Feature: 3rd generation Greek sandal maker carries on centuries-old craft


  • World
  • Saturday, 01 Aug 2020

ATHENS, July 31 (Xinhua) -- The first thing that welcomes the visitor to the tiny store of Olgianna Melissinos in the heart of Monastiraki, the old commercial district at the foothills of the Acropolis in the Greek capital, is the overpowering smell of genuine leather.

Against the backdrop of finely made sandals, belts and bags, old photos and framed articles that cover the walls floor to ceiling, and a radio playing calm instrumental music in the background, Olgianna and her husband Christos work tirelessly -- but cheerfully -- behind their benches.

Olgianna is a third-generation shoemaker, as her grandfather started the family business in 1920 specializing in climbing boots and luxury shoes. In the 1950s her father Stavros took over the business and, shortly after, an interesting proposal came his way.

"At some point, a choreographer came by his shop and asked him to make ancient Greek-style sandals for a performance. He did so, he liked the venture and made a few extra pairs for sale in his store," Melissinos told Xinhua.

Extremely common during the ancient Greek and Roman times, sandals have a celebrated, centuries-old history in Greece, documented by various artifacts unearthed by archaeologists. But by the 1960s, when Melissinos took that order, the art of sandal making had almost died out, as open shoes were not popular or even considered socially unacceptable at the time.

"His neighbors made fun of him. They told him 'no one is going to buy these things you make'. But he laughed and said 'never mind, someone will'."

Artistic by nature, Melissinos, dubbed "the poet-sandal maker" because of his talent for poetry and playwriting, saw the project as a challenge to his creativity.

"He started designing sandals on his own but also 'stealing' designs he saw on ancient statues, frescoes, depictions of ancient Greek sandals -- he studied a lot. And he started experimenting," Melissinos said. The first pair was sold in no time. "In a matter of a few years, this whole neighborhood changed and even those who were skeptical at the beginning started making sandals," she added.

Greece experienced its first major tourism boom during that period and the liberal fashion trends of the time helped establish sandals as an iconic fashion item, a symbol of timeless simplicity and elegance, a shoe equally enjoyed by celebrities and hitchhikers, all basking in the Greek summer.

Nowadays, the sandal, in its countless variations, forms, materials and colors, remains the top go-to summer footwear. And the tiny store that was one of the first to make sandals again in modern Greek history is now featured in sophisticated travel guides and prestigious fashion magazines. But as Melissinos said, word of mouth is their biggest marketing weapon.

According to the sandal maker, quality and craftsmanship make the difference. In her store, everything is handmade of genuine leather by Christos and herself: sandals, belts, wallets, handbags. They do not give the impression that they are in a rush. They take the time to care for every little detail, to think of aesthetics, to add that tiny touch that makes every handmade product in the world unique. Their customers can have the sandal of their choice fitted on their feet, they can ask for little tweaks or even different color straps to create a sandal as close to their needs and taste as possible.

"There is a whole story behind this store proving that the shoes are made with talent and craft. There is an atmosphere, they adjust the shoes to your size, you can pick the colors. In 10 minutes, they can give you a totally personalized pair of sandals. It is a very nice souvenir from Athens," confirmed French traveler Diane Petit just after she had her own pair custom-fitted by Christos.

"Approximately 70-80 percent of our orders are 'sur mesure,' because we also want to achieve the perfect fit... We want to have a personal relationship with our customers," Melissinos stressed.

And just as the Melissinos family craftsmanship has passed down to the third generation, so has the loyalty of their customers.

"I was very moved one time when I made small sandals for the great-grandchild of one of my father's customers. It really counts when you are being honest and straight with your customers. The loyalty and the love they show you can go a long way, for generations," the sandal maker explained.

As most sectors of the Greek economy, small and medium-sized shoe making industries suffered a severe blow during the decade-long economic crisis. Several manufacturers were forced out of business or moved out of Greece to where labor was cheaper.

It was a very difficult time for her business, Melissinos recalled, but she refused to compromise on the quality of her products in order to lower the prices. As she said, what kept the small business afloat was foreign customers, but also a shift in the mentality of Greeks.

"We worked hard, and I believe that our customers --especially the Greeks -- rewarded us, because they also returned to the mentality of buying one top quality product rather than 10, which are not of good quality," she stressed, referring to a big part of Greek society that was prone to hyperconsumerism before the crisis.

Of course, making unique, handmade products when trends in fashion are changing fast is not an easy task. It takes time, it costs more and has a small profit margin -- but for Melissinos it is a personal choice.

"You have to love it and then you can make your clientele love it too," she explained.

Melissinos is confident that handmade crafts not only are not dying but are being reinvented and highly appreciated by more and more people.

"We have customers who tell us 'I was very happy that I kept these (sandals) for 10 or 15 years. We had a great time 'together' and they refer to all the places these sandals took them to, and how they connected emotionally with them," she said.

Over the past years, more and more travelers have visited Melissinos's store with a travel guide in their hands. Tourists today are more sophisticated, they are looking for authentic experiences and products, they do not shop randomly, the sandal maker claimed.

And lately, visitors from China have joined the store's most valued group of customers.

"They are always on the lookout for good quality products. They even take more time to decide because this is something new to them. But once they trust you, they become your best customers. I think you have to gain their trust," Melissinos said.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has made things much more difficult for this small business. With approximately half of their customers coming from abroad, and with travel restrictions that are prone to change at any moment, Olgianna and Christos are faced with uncertainty. But combining art with technology, they run an e-shop that ships worldwide and are optimistic that they will be able to welcome their friends back in Athens soon.

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