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Ancient Greek Sandals: a success story grown in Corfu

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

Posted in www.telegraph.co.uk
By Sally Williams
11 JULY 2015 • 10:40AM
The Greek crisis seems a world away from life on Kavvadia, a farm in Tzavros, a 20-minute drive from Corfu Town, on the island of Corfu. The 50-acre farm is an idyllic picture of olive and cypress trees, terracotta pots and hot sunshine. From the bedroom window you can glimpse the Mediterranean.

While many Greeks are leaving their country, Christina Martini and her partner, Apostolos Porsanidis Kavvadias, have returned. They spent nearly 15 years living abroad: Porsanidis Kavvadias in Milan, Martini in Venice, and together in London and Paris, where she was a shoe designer for Louis Vuitton then Balenciaga and he was a product designer for the Hermès group. In 2010 they moved to Corfu to start a sandal business and an olive farm, as well as raise a family.

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

Ancient Greek Sandals, the company co-founded by Martini, now sells more than 80,000 sandals a year through 500 outlets around the world. Anne Hathaway is a fan, as are Gisele, Beyoncé and Sarah Jessica Parker. Porsanidis Kavvadias now has 600 olive trees (200 on the farm; 400 on rented land elsewhere on Corfu) producing Dr Kavvadia olive oil, named after his grandfather. And the couple have two children, Stefanos, five, and Daphne, two, along with two dogs and numerous cats, chickens and goats.

‘It would have been easier to make the sandals in China or Turkey,’ Martini says, when we meet at the farmhouse at the end of June. She is 38 and elegantly dressed in an Isabel Marant kaftan. ‘But we wanted to make them in Greece. The inspiration, the summery frame of mind, the whole concept.’ Despite the recession and an inability to get a bank loan (her business partner raised €60,000 through family contacts), Ancient Greek Sandals turned over more than €4 million in 2014. It is a Greek success story: the sandals are manufactured by Greek craftsmen in a factory in Athens. (Martini had wanted to use Greek leather too, but it proved inferior to Italian.) And while other companies are closing, AGS recently announced it was expanding production to two more factories in Athens. The plan is to buy more machines and employ more people.

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

Now their dream life is threatened. ‘It is a worrying time for us and everybody,’ Martini says of the escalating crisis. ‘We also have money in Greek banks and the banks are closed, and yesterday we couldn’t make any transactions, so, for example, we couldn’t pay our Italian suppliers. They sent the leather anyway because they know us and know we pay on time.’ She goes on, ‘We can pay our staff with e-banking and we have a good cash flow. What has saved us is we export our goods, so we will survive one way or another. But I worry about everyone not just me. This morning people were fighting in the street. There is a social war.

Christina Martini was born, the younger of two daughters, in Athens, where her father was a vintage-car dealer. ‘He wanted to become a car designer but he couldn’t study that in Greece,’ she says. ‘He had to go to Italy. And his mother wouldn’t let him go. It was something he always regretted.’

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

After leaving school at 18, Martini studied marketing, with increasing despondency, at the American College of Greece. ‘Then my friend who was going to London to study art said, “You should come along.”’ Martini ended up doing a foundation course in art and design at Camberwell College of Arts. For the accessories module she crafted a Cinderella shoe out of barbed wire. ‘My tutor said, “Have you thought of designing shoes?” It was an epiphany. I never thought it could be a profession,’ she says. After graduating from Cordwainers College, in east London, Martini got a job at Iris, a factory near Venice that makes the shoes dreamt up by designers from such labels as Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Chloé. ‘It was amazing,’ she says. ‘The designers would send me their sketches and I would go to the last maker and make the lasts; I would go to the heel maker and make the heels. I would choose the leather.’ She absorbed the artistry. ‘It was like doing an MA.’

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

Eighteen months later she was hired by the shoe designer Michael Lewis as his assistant at Louis Vuitton, in Paris, where she worked for six years before joining Balenciaga.

Porsanidis Kavvadias is also from Athens. His father was a civil engineer and his mother an anaesthetist. He met Martini in art classes in Athens in their late teens. They both studied at Camberwell and shared a flat as friends, before becoming a couple in their early 20s. He specialised in product design and went on to study at the Domus Academy in Milan. When Martini got a job in Paris, he followed, working for Rena Dumas, the Greek-born architect best-known for her collaboration with the Hermès group. The couple led a sophisticated lifestyle in a beautiful apartment in the 20th arrondissement, a few streets away from Père Lachaise cemetery.

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

But always in the back of Martini’s mind were Greek sandals. She had been fascinated with them since going on family holidays to Paros and the Cyclades. ‘I would buy the sandals sold in tourist shops but by the end of the summer I would have to throw them away because the quality wasn’t very good,’ she recalls. In the summer of 2008 Martini was introduced through a friend to Nikolas Minoglou, a Greek-born MBA graduate of Babson College in the States. ‘His family business was shoes and we met to talk about shoes,’ Martini says. Over dinner in Athens, they discovered that they had the same idea. ‘When his classmates went to Greece they always brought back olive oil and Greek sandals,’ Martini says.

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

In December 2009 Martini was in a factory in Italy, overseeing production for Balenciaga, when her phone rang. ‘I’ve found a manufacturer. You have to send me the designs now,’ Minoglou said. ‘We have to do it now!’

That night in her hotel room Martini took a piece of A4 paper and started drawing. With several swoops of her pencil she created a flat sandal with gladiator-style leather laces. She included dimensions and precise instructions for the pattern cutter. It took less than an hour. Early the next morning she faxed Minoglou the design. (The sandal went on to be one of 13 designs launched in the AGS debut collection in 2011. ‘We thought we would sell 1,000 pairs max. We sold 6,000,’ she says.)

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

Around this time Martini became pregnant. ‘We decided we didn’t want to stay in Paris,’ she says. Porsanidis Kavvadias was becoming disenchanted with the world of design. His dream was to become a farmer in Corfu. ‘At first I didn’t want to leave my job,’ she admits. ‘I was a bit scared. Friends were saying don’t come back. My mother thought I was mad. She said, you’ve worked so hard to have a job and now you’re coming back. What are you going to do here? They didn’t take the idea of sandals seriously. They said the sandals already exist.’

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

In the autumn of 2010 the couple rented out their Paris flat and moved to Corfu. Stefanos was three months old. I like to feed the chickens and admire the plants. But I am not a country girl. I am a bit afraid of the snakes,’ Martini says. We are sitting on the terrace. Dogs bark, and the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine fills the air. Oranges dripping from a tree bob in the warm breeze.

‘This is the life I like to live,’ Porsanidis Kavvadias says. ‘I like to wake up and go into the garden in my pyjamas and not care about what to wear or how my hair is.’ Martini adds, ‘Apostolos also likes to go to town in his pyjamas.’

Born two days apart, Porsanidis Kavvadias and Martini are polar opposites. ‘Christina is very calm and thinks before she acts. She doesn’t scream and freak out. I am the opposite,’ Porsanidis Kavvadias says, with endearing honesty. ‘But it works, the chemistry works.’ He goes on, ‘I remember when we were in England studying, I was partying and couldn’t wake up. Christina was waking up at seven o’clock and going to her college in Bethnal Green. That focus has led her somewhere.’

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

The farmhouse used to be the holiday home of Porsanidis Kavvadias’s Athens-based grandparents. His grandfather, Dr Kavvadias, was a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon and his grandmother was a Corfiot with an eye for property and business. He remembers coming here as a child and seeing a line of people waiting for ‘the doctor’. ‘My grandfather couldn’t stop working even on holiday,’ he says. The table on which his grandfather examined patients is now painted cobalt blue and being laid for lunch.

The couple still take great pleasure in design – their kitchen table is a green aluminium Tolix – but their approach is unpretentious and relaxed. ‘Some of the pots are good, some not so good,’ says Porsanidis Kavvadias of the hotchpotch of terracotta, tin and plastic plant containers on the terrace. ‘We like things that make us feel comfortable. A lot of them are linked to childhood memories.’

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

Porsanidis Kavvadias shows me around the farm. He looks after much of it himself and enjoys watching the land cycle through the seasons. The tomatoes are nearly ripe. Courgette flowers are just coming out. He bends over and pulls out some radishes.

Every October he takes his olives to be pressed using old-fashioned techniques at the Kamarela nunnery, near Agii Douli, a small inland village in the north of Corfu, which has a sacred stone chapel and a reputation for its organic, extra-virgin olive oil. ‘Crisis or no crisis you can still produce olive oil,’ he says. ‘The problem is low morale. People don’t have money. Old people have no money and you start to see homelessness. You didn’t have homelessness before.’

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

Earlier that day I had gone with Martini to her office just north of Corfu Town, where double doors open on to a balcony with a beautiful view of the sea, occasional yachts and the coastline of the island of Vidos. ‘I wanted to have a great view,’ she says. ‘That was my requirement and I think I’ve found the best office in town.’

She had just got back from launching a new collection with Peter Pilotto in New York (she has previously collaborated with the London-based Marios Schwab and the Paris house Carven) and
is working on sandals for next season. Martini likes to develop her designs here – ‘I can concentrate.
I can be alone’ – though she often dreams up ideas on long flights. An Ancient Greek Sandal begins with a drawing and Martini still only requires a soft pencil and a piece of A4 paper.

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

She produces about 25 new styles a year. Prices range from €80 for a winged Ikaria in jelly pink to €535 for a high-laced gladiator. She has embellished her sandals with textured gold (a collaboration with the Greek jewellery house Ilias Lalaounis). In a homage to the Parthenon she created a pair of sandals with cutouts to echo the shapes on the columns. She has been inspired by Greek goddesses, olive trees and mythical boats, and always gives her designs Greek names. She has created sandals that lace up to your knees and others that simply slip on your feet. On a sandal she made last year, banana leaves run up the shin.

‘We are not a fashion brand. We want to be the sandal brand,’ Martini says. Every design she has created – 150 in all – is still available on the AGS website to order.

Martini works in the office from 9am until 2pm, and then goes home for lunch. ‘Apostolos likes to cook,’ she says. Her husband also spends much of his day working on the farm. In the afternoon Daphne naps and Stefanos plays with his parents or watches cartoons, and his mother catches up with emails. The family eats together in the evening and the children go to bed around 8pm. The couple’s friends are mostly other outsiders drawn to Corfu by the same dream of a life close to nature: Germans, Scots and English expats.

CREDIT: ANDY SEWELL

‘The best thing is to live in this place and to have the kids. It is a totally different life. I am a totally different person now,’ Martini says. ‘But we are not living in a bubble,’ she stresses. ‘No one knows what is going to happen next.’ Ancient-greek-sandals.



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