles is a partnership, owned by co-founders Nicholas Horekens and Sofi Khwaja. Currently listed as a Kickstarter project (until April 2nd), this business revolves around a simple idea and a simple product with life changing consequences. Both with backgrounds in aid and development, and witness to hardship and struggle, Nicolas and Sofi experienced first hand the incredible ingenuity of human communities, their resourcefulness and creativity. This seed, sown in the most unlikely of circumstances, gave rise to an inspirational idea and so began a beautiful business, making the vital connection between people, history and the environment.

Alice & Whittles summer range 2013

Alice & Whittles summer range 2013

Recognising that most other espadrilles are mass manufactured overseas, theirs are made in the Pyrenees, which ensures the highest standards of quality for the consumer without using energy intensive and polluting manufacturing methods. Their production also carries on the age old traditions with finished canvas sent to the Pyrenees where skilled artisans hand-craft the espadrilles – as they have been doing for centuries; a beautiful link to the past. Sustainable businesses preserve and protect skills like this. Alice & Whittles maintain the history and traditions of espadrille manufacture whilst being a true social enterprise blending the skills and traditions of artisans in France and India. They work directly with everyone who has a hand in making our espadrilles – from the organic cotton farmers, the hand-weavers and the artisan manufacturers. Based on principles of fair trade, they have set up a supply chain that fairly rewards everyone who has a hand in their production.

The Social Dimension …

Alive & Whittles: Making the connection

Alive & Whittles: Making the connection

Nicolas uses a great concept which i like very much, epitomising the power of thought behind the business…product as social fabric. Alice & Whittles seek to harness craft creativity in an attempt to proactively make positive change. Specifically, to use the power of the collective consumer to make efforts to sustainably support poverty reduction, self sufficiency and self determination amongst marginalised communities. He says;

“We spent months researching different products and searching for the right partners. We wanted to develop a product that was classic and simple, but which could show off the skill of these artisans in marginalised communities to a high quality. This took us on a long journey – and we eventually found partners in small villages in rural India and France. By fusing the skills and traditions of both communities, we could make a unique product with an interesting history”.

Generating livelihoods and creating self sustaining communities and supporting families is at the heart of good business and good development practice. The canvas is hand-woven by self-employed rural hand-weavers in the same region where the cotton is grown. The majority of weavers have remained economically marginalised despite India’s growing economy. As an alternative to aid, Alice & Whittles support sustainable development in marginalised communities in rural India by purchasing canvas at fair trade prices, while providing health insurance, training, low-cost infrastructure and no interest advance payments through local NGOs. This method stimulates the local economy while providing the necessary support for sustainable growth, self-determination and self-sufficiency.

Environmental sustainability…

Alice & Whittles

Alice & Whittles

The espadrilles fabric is made with organic, indigenous cotton produced by small-scale farmers in rural India. The use of this cotton seed dramatically reduces farmer risk and, in turn, farmer suicide (a significant problem in India). Organic cotton consumes 95% fewer chemicals and energy, supports bio-diversity in the environment and preserves the soil. Unlike most cotton farming, growing cotton organically allows food to be grown along side the cotton crop, so farms can help feed the surrounding community.

So, where do we go from here? Well, the next time you take something for granted, like the simple espadrille think about how it has been made, who has made it and what good you can do. This is a really simple product, one worn by millions. The potential for change is huge and the opportunity to preserve age old traditions and support beautiful social enterprises like Alice & Whittles..??? …its too good to miss.

If you would like to know more about Alice & Whittles check out and support their business at Kickstarter or read about their incredible journey on their blog:

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This entry was posted on 11/03/2013 by and tagged , , , , , .
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