Nothing is more precious than a unique thing. – Gabriel Girard
One of the things I love most about interviewing artists, creatives and entrepreneurs is hearing the passion in their voice as they tell me about what inspires them. When I do phone or in-person interviews I strive to not only capture this passion but also the ‘voice’ of the person I’m interviewing.
From the moment I began the phone interview with Laurie Cazaux, the founder and designer behind Atelier Aliénor, I could hear the passion for what she does not only through words, but in her tone as well. The connection Laurie has to her roots, something that was instilled by her parents during her early years, and her passion for creating a quality handmade product with resources from her native France was nothing short of inspiring.
You were born in France, spent your childhood in Africa, and lived in Paris for over a decade before moving to the States. How did living a life filled with travel and different cultures influence the creation of Atelier Aliénor?
I think I’ve been very lucky to be able to travel and live overseas since I was a kid. Everyone that I had the chance to meet and what I saw made me who I am today.
For my parents it was important to have roots and know where we came from. My sister and I always had a great attachment to where we call home in the South of France. When I was 28 I had just had a baby and we (my husband and I) had been living in Paris. When we had the opportunity to move to the US, I wanted to bring a piece of me and where I’m from to the US.
Nothing says the South of France than like a pair of espadrilles.
Espadrilles are a very authentic shoe made with natural materials and ours are handcrafted in France. Many people don’t know this, but espadrilles are originally from France and Spain. They came from the Pyrenees, the mountain range that forms the border between France and Spain. In the South of France people are wearing espadrilles all the time.
Photo credit | Sustainably Chic
I loved reading about the history behind the name Atelier Aliénor, when during the process of starting the business did you decide on the name?
I knew that I wanted a French name since all of our products and materials come from France. I decided on the name at the beginning of the project. It was the easiest decision to make.
The meaning —
Atelier — means workshop and craftsmanship defines what we do. From the factories to the tanner, it’s all a family businesses who work by hand using traditional methods. I really wanted to promote their ‘Savoir-faire’ aka ‘know how/knowledge’.
Aliénor — I added Aliénor with reference to Aliénor of Aquitaine. Aquitaine is a region in the South of France, and Aliénor was one of the most powerful women in our history from the Middle Ages. She married the King of France, later divorced him and married the future king of England. She’s the mother of Richard the Lionheart and was adventurous, ambitious and passionate about both politics and the arts. She is one of our histories most powerful women.
Our espadrilles are handcrafted by women, and the factories that we work with are also managed by women.
Only 1% of Espadrilles available worldwide are made in France. What was your process for selecting the French factories you would work with to create the espadrilles for Atelier Aliénor?
Atelier Aliénor was born out of the passion for well made goods. I’m more touched my handmade products. I had a clear vision from the beginning that I wanted to offer both a high quality and a unique product. So I started to search for places in France who were still working by hand and shared our values for traditions and sustainability.
There are just a few factories that are using handmade product because many disappeared in the 80’s due to Asian companies who began producing espadrilles. So, I met with them and talked about my project. I had no experience in shoes or fashion because of my finance background, but somehow they just trusted me.
What would you say is the most important factor for maintaining a (healthy) relationship with your factories?
Respect and trust are the most important factors. Respect for the people who own the factory and the workers. That’s why I chose to work with factories in France. I know about the working conditions there. They have good hours, and can also work from home. That was a very important factor for me.
Do you design all of the espadrilles yourself, or do you work with a team?
Until this year I was designing everything myself from choosing materials to the style of the espadrilles. It was quite a challenge because I don’t come from a fashion background. I had to learn everything along the way. In the beginning I would come up with a design or new style and I would submit it to the factory and we worked together.
I now have a team who helps me design the espadrilles as well as choosing the colors and styles. The design part of the business is what I enjoy the most. It’s the most interesting because I get to work hand in hand with the factory who brings my designs to life.
Tell me a little bit about the process of making espadrilles…
The inspiration —
I always start with my palette of colors for the leather I use to create the espadrilles. I draw my inspiration from the materials that we use. I always like to go for neutral colors, because I want the espadrilles to be versatile. I also go with one color that is more bight for the summer season.
The process —
It starts with the soles. Our soles are made from jute which is a natural fiber and the jute is hard enough for a shoe sole, but also supple enough to be very comfortable. You can walk for hours with no pain. Using an old spinning machine, you use a braided rope that is in the shape of the espadrilles. Then the espadrille rope is pressed, molded and stitched to prevent unraveling and we add a natural rubber to the bottom of the sole. No chemicals are needed, only natural materials.
Next we add vegetable tanned leather on the sole for comfort. The last step is cutting the leather by hand and then sewing the leather to the sole. It takes only three minutes to make an espadrille by machine. It takes 45 minutes to handcraft one.
Sewing by hand is interesting because of the techniques used to create a quality product. It also makes the shoes more sturdy. There are knots everywhere to secure the stitches, so they won’t unravel like commercially manufactured shoes. So that’s why you can wear our shoes for years. The soles are still the same no matter how many times you wear them and the leather becomes more beautiful and colors improve with age.
The majority for the espadrilles that cost $30-50 dollars have a cheap foam sole that’s covered with material. These kind of shoes you can wear for only one season and then you have to throw them away. This is not a real espadrille.
How closely do you work with the factories that create your espadrilles?
It all depends on what time of year it is and what we’re working on together. If we are in the designing process we can talk several time per week over the phone or by email. We are truly working together as a team.
I visit the factories once a year, but I wish I could visit them more, but it’s not easy with two kids and a baby. It requires a lot of organization to plan a visit.
What are the most frequently purchased espadrilles from Atelier Aliénor?
The majority that we sell are the sandals and the Eloise (in Midnight Blue) are the most frequently purchased. I’m very happy about this because not only is it one of my favorites, it’s named after my daughter, Eloise, who was born last year.
Another popular shoe is the Alice (our black sandals). People love them because they are different from what you usually see when it comes to espadrilles. I designed them in Paris and they are easy to wear, classic and they go with a skirt or dress. I think that’s why people love them.
Brigette (our red espadrilles) are popular as well.
Do you have a particular pair that you find yourself wearing often?
(Laughs) I love them all and I’m lucky because I can wear them year round in Houston. Depending on the season, we have a ‘fake’ winter here, I can wear the blue platforms with jeans, and during the spring and summer I wear the olive and tan sandals almost everyday. They are so versatile and match with everything. Now that it’s very hot here, I wear the slides everyday. It’s part of my ‘uniform.’
Your espadrilles have been featured in well known publications such as Glamour. What was it like seeing your products in ‘print’ for the first time?
When one of my creations comes to life it is just so exciting and when I hold them in my hand I’m so happy. So you can imagine how excited I was when I saw my espadrilles in the pages of Glamour. The moment was so unreal that I almost had to pinch myself.
Atelier Aliénor was part of a pop up at Marche Maman in Soho for 2 weeks in June. What did you enjoy most about working with the team at Maman to prepare for the pop up?
Maman is such a unique place. I literally feel at home as someone coming from the South of France. The co-owner, Ben, also comes from the same place as I do.
The team at Maman was so enthusiastic and they were so considerate and I was very happy to be able to fly to NYC to meet and work together with the team to set up the pop up. They just helped me so much during the process from selected furniture to asking me how I liked the finished set up. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was also put in contact with a local florist who did beautiful displays for the pop up event. It was a dream pop up and we ended up extending it until July 4th.
Keep up with Laurie and Atelier Aliénor through the following links…