Magical things can happen over a glass of good wine. Romances are kindled. New friendships are forged. And for Michael Tonello, a casual conversation led to connections that catapulted his unique product to swift success.
Author of the best-selling book Bringing Home the Birkin, Tonello was chatting with fashion industry icon Fern Mallis at The Polo Bar when he presented her with a gift: a pair of custom, handstitched espadrilles made from a vintage Pucci print dressing gown. Walking over to greet Mallis, Ralph Lauren caught a glimpse of the inventive footwear and was intrigued. He introduced Tonello to executives from Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, who were dining at the restaurant that evening, and the brand now known as Respoke found its home.
Tonello conceived the idea of repurposing classic designer scarves into colorful slip-on shoes after moving to Barcelona in 1999. The erstwhile luxury reseller had made a name for himself sourcing authenticated Hermès scarves and envisioned turning one of the elegant silk squares into a pair of espadrilles, the footwear of choice in sunny Spain. He later shared the concept with graphic designer Chris Bartick, and the two joined forces to create Respoke.
After researching factories for more than a year, Tonello found a group of artisans in Spain’s remote mountain villages, where a master craftsman took on the task of creating the prototype pair. His shop developed a process of bonding the delicate silk fabric to a thin cotton canvas for durability and added decorative stitching on the toe cap for additional reinforcement. The resulting footwear was everything Tonello had dreamed of.
The fashion-wise entrepreneur first marketed the custom espadrilles to his fanbase on social media, but it was after the fortuitous meeting in Manhattan when things really took off. Orders came in from Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and other high-end retailers. When inventory started to overwhelm the owners’ respective apartments, Respoke opened a retail location in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 2015.
Since that time, Respoke has launched boutiques in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and will be opening a new store in Southampton, New York, in late spring 2023. “We learned that having a physical space was really special,” Bartick says. “People are oversaturated with shopping online, and they want connectivity. They want to walk into an experience.”
Because the other locations are seasonal, Tonello and Bartick last year started to search for a place to establish a year-round presence. Charleston was the perfect fit, both for its milder climate and because of the continued expansion of shopping and dining options along King Street in the city’s historic downtown area. Scheduled to open with the summer season this year, the new Respoke store at 377 King St. will include furniture, artwork and chandeliers, in addition to the brand’s iconic footwear.
The process of reinventing an authenticated vintage silk scarf into a stunning pair of shoes involves several steps and likewise several mountainside workshops, most of which have been family-owned for more than a century.
The first shop winds strips of jute and sews through the base to create the bottom. From there, a separate factory applies all-natural rubber soles with a heat press. Meanwhile, artisans in another workshop are creating the uppers, crafting two pairs of espadrilles from each scarf. In the final step, workers hand sew the upper to the base and add toe stitching, using a nearly forgotten technique passed down through generations.
“As time progressed, we started adding other categories of shoes,” says Bartick, who has a background in fine art. “We created a mule, a wedge, a bow slide and other designs,” he notes, including sneakers and high-tops. With a desire to promote sustainability, the duo also looked for more ways to use every small scrap of fabric that remained from making Respoke’s trademark shoes. The brand eventually added limited edition ready-to-wear items, like jackets and sweaters, embellished with delicate pieces of silk, as well as hats and face masks.
Bartick also uses colorful bits of remnant fabric combined with acrylic paint and a special sealant to create vibrant canvases that depict familiar scenes from cities where Respoke has a presence. His mixed-media artwork is available for purchase at Respoke boutiques and through the brand’s website. “We like to be involved in the communities we’re in,” says Bartick, who recently completed a canvas of Charleston’s famous pineapple fountain. Just as Tonello’s first pair of custom espadrilles evoked fond memories of his time in Spain, Respoke aims to give customers a special remembrance of the sunny destinations they love. *
Leslie J. Thompson is a Dallas-based freelance writer with a passion for interior design and international travel. Read more of her work at lesliejthompson.com.