Mallorca: Spanish Style Beyond the Beach

Mallorca: Spanish Style Beyond the Beach

Photographs by Francesco Lastrucci

ON A MORNING RUN in Mallorca’s capital, Palma, I hug the coastline and venture southwest, where the beaches are bedecked with the kind of high-rise hotels that have made the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands synonymous with mass tourism. I imagine the life of this town when it was first incarnated, a half century ago, as the place to be. Throngs of European holidaymakers who paraded to the playa experienced something entirely new, something invented right here in Mallorca—the all-inclusive resort hotel.

In 1950, the world’s first Club Med opened in Alcúdia, just 35 miles northeast of Palma. Now, 60-some years after that travel revolution, beachside properties built in the ’60s and ’70s are looking worse for wear, though some have acquired a kind of postmodern patina, iconic—and ironic—signs of a time gone by. On the way back to the center of town, I spot a few faded pastel paella signs, hear fragments of flamenco coming from a Muzak pipeline at the entrance to a resort, and ponder the fact that a certain kind of tourism, which once probably seemed fresh and visionary, now seems stale and unadventurous.

Later that day, in search of something entirely different, extremely small scale, and, I hoped, surprising, I drive into the interior of the island, far from the British bachelorette partiers and Munich motorcycle clubbers who have come here to swig sangria and party like it’s 1959. With the big hotels behind me, I speed along a smooth, thoroughly modern highway, passing through increasingly modest cities and villages, separated by long stretches of fields and orchards. The town I finally turn off into, Inca, is a place few tourists visit.

I enter a building on one of the town’s main streets, and the first person I encounter is a man cradling a shoe-shaped implement called a last. I’m in the headquarters of Carmina Shoemaker, and this spry, elderly gentleman is José “Pepe” Albaladejo Pujadas, the patriarch of the family that runs Carmina. He’s wearing a white lab coat and tortoiseshell glasses, and he’s penciling stitching patterns onto the sides of the last. At 78, he still comes to work bright and early every weekday, sharing leadership of the company with three of his daughters and one of his sons.

I’ve come to Carmina by way of Japan: It was in a Tokyo men’s department store that I spied a pair of sleek brown cap toes made of shell cordovan (horse’s ass). I inspected the subtle handiwork that attached the upper part of the shoe to its leather sole, a crucial indicator of quality, and then looked for the brand mark inside the shoe. It read: CARMINA SHOEMAKER MALLORCA. I did a little research and found that Carmina was headquartered in Inca—and so was Camper, perhaps the most widely recognized shoe brand from Spain. And that just a few miles west, the Bestard company made some of the world’s best hiking boots. My curiosity piqued, I set out to understand how fine shoemaking had come to thrive and prosper on an island long dominated by a multinational and often generic tourist industry. I had heard an alternate vision of Mallorca articulated by friends who came from here: It is diverse and idyllic, they said, a kind of paradise once you peeled away a few overly touristic layers. Perhaps the craft of shoemaking would give me a different view of the past and present culture of Mallorca. When Pepe is just out of earshot, his daughter Betty, who handles the international business, whispers, “Before we opened this company, we had another shoe brand called Yanko. When that spun off 15 years ago, we thought that our father would just retire. But all he thinks about is shoes, and he can’t help but want to make them. And so we had no choice but to open another shoe business.” Pepe returns with a different last in hand and consults with another lab coat–clad man, who will take the three-dimensional form and lay down the two-dimensional patterns that are used to cut the leather pieces for a shoe.

Because customers visit this area of the factory to place their orders, the space is filled with samples of every shoe Carmina makes, from the cap toes I’d seen in Japan to ankle- high chukka boots; from lace-ups made of calf leather to loafers crafted of alligator, crocodile, and lizard skins. Pepe’s style falls somewhere between the two main poles of classic men’s footwear—British conservatism, exemplified by a brand such as Crockett & Jones, and the narrower, more decorative, fashion-forward Italian approach of Ferragamo and others. Pepe’s creations are just slender and curvy enough to be distinct from slightly clunky English footwear but not embellished enough to be Italian. The most important arbiters of style in this arena are the gatekeepers of Florence’s Pitti Uomo men’s fashion trade show, which, five years ago, admitted Carmina into its very selective biannual exhibition.

The family’s shoemaking roots go back nearly 150 years to Matías Pujadas, Pepe’s great-grandfather. Mallorca had been a mass producer of wine into the late 19th century, but when a widespread phylloxera infestation wiped out the vineyards, Mallorcans developed other trades, including leather tanning and shoemaking. As a young man, Matías learned his craft from local masters who initially made shoes only for their friends and relatives. Matías opened his own small workshop when he was around 30 years old. Shoemaking knowledge spread in Inca when cobblers began teaching the skill to students at a school for the disabled. Over the next few decades, what had started mostly as a home craft and a charitable enterprise evolved into a local industry. Mateo Pujadas—Matías’s son and Pepe’s grandfather—became the first Spanish shoemaker to learn a special method for attaching the sole. Instructors from the United States traveled to Mallorca and taught Mateo something called the Goodyear welt, a special strip of leather stitched to the upper and sole, which allows the shoe to be resoled whenever necessary and worn for years. The technique became pivotal in the construction of high-quality shoes and is still in use today.

The Pujadas lineage of shoemakers was briefly interrupted. “My father wanted nothing to do with shoes,” Pepe says. “He turned his back on this business and instead became a musician, eventually serving as vice director of the municipal military band. But from when I was very young, I saw what my grandfather was doing and wanted to follow in his footsteps.” By the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Mallorcan shoemaking industry was thriving, thanks to low production costs (labor being cheap on the relatively poor island), rising demand abroad, and the dawn of the tourist industry. By 1950, Inca had more than 100 shoe factories.

In 1961, Pepe created the Yanko shoe brand, which reached its apex in the 1980s, when it manufactured a million pairs of shoes (mostly for export) during the decade, and turned the family into local shoemaking royalty.

By the late 1990s, however, Yanko was unable to compete with manufacturers around the world, including those in China, that produced more shoes, faster and cheaper. Even as one of Spain’s biggest shoe companies, with 400 employees, Yanko could not sustain its huge operation after the market downturn of 1997, and the business was sold at auction. Pepe then decided to create a new family- run company based on an entirely different concept. Adopting his wife’s name, Carmina, for the smaller enterprise, he bet that more and more consumers would see the value of handcrafted shoes that might initially seem expensive but would last longer (and fit better) than mass-produced varieties that needed to be thrown away when their soles wore out.

After my history session with Pepe, Betty gives me a tour of the Carmina workshop, first to the tables where pattern makers translate Pepe’s and other shoe designers’ forms into templates for cutting leather, then into the next room, where an all-women crew cuts and sews the leather patterns into pliable uppers. Following a pair of shoes through production, we enter the factory floor, an exclusively male enclave, where workers assemble Carmina shoes using the same Goodyear welt method—and maybe even some of the same machines—that Pepe’s grandfather did a hundred years ago. It’s a hands-on assembly line, with each skilled worker focusing on the particular machine and technique he knows best, whether it’s lining the leather upper with a firmer inner shape, attaching that to the sole, or polishing and inspecting the final product.

Carmina, Betty explains, isn’t the family’s effort to resurrect its former empire. Rather, it’s an attempt at something entirely different: a much more artisanal business that capitalizes on high-quality shoemaking born of long- standing Inca traditions, a surplus of well- maintained cobbling machinery, and an aging but still capable population of experienced craftspeople. Most of the other Mallorcan brands, including Camper, have chosen to move the bulk of their manufacturing operations to cheaper locales abroad, though their headquarters remains in Inca.

It surprises me then, when I learn that some of my Mallorcan friends, while well aware of Camper, know nothing of Carmina or other local brands, also from Inca, such as Yanko (resurgent on a smaller scale under new ownership since 2007) or Lottusse (founded by shoemaking pioneer Antoni Fluxà in 1877). But other acquaintances mention that they’ve heard of small one- or two-man operations in areas outside of Inca, and I think that if I can find tiny businesses of this kind, catering mostly to locals, they might give me further insight into the origins of this Mallorcan craft. My friend Amanda Vich Fluxà gives me a solid tip, and I drive to Sa Pobla, a small town northeast of Inca, in search of Cosa Nostra Shoes and its proprietor, Antonio Reynes Socías.

“I’m just across from the train station,” he yells into the phone as I try to find his workshop. “You can’t miss it.” I find the train station parking lot and, sure enough, immediately spot his storefront. It looks more like an old warehouse than a functioning workshop: I can see that it’s entirely filled with four-foot-high piles of shoes. I hear a banging from behind a mound of footwear and see Antonio standing next to a tree stump, its top covered with leather. He’s pounding nails into some kind of shoe. He’s slightly stooped, looks to be in his 60s, and seems a bit dazed to be interrupted in his work—and to have a foreigner setting foot in his work space. He puts aside his shoe-in-progress and climbs over jumbles of stock to greet me. I tell him that I’ve come to Mallorca because of the shoes, but that I still don’t really understand why the shoemaking tradition took hold here in the Inca Valley.

“I worked in Inca’s shoe factories for many years,” Antonio says. “But now I’ve gone back to a different kind of shoemaking.” He holds up a spare and simple model made out of fabric, with a black rubber sole. “We call these porqueres,” a designation that connotes a dirty job, one associated with cleaning pigs. “These are the quintessential Mallorcan shoes. They were first made for farmers who needed something cheap to wear in the fields. You could make them out of some old clothing and a worn-out tire.”

Picking through the various stacks of shoes in Antonio’s workshop, I find a wide range of types, from the classic, unpretentious design he just showed me, to fancier, all-leather versions he crafts for private clients, and even more decorative designs he sells to fashion houses such as the Madrid brand Soloio. I hold up and study a pair of the basic porqueres shoes. “That traditional style was the basis for one of the first successful models of Camper,” Antonio says.

Suddenly, a connection I hadn’t made before comes clear—Camper, as in campesino, farmer—and I realize that the island’s most famous shoe brand had its roots in the same humble workingman’s shoes that now litter Antonio’s workshop. Camper has catapulted this design into the global market, gaining worldwide recognition. But these shoes were not originally made for export. They almost literally sprang from Mallorcan soil for the purpose of working the land. And the old masters who taught Pepe’s great-grandfather their shoemaking techniques were probably teaching him to make something like this.

Instead of returning directly to Inca, I detour north over the Tramuntana mountains to the coastal village of Deià, in one of the most spectacular locations I’ve ever seen. Traditional stone houses sit near the base of the mountains and look down over the sea, radiant blue and perfectly calm. The British poet Robert Graves visited Deià in the 1930s and returned in 1946 to live here for the rest of his life. Although the village became home to many international glitterati and evolved into one of the most expensive places on the island, it still feels rustic and unspoiled. Rigid laws have discouraged mass tourism and ensured that the village houses maintain their traditional facades. Even the high-end hotel La Residencia (once owned by Richard Branson), just a few steps from the heart of town, keeps its gates open to locals and serves as a kind of community center for many of Deià’s resident artists. The village embodies an alternate narrative of what foreigners and enlightened regulation can bring to the island when they value what is traditionally Mallorcan.

Around Caimari, a few miles north of Inca, I find evidence of a small-scale tourist boom in the island’s interior. In the Tramuntana foothills, down from the Finca Es Castell, a hotel fashioned out of an old estate that looks out on the valley, I encounter packs of cyclists chatting loudly in German, and a local later tells me that they now cause more rural traffic jams than do errant flocks of sheep. In Caimari, two sisters run Ca Na Toneta in their family home, preparing slow food, locally sourced versions of classic Mallorcan fare. They use recipes handed down from their grandparents and often cook with olive oil pressed by their brother. And in Lloseta, just west of Inca, 38-year-old chef Santi Taura opened his eponymous restaurant in his grandparents’ home. His sophisticated nouvelle Mallorcan tasting menu and intimate personal touch have become so popular that reservations are hard to come by.

Back In Inca, at the Carmina factory, Betty introduces me to Patrik Löf, a shoe store owner from Stockholm who is visiting Carmina, as he does twice a year, to check out their latest offerings and place his order. Patrik’s shop, Skoaktiebolaget, is a completely different kind of business from the ones that the Albaladejo Pujadas family sold to when they were making the Yanko brand. His physical store is very small, yet because of its significant social media presence and Internet sales, it is disproportionately influential in the men’s shoe universe that Carmina inhabits. I ask Betty where a customer like Skoaktiebolaget fits into Carmina’s success. She says that though her family company sells shoes through its own stores in Spain, it relies much more on these small, high-end boutique enterprises, which share the same commitment to elegance and craft, and which reach their clientele largely through web-based word of mouth.

There’s a certain irony at work in this 21st-century renaissance of artisanal shoemaking in Mallorca. It was globalization in manufacturing and distribution that created hard times for shoemaking here just 20 years ago. But a different kind of globalization—businesses that operate on a smaller, more personal scale, linked together both through the web and via the face-to-face interaction made possible by travel—gives a venture like Carmina unprecedented opportunities today. Stores with relatively small brick-and-mortar footprints, such as Epaulet in Brooklyn and The Armoury in Hong Kong and Manhattan, and online style sites such as connect Carmina to a savvy section of the public and amplify the brand’s impact.

As Betty’s father, Carmina patriarch Pepe, joins us, I mention that I’ve seen other evidence of change around the island. International travelers are venturing beyond the beaches, patronizing rural accommodations and farm-to-table restaurants in the heartland; traditional villages are retaining their historic character, supported by small-scale tourism; and even in Palma, where some of the famous beach resorts are looking timeworn, old palaces in the city center are being rehabilitated into boutique hotels.

But in the end, the conversation at Carmina turns to the point where my entire journey began: the shoes. “Nowadays, so many companies design everything on the computer,” Pepe says. “But you have to touch the form, feel the shape, and know the last. A shoe is something that people are going to wear in real life, not on a computer screen.”

By now I have taken possession of my new pair of Carmina suede chukka boots, hoping to be among those customers who, once they have walked miles in shoes made on a certain last crafted by Pepe, know that they can buy any other style of Carmina shoe based on that last and that it will fit and wear right. Pepe explains that Carmina’s business model is not to encourage one impulsive purchase but, rather, to build a lifelong relationship between customer and cobbler. Then he returns to the question of international influences.

“I admire the Italians,” he says,“but their shoes are too flashy for my style. I see my shoes as being closer to classical British designs.” “No, that’s not true,” Patrik interjects. “Your designs are your own. You can’t say they’re British. Or Spanish. Or even Mallorcan. They’re Carmina.” That is what attracts new customers like Patrik from all over the world. And it is also something that cannot be replicated by any competitor. Sometimes a business, or even an entire island, might need to lose itself a little bit—and might even need an outsider to point out what’s special about it—to find itself again.

This appeared in the October 2014 issue.

I write about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Yemeni jihadis, Chinese internet vigilantes, Malagasy river guides, and Barcelona private eyes—anyone whose story moves me. A year before 9/11, I began producing a television documentary and reporting a book about a group of elite rescue firemen in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, published by Henry Holt, follows ten years in the life of their company, from the high of knocking down a wall of flames to the low of losing a brother.
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