Wednesday, October 6, 2010

SoBe Unique shoe store offers the timeless espadrille

King Street in Old Town Alexandria is far from the sands of South Beach Miami but both areas are home for SoBe Unique shoe store. Owner Juan Cortes stocks his stores with handcrafted espadrilles, sandals, and handbags designed and produced in Spain and Brazil. And residents alike connect to the timeless tradition of shoe-making.

One bright Saturday afternoon in August, customers stream into the 300-square foot Alexandria location eager to check out the latest arrival, most of which are lying in open boxes vying for space. Cortes maneuvers through the maze like a pro – pulling and suggesting alternatives without skipping a beat. His fast-pace nature softens when he takes a breath to point out the features of his new designs.

“You have to try on these sandals,” he excitedly tells one of his patrons. “Your feet will love you.” The patron walked around with a grin: sold.

Of the 12 styles Cortes carries, all vary in material and color and crafted from the traditional European and modern techniques – hand-stitching, recycled rubber, natural stone, and genuine leather.

“There is a reason our color scheme mirrors earth tones,” he says. “It is symbolic of feeling grounded and being connected with the past, the tradition of shoe-making.”

Cortes, a former investigator for the music industry, launched SoBe Unique in 1995 to reconnect with his love of fashion, shoes in particular. “I grew up around family who worked in the garment factories,” Cortes explains, “and I wanted to go back to my Spanish roots to preserve the art of shoe-making.”

When not splitting his time between stores, Cortes is visiting his factories in Spain and Brazil to ensure fair working conditions and experimenting with new environmental-friendly materials. In Brazil, he works with his partners at TRADEF on the handbag collection, a non-governmental organization assisting people with disabilities in employment. Each handbag is crafted from the remaining leather used from the shoes.

Cortes is not ready to dismiss the espadrilles just because temperatures are cooling. His female Washington clients still have a few weeks longer to sport the shoe with a pair of jeans and a light cardigan. For him, the fall collection of neutral-colored loafers offers warmth and comfort. With soles made from recycled rubber guaranteeing a 10-year life span, SoBe Unique shoes are not going anywhere.

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