Since late 90s Michael Tonello has been a recognised industry expert when it comes to Hermes bags. In 2008 Tonello published Bringing Home the Birkin: Life In Hot Pursuit Of The World’s Most Coveted Handbag, a bestselling book where he shares interesting and exciting tales of his collector clients and A-list celebrities
Recently Michael has launched his own brand Respoke, offering handcrafted unique espadrilles made of designers’ vintage scarves. During this interview, Tonello talks about the rise of sustainable fashion and reveals the details how footwear, namely espadrilles, made by upcycling authenticated scarves to give them new life and purpose, while minimizing waste. Michael also explains the phenomenon of Hermes and other luxury handbags as passion investments.
Your company Respoke takes vintage Hermes scarves and re-crafts them into one-off pairs of seriously exclusive, luxurious espadrilles. What was the inspiration behind your idea?
I moved to Barcelona in 1999 and for the past 20 years or so I have bought new espadrilles every spring. About seven years ago I had the idea of having a custom pair made using an Hermès scarf that I owned.
How and when did it begin?
About seven years ago I reached out to a handful of espadrille workshops in Spain until I found one that was willing to help bring my idea to fruition.
I did not sit down and decide to create a brand. It was all totally organic. I simply was bored with the traditional espadrilles (typically cotton canvas) and wanted something unique and special for myself.
Are you planning to expand the type of products?
Yes. In the past couple of years we have launched ready-to-wear and some accessories (bucket hats, for example) and last year we launched sneakers (using the same concept of repurposing iconic designer silk scarves). We have a few new things in the pipeline.
Are you using only scarves?
We typically only use silk scarves but have used a few silk dresses in the past.
How about luxury T-shirts and dresses?
There is a lot of labour involved in taking apart a dress (or any garment).
What’s the cheapest pair of shoes in your shop?
A pair of mules… $395 USD
Which one is the most expensive?
We are launching a high-top sneaker this spring that will be approximately $595
You said that every pair is handcrafted; every pair is unique. How long does it take to create one?
Yes, every pair is totally handcrafted and hand sewn. From beginning to end it takes approximately a month to make a pair. The reason for this is that each part of the shoe is made in different workshops and as a pair is being created it must move from workshop to workshop which involves transporting it across villages. Our footwear is literally old-school handmade and in some ways a cottage industry.
What was the most complicated and expensive pair of shoes you ever made? (I am assuming challenges depend on the pattern of the scarf).
Truth be told, every scarf presents a somewhat different complication. Our goal with every scarf is to use it to its best advantage. Our mission is to create one-of-a-kind products that carry more value and self-identity than their original form. In the Respoke arena, the whole is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.
How many clients do you have?
Who are your clients? Are they all Millennials and Gen Z?
Yes. We have clients from 20-something to early 90s. We have clients who save to make an aspirational purchase and other clients who think nothing of buying numerous pairs all at once. Our shoes look like nothing else in the market so often times a client can’t decide which pair they love best and then decide to simply buy everything they’ve tried on.
How many people are in your team?
How has your market been affected by Covid-19?
In 2020 we felt the effects of COVID first-hand. It was January and we had just signed a lease for a store on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts. In February COVID began to appear. We had planned to open the store with six employees in late May. By March we were thinking of ways to either get out of our lease or mitigate our potential losses. We ended up donating the use of the space for that year to the Nantucket Artist Association as they were celebrating their 75th Anniversary. NAA used the space to display local artists. We paid the rent and finally moved in May of 2021.
How is the world we are living in now different from the one you described in your book? Did the clients change?
In my book and during those crazy Birkin days I was constantly jetting to some far off distant city. One day I’d be in Buenos Aires and the next day I’d be in Berlin. Nowadays that kind of travel is not something I’d even contemplate. But with that being said I don’t think the demand for luxury goods has changed. If anything it’s increased.
How can we be so sure that the focus on recycling and sustainable fashion is not just a trend?
I’m not so sure that we can be completely certain about anything nowadays. But I do think that many people have rethought how they shop and what they buy and much of that thinking came about because of being in lockdown due to COVID.
You have been working with Hermès for so long so I have to ask a couple of questions about luxury handbags. What is driving the demand for them as collectibles?
The simple answer is record setting auction prices. And by auction I don’t mean only Sotheby’s and Christie’s and Heritage, I also mean eBay and similar sites.
What is the phenomenon of Hermes? Why has only this brand succeeded in making historical sales? For example, last year an Hermès bag set the world record for the most expensive handbag – selling for £230,000 ($300,000).
Hermès was the first brand to position itself as artisanal hand crafted luxury. The French fashion house is the world’s oldest luxury brand still in operation today. It was established in 1837 (making it older than Louis Vuitton by 17 years) by Thierry Hermès. Then of course the infamous Birkin bag waiting list kicked their business into the stratosphere …and the rest is history.
Any funny stories from your time at Hermes?
OK, not sure this is funny but here’s a true story that took place in Prague.
My husband, Juan, and I were visiting Prague with his parents one summer. I decided to go into the Hermès store (alone, without Juan) to see if I could score a Birkin bag. I used my standard formula and quickly piled up a bunch of merchandise (cashmere shawls, sterling silver bracelets, etc.) and then asked for a Birkin bag. The salesperson asked me what colour I wanted. I replied that it was a gift for my Mom and given that she didn’t currently own any Birkin bags that any colour would be okay. Moments later the salesperson returned from the backroom with two large orange boxes and showed me two Birkin bags. One was red and the other was black. I purchased the red one. Later that same day Juan went into the Hermes store and used a variation of my formula and then asked for a Birkin bag. The salesperson asked him what colour he was looking for and he replied that he’d really like black or a dark colour. Moments later he left with the black Birkin bag.