A Voyage from Greece's Pre-WWII Haute Monde to the Demi Monde of Rembetiko
My collection of thirty-eight pairs of vintage handmade Vasilis Stamatakis Shoes is stored in a huge lipstick-red metal cabinet in my husband's cluttered painting studio. When the spirit moves me, I go into his studio and clear a path through the jumble of rolled canvas, stretchers and pots of brushes to reach the cabinet's Alladain’s Cave and once more revel in the sight of these exquisite works of art. No renaissance prince could have derived greater pleasure from his trove of jewels and treasures than I do from these perfectly constructed masterpieces of the cordwainer’s art.
The most striking aspect of my collection of thirty eight pairs of shoes is their disparity. Many of Vasilis designs are demurely stylish and decidedly lady-like, some are gamine in feeling and seem destined for a fey actress in a Hollywood screwball comedy of yesteryear. Others are shamelessly provocative - Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, or maybe a current porn darling, built and constructed to seduce.
The prevailing hallmark of ALL Vasilis' Shoes is their incredibly fastidious construction, breathtaking design concept and luxurious materials. Vasilis shoes are all one hundred percent hand crafted right down to their custom cut and hand-imprinted leather insoles.
Vasilis used the finest materials available to him. Many people do not realize that Greece possesses some of the most excellent leather in the world. Unfortunately, Greek leather goods are unknown to many throughout the world, particularly the USA because of various factors. Greeks are never easy to do business with - even with one another. They are vehemently opinionated and at times a bit dishonet, both characteristics that many importers choose to avoid. The advantage therefore goes to the Greek manufacturer of leathergoods who by default has prime access to his country's indisputably fine materials.
As I became familiar with Vasilis' life it became clear that he was a designer whose career straddled two eras - one of the bourgeoise Pre-WWII Greece and the other the postwar culture of new values, underground pleasures and conformity. This, of course, accounts for the vast difference in style from decade to decade in his career that commenced in the late 1930's in the Village of Paraskivi in Crete and his last collection constructed sometime in the late 1970's.
No matter the era, or the influence - Vasilis Shoes were always distinguished by his vivid imagination and flawless craftsmanship and I look forward to conducting you on a tour of what I know of his life and times.
What I know of his life is from a series of twelve one to one interviews with him during the summers of 1995 and 1996 when I visited in Heraklion and bought the shoes than comprise my collection. We both had a love of Dom Perignon and many pleasant summer afternoons were spent over a bottle or two as he slowly told me the story of his life.
jae Brown - Emlenton, Pennsylvania - 20015
It has always seemed odd to me that I discovered Vasilis' shoes years after I had moved away from my home in Kokine Xani, Crete in the early 1970s. This is particularly strange because I have always been an ardent shoe shopper and during the three years I lived in the Heraklion area I bought shoes frequently from the many shops that lined the streets of the main commercial district without ever encountering Vasilis.
The shoes that I acquired during my years in Crete were adequate but not in any way chic or even classically elegant. I was living a rustic life from my seaside villa in a small village of about thirty souls. Each summer I purchased several pairs of the uninspiring sandals on offer throughout downtown Heraklion. All that could be found were well-constructed but decidedly frumpy styles in muddy neutral colors. In the winter I inevitably sought out the least depressing pair of black suede pumps that were available, always shopping diligently for the most classic model I could find.
Although I have many fond memories of shopping in Heraklion, shoe shopping is not on the list. Early wild asparagus, enticingly marbled in pink and palest green, yes! Yogurt, thick and rich, sporting a cap of yellow cream as portioned by the vendor from a huge and richly glazed ceramic bowl, yes! Intricately wrought wooden sculptures made by the winter-bound shepherds on Mount Dia and sold come Spring in the open air market, yes! Elegant or even memorable footwear, no!
In the early 90's anyone was safe on Heraklion’s streets at any hour as long as they were not involved in any of the town’s unrelenting internecine vendettas. As a blameless tourist I was free to roam at my leisure through the pre-dawn hours and in so doing found the treasure of a lifetime.
These masterpieces of the cordwainer’s art were, unbelievably, on prominent display - front and center - in the window of one of Heraklion's plethora of Tourist Shops. These legions of dreadful emporia featured every imaginable sort of tourist tat and every predictable reproduction of ancient artifact and under normal circumstances I would have passed by any such vitrine, but I was far from sleepy and had hours to kill.
As a life-long shoe-shopping addict I had suffered a sort of withdrawal from the dearth of 'product' during my years in Heraklion. In the decades immediately prior to moving to Crete I had had a high-profile career that involved my dressing to the nines - and I enjoyed every minute of it. Always the most challenging and rewarding fashion moment for me was the moment when I found the perfect shoes for a specific costume. My preoccupation with fashion guaranteed that I was no stranger to some of the best shoe stores in various parts of the world and had twice, due to my predilection for Italian shoes, journeyed to Italy to attend Milan's 'trade only' shoe exposition. In direct contrast to my 'swanning about' in prestigious stores I was also no stranger to a good rummage through discarded footwear in vintage clothiers, charity shops, second hand stores and estate sales that provided me with a staggering amount of knowledge of bygone vintage shoe styles, their elements and their designers.
This shoe-shopping was abetted by my absolutely fanatical perusal of fashion magazines of every sort over a period of four decades. And if this were not enough part of my preoccupation with fashion and dressing well extended to collecting and wearing vintage clothing from the 1920's, 30's and 40's. I abandoned this practice only when, at the dangerous age of forty five, I stopped after work at my neighborhood grocery store to collect an order and heard the butcher call out, "Here's Ginger Rogers for her lamb chops!" This was a watershed moment for me and I knew it was time to see that my incredible Adrian suits, Claire McCardle day dresses, Madeline Vionnet gowns, Lily Anne ensembles, early Davidow tweeds, 1920’s beaded flapper dresses, sumptuous velvet evening coats and other substantial fashion icons were passed on to younger women. I sold most of these beloved costume pieces at the annual Indianapolis Deco Fair for an astonishingly gratifying amount of money; but continued on, as to this day, with adding vintage touches to most costumes in the form of jewelry, hats, scarves and handbags. I offer this information by way of credentials in support of my ability to recognize Vasilis Stamatakis' shoes for the absolutely outstanding fashion icons they ARE! As Mrs. Vreeland has remarked, "The Eye Must Travel".
Awaiting me in that unlikely venue - in a tourist shop in the midst of Heraklion's 'Fashion Sahara’ - reposing on a Deco lucite shoe display stood the three most fabulous pairs of shoes I have ever seen. I can still vividly recall them in every detail as clearly as when I first beheld them. The first pair were black lamb-suede stiletto heeled pumps featuring decorative panels of intricate petit point along the sides and vamp. The needlework was of museum-quality wrought in a design that blended crimson, deep violet, marigold and coral outlined in metallic gold to form an Art Deco motif that radiated against the black background. On the middle shelf reposed a playful pair of dressy sandals featuring an ankle strap with a partially enclosed and slightly platformed toe - the high, chunky heel and toe piece leather were exactly the color of emeralds - the brightest and most vibrant green imaginable. But what made these shoes intoxicating was the fact that their green glazed kid leather overlay had been carefully perforated with artfully placed circles of varying size before being adhered atop a white kid underlining. The strategically placed dots created a giddy polka dot motif that seemed to swirl of its own volition. Unbelievably, the bottom shelf held a flabbergasting pair of high heeled men's platform slip-ons, the most unusual men's design that I have ever seen. These bad boy shoes were fashioned of incongruously rich and sumptuous sable calfskin that belied the 'kicker' - their broad, rounded toes air brushed in chrome yellow paint! Not even during my years of living in the London of the 70's had I ever encountered their equal in bravura and fierceness.
By the time I had discovered this incomparable trove of shoes it was near six in the morning and, too excited to sleep, I took refuge in the nearby Lion’s Square that even at that early hour was bustling. The square's proximity to Heraklion's paradisiacal (and now vanished) open air market decreed that its cafes open well before 5AM. I was lucky to find a table at my favorite place that featured bougatsa (a cheese confection featuring layers of filo pastry interspersed with a slightly sweet mizithera cheese) and ordered up the cafe’s specialty swee/salty version along with, as the morning lengthened, at least three metrio megalos (large, medium-sweet Greek coffees) as I awaited the store’s nine o’clock opening as posted on the door.
Needless to say I was at the store as its door was opened by an attractive and punctual young woman who identified herself as the daughter of the shop’s owner - Kyrios Vasilis Stamatakis. I immediately and volubly expressed to her my fascination with the extraordinary shoes on display in the window and asked question after question. She stopped my interrogation mid-way by stating that her father had made the shoes in question and that he was expected at the store within a few minutes. I could not believe my good luck and took the chair she offered and had not more than a few minutes wait until Vasilis Stamatakis, himself, came through the door.
It was difficult to believe that the extremely conservative and quietly elegant old gentleman before me was the auteur of these incredibly innovative and daring shoes. I liked him immediately at first sight and although of advanced age he still had the spare lineaments and military bearing that so often distinguishes Cretan men and is described by the term ‘leventis’. There is no completely accurate English equivalent for this word; but the Spanish ‘macho’ comes close. Vasilis' costume would have been stylish in any any world capitol — a perfectly tailored lightweight English tweed jacket, freshly pressed shirt of fine Swiss voile showcasing a tasteful Italian silk paisley tie and well-tailored lightweight grey worsted-wool trousers. His appearance brought to mind the old aphorism - "It should take several minutes to realize that a man is perfectly dressed." Somehow I overlooked his shoes.
I babbled. I am sure that I babbled. My enthusiasm was contagious though and soon we were sharing the obligatory ritual of Greek coffee (another metrio megalo!) now accompanied by a generous shot of Metaxa brandy and a small plate of mezes (a Geek version of tapas, small snacks as dictated by the bar owner) as ordered by Vasilis in honor of our instant rapport. The beverages were delivered by a waiter from the cafe next door bearing them on the curious centrally handled circular tin trays that one sees increasingly less in Greece. As we commenced our visit I was enthralled to see Vasilis withdraw an exquisite chain of silver koboloi from his jacket's pocket. As we spoke he hypnotically wove these 'worry beads' from one slender and elegant hand to the other.
Amidst my ramblings, Vasilis was able to explain that the tourist shop in which we sat was the site of his former retail shoe store. When he no longer wished to be in the shoe business he had encouraged his daughter to open a lucrative tourist shop in its vacated premises. His building, an old warehouse from the days of the Venetian occupation of Crete, had vastly accrued in value since his purchase of it in the mid 1940’s. Although the building had a small footprint on the street it had a depth of five times that of the shop’s dimensions and I was soon to learn that therein lay the most magnificent treasures imaginable.
In our early conversation I quickly learned why I had never encountered either Vasilis or his shoes during my shoe-shopping days in Heraklion - the explanation was complex but easy to follow. Immediately after the Second World War and Greece's subsequent Civil War Vasilis, who prior to the wars had undergone a ten year apprenticeship in the design and construction of luxury footwear, opened a small but deluxe boutique in order to showcase his custom-made designs. These stylish and opulent shoes were the items he had learned to make under the tutelage of some of Greece's most prestigious cordwainers. Unfortunately the recent wars has sapped the spirits of his potential clients and also much of the country's top wealth had emigrated. Vasilis quickly found that his designs would have little or no marketability in the changed climate of postwar Heraklion. After less than a year he regretfully closed his small atelier and began a search for a retail-oriented property closer to the town's center.
As an instinctive merchant, Vasils accurately envisioned the potential postwar shoe market. He realized that the dispirited women of Heraklion did not want high fashion - they did not want medium fashion - what they wanted was ‘no frills’ serviceable foot wear at reasonable prices. Vasilis immediately recognized that such merchandise was readily obtainable in the wholesale shoe markets of Greece's mainland. For the time being he put aside his dreams of becoming a designer and pragmatically chose the role of Businessman. Each season for the following thirty years he traveled to Athens and Thessaloniki and bought the store’s stock according to what he had learned were his customer’s preference - competitively priced cumbersome near-orthopedic-style sandals for summer and low heeled court shoes for winter. He gave his customers exactly what they wanted and he prospered.
Vasilis was seldom seen in his shop. By anticipating the wants and needs of his clients he had correctly prophesied that in Heraklion female shoppers preferred to be waited on by other women, and he successfully intuited that most of his customers found the handling of their feet by a man to be embarrassing - and possibly even compromising! Mindful of these local nuances Vasilis hired non-assuming, compliant saleswomen who patiently served his customers.
As the years passed, the area he had chosen for his retail shop gentrified and attracted steadily increasing customer traffic. His retail ‘Vasilis Shoes’ operation fared well, he had successfully identified the tastes of his clientele, he had bought his stock advantageously and had priced his shoes competitively. As a result his attention to detail and his business acumen had made him a successful merchant. He even joined that bastion of conservative businessmen everywhere - The Rotary! Vasilis Shoes operated like clockwork and, as I later learned, left Vasilis with time on his hands for his fantastic secret project that would explain the extravagant and dazzling shoes I had beheld in the window that morning…
NB: This is a work in progress. Chapters will be added as they are written.
VISIT VASILIS STAMATAKIS ON FACE BOOK FOR MORE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE SHOES