I remember when the first TOMS shoes invaded the US market back in 2007. I never imagined that a traditional rustic shoe worn by Gauchos back in my home country Argentina would become such a fashion staple in the US. As a kid and teenager in Argentina, I would wear alpargatas a lot, but never thought of it as a fashion statement. Alpargatas in Argentina are worn as a comfortable work shoe, suitable to ride a horse, work with cattle, hang out at the ranch, walk dogs, feed the chickens and other types of outdoor activities.
The design can be traced back to the Egyptian sandal. Then Romans later adapted the sandal by adding the upper cover for protection. As time went by, the alpargata was taken to Spain where it took its current shape. In the 15th century, it was taken to Latin America by Spanish colonizers, soldiers and missionaries. By 1850, the city of Buenos Aires had more than 50 families selling handmade alpargatas for a living. In Argentina, these are mostly environmentally friendly shoes made of more than 99.7% natural fibers. The upper portion is made from 100% cotton and the unique sole is made of 100% jute (long, soft, shiny vegetable fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads). These shoes were originally a poor man’s shoes, also worn by working gauchos or cowboys.
Surprisingly, alpargatas or espadrilles became fashionable in America in the 1940s. Lauren Bacall’s character in the 1948 movie Key Largo wore ankle-laced espadrilles. The style was revived in the 1980s thanks in part to the success of Miami Vice – the shoe was worn by Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson). Nowadays in New York City, a pair of espadrilles can cost nearly $500 at luxury shoe retailers.
Fast forward to 2002, American traveler Blake Mycoskie visited my country while competing in the second season of The Amazing Race with his sister. He then returned to vacation in 2006 when he noticed the local polo players wearing the alpargatas; a simple canvas slip-on shoe that he himself began to wear.
Blake also saw poverty-stricken children and learned they had no shoes to protect their feet. This inspired him to create TOMS, a company that would match every pair of purchased shoes with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need.
I’m sure Blake was inspired by the comfort, simplicity and raw beauty of the traditional Gaucho shoes. I love what he did with them. He took a base neutral design and created a million colorful combinations. Brilliant!
He also gives back by donating footwear to children in need to protect them from disease while also empowering them to go to school. So far he has given away 10 million pairs of shoes to children in over 59 countries. I also like that he used an Argentine flag as his company logo. He certainly fell in love with Argentina!
It’s amazing to see that a Latin-inspired shoe of such humble and rustic origin is now a staple fashion element in America. I feel proud and honored that someone like Blake Mycoskie saw the beauty in the simple ranch life of Argentina. And I enjoy telling the story of alpargatas to every single person I spot wearing a pair of TOMS. They love hearing it.
Watch a CBS interview with Blake Mycoskie