- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

BUENOS ARIES — This ratty street in one of the shantytowns locals call “Miseryvilles” is a long way from Hollywood’s glitzy Rodeo Drive. Yet children here and fashionistas there suddenly are sporting the same footwear: a snazzed-up take on alpargatas, long the humble canvas shoe of rural Argentina, now serving as a bridge between two disparate worlds.

The story of the new alpargata began when former “Amazing Race” contestant Blake Mycoskie discovered the traditional $4 version of the shoe during a polo-playing vacation to Buenos Aires in January, where he met an American who was organizing a shoe drive for the city’s poor.

Putting need and enterprise together, he founded Toms Shoes — Toms refers to “shoes for tomorrow” — with his Argentine polo instructor, Alejo Nitti.

The pair redesigned the plain slip-on with vibrant colors, stripes and camouflage. They improved its durability, trading the standard jute sole for EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) Rubber and adding a leather insole to keep feet without socks from getting sweaty.

They also gave the shoe a humanitarian hook: For every $38 pair sold, the company promises to donate a pair to Argentina’s poor. Since March, the company says it has sold 10,000 pairs, partly buoyed by appearances on the feet of celebrities such as Keira Knightley and Cameron Diaz.

“I’m trying to do something that has a higher purpose,” Mr. Mycoskie says. “I think we’re really lucky to be coming upon a time when people want to use their purchasing power to help people.”

So, in an event dubbed Shoe Drop 2006, Mr. Mycoskie flew to Argentina with a team of 20 helpers to give away 10,000 pairs in soup kitchens, schools and the northern Argentine jungle, where many impoverished Guarani Indians live.

At one stop, Mr. Mycoskie led a Toms T-shirted team of family members, L.A. hipsters and a fashion designer off a double-decker bus into Villa Soldati, where he had dropped off 50 pairs of shoes in March in a soup kitchen and had promised to come back with more. As he was followed down the dusty, litter-strewn street by a gaggle of local news reporters and a documentary cameraman, it looked as if the cast of an Old Navy commercial had been dropped off on the wrong back lot.

Nevertheless, the team got to work exchanging worn sandals and ripped sneakers for Toms. After having an olive-green pair fitted to her white-socked feet, Vanesa Urquisa, 10, explained how her father works collecting and selling garbage to a recycler for a living, as many of the city’s poor have done since the 2001 economic crisis here. Sometimes she has to share her shoes with some of her 18 siblings, she says.

“I have friends who don’t have shoes,” she says. “Alpargatas bring you luck.”

The shoes are manufactured in a home workshop outside Buenos Aires that employs 12 people and are sold online (www.tomsshoes.com) and in about 50 boutiques in the United States. There are plans to expand to Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and France.

The original alpargata has long been associated with the Argentine cowboys known as gauchos and rural workers. More recently, they also have been adopted by polo players, the urban dreadlocks set and even the jet-setters vacationing on the Uruguayan beach, says Alejandro Garcia, an editor of the Argentine fashion magazine Para Ti.

“It’s not a fashion shoe, it’s a common shoe. Everyone uses them from the big names to whatever worker,” he says.

Mr. Mycoskie and Mr. Nitti say many shoe manufacturers they approached didn’t understand the concept of a high-style alpargata.

“They thought it was crazy. They said, ‘You have Nike and Converse; why would you want to sell alpargatas in the USA?’ “Mr. Mycoskie says.

However, he says the philanthropic cause, plus the fact that the alpargata is a hybrid of a flat and espadrille, both of which have come back into style, has helped Toms catch on in Hollywood. According to the company, celebrity fans include Bono, Brad Pitt, Geena Davis, Sienna Miller, Lindsay Lohan and Robert Downey Jr. The shoes also have garnered press in fashion magazines, including Vogue.

Even now, Argentines seem a bit incredulous that their national shoe is fetching Hollywood attention.


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