Naiara Elgarresta, from Urretxu (pronounced Urrechu) in the Basque region of northern Spain, wanted to be a shoe designer since she was six. On the weekends she would badger her father into taking her to San Sebastián, the closest big city so that she could window shop for shoes, hats, and other accessories. Then she would return home and craft her own fashion pieces.
The girl’s father, a furniture maker, was a bit puzzled by this early fashion obsession. The family led an active lifestyle, so there were many other great things for a kid to do. Mountainous terrain and spectacular beaches that define the Basque country are an ideal setting for endurance sports. Naiara‘s father was an avid cyclist, brother a windsurfer. With them as role models, Naiara simply could not help growing into an athlete. By the end of high school, she was playing on the Basque national handball team and was well on her way to becoming a professional. Then a serious knee injury scuttled the plans. Back on her feet after multiple surgeries, Naiara did not have to think too much about what to do. After all, her love for shoes and accessories had never really gone away. Before long she had come up with a plan.
Polimoda was an obvious choice: it is the only fashion school that offers a three-year specialized shoes and leather accessories design program. Having a program like that in Florence, the luxury leather workshop for the world’s most prominent fashion brands, makes perfect sense. Getting in was not going to be easy, however. Besides submitting an extensive art portfolio, you also have to pass an entrance exam. And you have to be fluent in English.
So, at the age of twenty, Naiara headed for London to study English. She enrolled in a language school and moved into a student’s residence in an unassuming and unglamorous part of the city. She didn’t know anyone. Having gone through the requisite ” OMG, what have I done?” panic moment, the shoe designer-in-the-making immersed herself in her new environment. To speed up the learning process, she got herself a job at a local shoe store. And we know that nothing gets you learning faster than a stint in retail! A year later, after having passed the entrance exams, Naiara was on her way to Polimoda.
Florence and Polimoda
At Polimoda the expectations were high and the teachers strict. From the initial group of thirty, less than half made it to graduation. Naiara was one of those who made it. All-nighters and other strains were the order of the day. But the instructors also were wise and knew how to inspire. “Whatever is missing from your life right now, that’s what your designs should be about.” Naiara missed the winds of her native Basque country – the famous wave-creating gales of the Bay of Bizcay. Florence was beautiful, of course, but the air was too still for the young and intrepid shoe designer. So she designed a cage-shoe that would trap the wind.
Living and studying among Florentine leather artisans has the incredible added advantage of sooner or later falling into a work arrangement where you can learn on the job. Naiara’s lucky break came in her second year. Someone her landlady knew worked at a workshop that made bags for Chanel. Not bad for a first foray into the world of luxury leather! The experience was incredible, especially because, as Naiara soon discovered, the artisans enjoyed a lot of freedom of action when working out a prototype. The fashion house sends in a sketch: it is up to the leather specialists to come up with the best way to make a picture into a real object.
After three years of study, Naiara had already worked at two different leather production facilities. Each had offered her something unique. Prospects for landing a job after graduation were extremely good. What else can a young shoe designer wish for? To Naiara it was obvious: family and friends. After seven years away, she was seriously homesick. Home is where she always felt the most creative. So, she decided to leave Florence and go back to Spain and the Basque Country.
Unlike many other regions of Spain, the Basque country does not have a significant footwear industry. Naiara was very happy to be back home, but now she was anxious to find work. Her parents told her not to panic. After all, she could always go back to Italy. To Naiara‘s relief, it took her only three months to land a job as a shoe designer (but very long three months they were).
Naiara‘s current employer is a small family-owned firm that makes fashion espadrilles under two brand names: Calzanor and Juncal Aguirre. The Calzanor line is exported all around the world, notably to Japan. The Juncal Aguirre line is sold domestically. The company also makes espadrilles for a number of major international brands. Naiara regularly travels to the famous LINEAPELLE leather fair in Milan to choose materials for new collections. The fair is where the best leather manufacturers from all around Europe vie for designers’ attention. These business trips are also a great chance to catch up with old friends from the industry and establish new connections.
Naiara‘s plan had worked out perfectly. She is a shoe designer at an established firm, living and working in San-Sebastián, the same windy city she would visit as a child to gather inspiration for her fashion pieces. Her family and childhood friends are now only a short drive away. She is also actively working on her own line of surfing-inspired shoes and accessories.
The prototypes, made of neoprene (like the surfer’s suits), leather, and epoxy resin (the material that surfboards are made of), were created with the help of her father at his workshop in Urretxu. The bottom of these high-heel booties has a mechanism that locks them in place while cycling. This way the heels are no hindrance. As a result, the stylish black and white boots are capable of taking you from bike to office, from office to bike, and then, if you wish, straight into the water of one of San-Sebastian‘s iconic surfing beaches.
The Next Step
Now thirty, Naiara is looking ahead to what’s next. Some day she would like to see her designs in the stores and on the streets, worn by women who, like her, are both sport and fashion enthusiasts. As an experienced shoe designer with excellent training, Naiara is certainly qualified, but to launch your own brand is not an easy undertaking. She will have to craft a new plan. There is no doubt that she will get there – all she needs is herself and a good, strong wind to run with.