Transparent Shoes


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This week marks the 8th anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh which took 1,138 lives and injured 2,500. Ever since that day, there has been a movement within in the fashion community to do away with the human and environmental costs of manufacturing through transparency. The movement encourages consumers to ask themselves and the brands and retailers they buy from “Who made my clothes?”. It challenges brands to share not just where their products were made, but the name of the factory and the workers who constructed them as well. The idea is this: If the conscious consumer asks this question, brands will be more accountable for manufacturing conditions so a tragedy like the Rana Plaza collapse never happens again.

(originally published 4/26/18. updated on 4/21/21)

 

If you’ve been following my Instagram account for a while, you already know I manufacture Zou Xou shoes in Argentina by chance & by circumstance. I met the right manufacturing partners at the right time and my collection was born. Manufacturing in Argentina poses a lot of challenges. The Argentinean footwear industry is at risk of extinction. Staggering inflation and the decreased spending power that comes along with it mean people aren’t buying as many shoes as they used to. The growth of footwear imports into Argentina means that when people are buying shoes, they’re buying inexpensive imports instead of nationally-made shoes because it’s what they can afford. Factories are closing their doors and jobs in the industry are disappearing. Workshops lay off workers to keep the lights on. Talented shoemakers with decades of experience turn to driving taxis to make a living. It keeps getting harder to find shoemakers who can afford to keep making shoes for a living because there just isn’t enough work. The lack of job growth in the sector means the younger generations aren’t pursuing the trade. Due to volatile inflation and rising consumer costs in the Argentinian economy, the situation is one in which the cost of living is on a steady rise. Wages are stagnant and don’t provide the same spending power as they did in preceding months. The result is that the cost of labor is higher than one would expect. So, I don’t manufacture in Argentina because of the cheap labor! But setting aside the specific economic conditions causing it, why is a high labor cost a bad thing? Part of the paradigm shift the Fashion Revolution is trying to drive home to fashion companies is that labor shouldn’t be cheap because when it is, it comes at a human cost.  The relationship between the brand/designer and the producers should always be mutually beneficial. 

I am an independent designer who runs a micro-business. I know the impact of my company is insignificant to the greater economy, but I’d like to think it makes a small difference in the lives of the craftsmen who make my shoes by helping them to maintain their self-sufficiency and quality of life. I respect and appreciate the people who make my shoes because I know that without them my collection wouldn’t be where it is now. As my business grows, I’d like to expand the community of independent shoemakers I work with. Yes, there are cheaper and more organized places to manufacture shoes, but there are advantages to manufacturing in Argentina that I may not find in other places. Having access to the workshops and craftsmen ensures that I’m operating a business in line with my values. I feel good about knowing the names of the people who cut, skive, stitch, and last my shoes. Having direct contact with every single one of them gives me the peace of mind in knowing that no human has been exploited in the process. Working with independent makers who set their own wages means they define their own value and produce work they take pride in. The small scale means that I’m not forced into overproducing shoes that may wind up in a landfill somewhere. For me, that’s worth a lot.

 

So, who made your shoes?

 

I’ve worked with a lot of different shoemakers and craftsmen the past few years, but there are a few who have been constants. This is by no means a complete list! I’m also working on providing more information about where the materials are sourced as well, but it’s a bit of a process so please bear with me. Always feel free to send me an email if you have questions about how something is made. It’s my responsibility as a business owner and a designer to provide transparency, but it’s also yours to ask for it!

 



Miguel

Meet Miguel 

This is the “deformador” or sole-shaper. Using a rotary sander, he polishes the rough edges from the soles of ZX shoes after they’ve come from the laster’s. Miguel was born and raised in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. He got into the shoe industry as a kid, first running errands at a factory, then working his way up to becoming a shoemaker as a young man. He works out a workshop which is about ten steps from his house in Ciudadela, Buenos Aires. He loves old-school Santana, goes out dancing every Saturday night without fail and just bought his first car–a shiny black Peugeot hatchback.

 



Cristobal

Meet Cristobal 

Cristobal is our head shoemaker. He’s responsible for lasting the uppers and soleing our shoes. He hails from Paraguay, but Spanish is not his first language–it’s Guarani, the language of the country’s indigenous population. He has his own workshop about 20 miles from the capital of Buenos Aires, but sometimes travels to work on site. This photo of Cristobal was taken over five years ago while he was lasting shoes in my living room at the time. He lasts shoes faster than anyone I’ve ever seen!  



Roberto

Meet Roberto 

He is the man with all of the lasts (that’s the form the shoes are molded on). Roberto is a real character — he’s constantly cracking jokes and telling me tales from when he used to have a line of fine footwear for trans women. He even won a shoe design award for it once, and he’s got the size 45 clear platform heels to prove it! Also, his factory has like a dozen cats living in it. No joke!



Abel

Meet Abel 

He is the sole cutter we source our vegetable tanned heels and soles from. His workshop is on the side of his family’s house. He loves talking about politics and the economy. A lot. I’ve learned so much about the struggles of the footwear industry in Argentina through Abel since he’s a veteran of the trade. He’s been cutting soles for over 40 years!



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Meet Pablo

Pablo is the “empaquista” or finisher, who is responsible for gluing down the sock liners and putting finishing touches on the shoes before they go into a box. He has years of experience doing just empaque despite being one of the youngest on the team. Pablo is a magician and is the one who makes our shoes truly beautiful. The shoes go through a lot of handling throughout the manufacturing process and always need a touch-up before being shipped to you. There are few boo-boos he can’t make disappear with his toolbox and paint brush. This job requires a sure but delicate hand and a solid grasp of color theory.



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Meet Juan

Juan is our “aparador” or stitcher who sews all of our uppers, and he does it well. Good shoe upper stitchers are hard to find because of the patience, dexterity and skill required to prep the uppers and operate the machinery. Juan also works from his home workshop in the Buenos Aires province.



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Meet Daniel

Daniel is our “cortador”, or upper cutter responsible for hand cutting all of the uppers. Working with a good cutter is critical for controlling the shoe’s quality and leather consumption. He’s both efficient and careful. Daniel examines each skin and tugs on it in all directions before placing a single cut on the skin. He carefully places the pattern over the leather, being sure to use every usable millimeter. Then with a flick of his wrist, the piece is cut out. Afterwards he collects all of the usable scraps and places them into a bin for repurposing.



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Julio

Officially, Julio is our “modelista” or patternmaker who translates our designs from paper to three-dimensions. Unofficially, he’s more like a footwear developer and prototype-maker. His knowledge about shoemaking is so valuable. Julio started working in a shoe factory in high school and never stopped. He’s worked in every operation there is when it comes to shoemaking. Whenever we have a problem we need to solve or need something hard to source, we go to him— he is generous with his knowledge and he can talk shoes for hours.



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Mariano

Mariano is officially our production manager, but he’s also the “Mr. ZX” to my “Ms. ZX.” He’s the ringmaster of the circus that is organizing and directing all of the moving parts that go into making our shoes. A large part of his job involves cultivating good relationships with our production team. This means being receptive to their needs while managing everyone’s different personalities and work styles. ZX wouldn’t function with him!

That’s all for the time being. Thank you for taking the time to read! 

Inés Ybarra — Photographer & Art Director

Inés Ybarra is a photographer & art director currently residing in Madrid. Inés is also the founder & creative director of CasaHari.
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Selected Clients

D1 Models
Derek Henderson
Fasianos Workshop
State of Escape,
Net-A-Porter
Estelle Dévé Studio

D1 Models
Derek Henderson
Fasianos Workshop
State of Escape,
Net-A-Porter
Estelle Dévé Studio

D1 Models
Derek Henderson
Fasianos Workshop
State of Escape,
Net-A-Porter
Estelle Dévé Studio

D1 Models
Derek Henderson
Fasianos Workshop
State of Escape,
Net-A-Porter
Estelle Dévé Studio

D1 Models
Derek Henderson
Fasianos Workshop
State of Escape,
Net-A-Porter
Estelle Dévé Studio

© Inés Ybarra 2021

© Inés Ybarra 2021

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Team index
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© Inés Ybarra 2021