After a career reselling Hérmes, Respoke founder Michael Tonello came up with the idea to repurpose his designer scarves into espadrilles. He and co-founder Chris Bartick have grown the brand so successfully that they now have stores in luxury destinations around the country, including a new post in Southampton. Patrick tells us how they’ve turned a great idea into a killer business.
How did the idea of Respoke come about?
Having achieved a level of success as a reseller of all things Hermés, Respoke co-founder Michael Tonello began his quest for the ultimate espadrille. [This rather unusual career is detailed in Tonello’s 2008 memoir, Brining Home the Birkin, now in its 14th printing.] Inspired by years of designer scarf collecting, he came up with the idea to repurpose his iconic scarves into beautiful espadrilles. With the idea in mind that this could turn into something magnificent, and knowing that I have a background in art, graphic design, and branding, Michael approached me with the concept.
What were you initial challenges?
The initial challenge was to find production of this unique shoe. Once Michael found someone who would speak to us, he traveled to the birthplace of espadrilles, La Rioja, Spain, and delivered a scarf to our now head of design and production, thinking he may never see it again. The biggest concern was that the silk didn’t carry the rigidity or strength to uphold the structure of the body of the shoe. Additionally, the toe box of the shoe could possibly push through. Some months later, Michael received the package at his home in Barcelona with the first pair of Respoke espadrilles. The silk was backed with cotton canvas for strength, rigidity, and a perfect fit!
What were your next steps after you found the factory?
It was time to create the brand! The logo, website, and social media handles all were created. We then decided to place a very small order to test the market and incorporate the branding elements, which happen to be a nod to Spain. We first advertised on Michael’s Facebook page to gauge interest and we began to sell them!
How was social media helpful in getting the word out there?
The initial launch was on Michael’s Facebook page. Beyond that, social media has been instrumental in keeping engaged with our customers and speaking to the world about our latest products.
Tell us about how a dinner with Fern Mallis at The Polo Bar helped the brand grow.
Michael, having been a friend of Fern’s since his book launch, decided to have dinner with Fern and present her with a pair of Respoke in her size. Here involvement with New York Fashion Week seemed like a great person to gift the pair to. She absolutely fell in love with the concept and the pair. Shortly thereafter, Fern brought Michael over to the table with her new pair in hand of some fashion notables that gave us our first big break. Sitting there were Berdorf Goodman’s Jim Gold and Linda Fargo alongside Lizzy Tisch, who had just had a highly successful Respoke Trunk show the week prior. All immediately became enamored with our product and Linda offered to order all that we had available for Bergdorf Goodman. Our very first order had just sold out! In addition to the sales revenue, Bergdorf’s has given us a lot of street cred in the fashion world.
What stores are you sold in today?
We have RESPOKE stores in Southampton, as well as Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and a new locations in Charleston. We also sell with Saks Fifth Avenue, Lane Crawford, Celebrity Beyond and SilverSea Cruises via LVMH’s Starboard Cruise Services.
You are in some of the most luxurious beach towns in America. Why was important for you to be in The Hamptons?
It was only a matter of time before we found our way to the Hamptons! Our core product, the espadrille, is considered a luxury resort shoe and the Hamptons absolutely aligns with the luxury resort aesthetic.
What is the design of the store like?
99 Jobs Lane has a gallery-like feel with open and airy space featuring all our colorful footwear, fine-art, furniture, and accessories. While we do bring in other artists into our stores on a rotating basis, 99 and most of our store predominantly feature my own mixed media artwork that are iconic local images made from acrylic paint and remnant scarves in our shoe making process.
Where do you hope to open next?
We are interested in Florida
What makes each pair special?
Every pair is one-of-a-kind because we use different parts of the scarf for each shoe. Even the left to the right foot will relate visually, but still be unique. Because we use natural materials and repurposed scarves, all of our products are one of the very best examples of sustainable luxury.Our espadrille construction is so special because each part of the shoe is made by hand with love in a different mountain village workshops. These are family owned craftspeople that pass their skillset down generation after generation.
Where do you look for the vintage pieces?
All over the world to events and major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies.
Do you work with new fabrics as well?
We do. We use a wide variety of vintages to add visual depth to our brand.
You also have bucket hats. Tell us about them.
Bucket hats, clothing, fine-art, furniture and accessories. The bucket hats are great! The base construction is made of linen. Many of them are frayed edging. We then work with US or Spanish artisans to embellish pieces of the designer scarves onto them.
What were you doing before Respoke?
I was spending summers in Provincetown doing remote freelance graphic design work and living on my sailboat that is a successful charter business in its own right. Michael and I met because we both were spending summers in Provincetown. Michael had just finished his book tour of Bringing Home the Birkin (Now in it’s 14th printing). It was a great time in both of our work lives to begin a new venture / adventure.
How do you want to see the business grow?
We hope to be able to bring Respoke to more luxurious locations nationally and internationally, while remaining connected to the communities where we exist.