My bare feet tapped in anticipation. The rich scent of leather filled my lungs. The stone floor beneath my toes was cold and littered with scraps of leather. I was at Melissinos Art, a colorful Athenian sandal shop tucked in an alley near the famous Monastiraki Square. The world-famous shop is run by Pantelis Melissinos, “The Poet,” a third generation sandal-maker who prides himself on fitting each pair to the customers foot. His shop has been featured in Vogue and visited by Sarah Jessica Parker, Bob Saget, and countless other celebrities seeking something unique and not mass-produced.
I chose a style from the sheet I had picked up at the door: The John Lennons. A man brought a pair so I could test the size and style. I slipped my feet in and determined they were the right size. With three straps over the foot and one in back to hold my feet in place, I knew these would be perfect for my day-long treks exploring new cities. I glanced at my feet and quickly rolled my toes over, embarrassed at their current state. After 10 weeks of tromping around European cities in my favorite Keds, my toes were quite the sight and I was in serious need of a pedicure.
The assistant approached me when he noticed I was done trying on my sandals. He skillfully fitted the leather around the top of my foot and between my toes, marking where each piece should be connected to the bottom. Before long, he whisked them away to be finalized by the Poet. The Poet worked in a dark corner with a small light. He was quiet and focused, looking up every so often to pick up his next pair of sandals and meticulously cut and shape the leather to match the measurements drawn up by his assistant.
As I waited for my handmade sandals, I looked around the small shop. The walls were covered in leather bags and sandals, books of his father’s poetry, and his own plays. A poster of Sarah Jessica Parker hung above his work area with personalized “thank you” for her favorite pair of Prince sandals.
30 minutes later, The Poet had finished cutting the leather and called me to his desk. I gave them one last try before he nailed the leather into the bottom and I was presented with my brand new pair of John Lennon sandals. I walked out of his shop feeling like a bit of a celebrity myself – how many people can say they have a pair of handmade shoes fit for them?! I relished the feeling, knowing all too well that hundreds of people walk out of his shop with their own sandals each day.
The Poet has been approached several times about opportunities for mass production in the US, Japan and Korea, but he always turns them down. You won’t find a Melissinos Art franchise anywhere else in Greece. Just one small shop located at 2 Agias Theklas near Monastriki Square. Customization is his family’s M.O., even though it does require more time and effort.
Customization – and I’m not referring to the Subway-style mass customization that is taking over Western culture– seems to be a forgotten art. There’s something to be said about taking the time and effort to produce a piece that fits a person (or entity) perfectly well.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’m working and traveling. My experience with the Poet has taught me two things: 1) Don’t exchange quality for rapid growth. 2) Stay true to your roots. Creating a true, form-fitting pair of sandals [or website] requires thought, practice, and a heart for the people you work with.