October 17, 2011
While on a trip to Germany in March, I had the honour of being invited to tour El Naturalista’s work, design and manufacturing facilities in Spain. Being the avid traveller that I am I needed no convincing to pack my bag, lace up my shoes and head out the door on a whirlwind trip through the Basque country that would eventually lead me to the doorstep of one of the most innovative and interesting shoe producers I have ever known.
El Naturalista is a brand of shoes like no other. It began as more of a philosophy and ideal back in 2003. At the head of the company sits a group of people that embody this ideal. I had the opportunity to spend 2 thought provoking days with Belen and Juan as they moved me gently through the corridors and minds of the business.
El Nat as it is known to friends have their offices in Pamplona. I have travelled to the North East of Spain on three separate occasions, and I was glad to be back in the golden sunshine of Navarra. Pamplona itself is a labrynthine town that sits up on a hill, famous for it’s festival of San Fermine and the running of the bulls. It’s a quitet place most of the year, with a beautiful old city and friendly people.
My first day there was spent with Belen and Irina at the head offices of El Nat. They educated me on the brand, in an odd sort of way. We spent most of our time discussing El Naturalista’s social and professional ethics, and relatively little time discussing their actual product. This seemed counter intuitive to me, until it finally started to dawn on me that the fantastic and beautiful shoes that they create are the results of the lifestyles these people live. Rather than let the product dictate a business motive, Belen explained that in treating one’s environment, community, family and professional life with care and respect it deserved, El Nat had gathered together a single minded group of individuals who help shape and create under this philosophy. Therefore, the design and production of footwear becomes an extension of a mindset. This is certainly a vastly different approach than I was used to. I could understand and identify with this concept immediately, as this is the type of philosophy that I grew up with in our family business. While selling footwear is certainly what keeps our doors open, it is getting together everyday with my family and friends at work, to help people find shoes (beautiful shoes!) and continue along life’s journey in a responsible and ethical manner that keeps both my professional and personal life full.
Early in the morning on the second day I met with Belen and Jaun and we all drove the hour-long journey west into lower Rioja. El Naturalista has a design and manufacturing facility located in Quel, near Arnedo, nestled into the otherworldly red rock formations of the desert. Just over the hills to the North are the sprawling golden hills of upper Rioja, world famous for its fine wines.
The factory tour began with a look into the design offices. Creative process takes time and effort and inspiration. It was clear from the piles of materials on the central table that a lot of “inspiration” had been taking place here. Juan explained that most of the design features of an El Nat shoe, boot, or sandal begin with the outsole. Often taking concepts from nature as well as strong cultural references, the soles that will make up a line of shoes take months (even years) to develop. Once that process has been completed, uppers are designed to match up with these new sole creations- much in the way a sculptor is guided by the material she is using, the design of the uppers are subsidiary to the feel and concept of the outsoles.
Next we moved into the materials warehouse. El Nat has a few different production facilities, but all raw materials are first delivered and collected here for distribution. Most of the materials originate from Spain, or elsewhere in the EU. Where possible, it is preferred to support local materials producers. Spanish leathers have always been famous, and this warehouse had examples of some of the best- colours from the entire rainbow lined the shelves! A lot of the hardware componants have been custom made for El Naturalista, as they prefer to use a unique zipper or button on each piece of footwear.
Just beyond the materials warehouse is the actual production facility. As I mentioned, I have visited many shoe manufactures, but I had experienced nothing like this one. Inside it was bustling and seemingly chaotic. It was impossible to separate the different stations and procedures, as in other factories. Because each El Nat design is so unique, it requires an amazing juggling act to make sure that the production runs smooth. With no two designs sharing the same process, an extremely skilled craftsperson is needed to bring the shoes to life. It is clear from the finished product that there is a lot of handwork done on these shoes, and in the factory I witnessed hand craft at most steps in the manufacturing. Where a computer and laser guided machine can be used for leather cutting, El Nat have found it is still better (and less wasteful) to cut by hand. A young man takes over 20 seconds to hand wrap a leather upper around a cork base, ensuring a perfect bond and alignment. A stitcher sits at her station, and after using the stitching machine to assemble two portions of a pattern, picks up a needle and thread to apply the third to complete an upper. Everywhere I looked people were hard at work applying their trades, using skills passed down for generations in this small village. “A lot of these people used to come to this factory as children, after school was finished, to help their parents. This is where they learned the precision skills of shoe making.”, Juan explains. To crown the whole affair I stood and watched as man joined a boot upper with it’s heavy outsole using a Goodyear Welt. This is a method that is rarely used today, and requires an extremely sophisticated and powerful stitching machine. The machine they have at the factory dates back to the 1950’s and is irreplaceable.
While you could watch this whole dance being played out, there were also machines scattered around the isles, seemingly at random. I asked Juan about this and he explained, “You see this machine? We just bought it, because we will try to use it in a new stitching method for a shoe we are currently designing. It is a very special machine, if another shoe maker were to come in here and see this particular machine he would be very impressed”. Juan’s energy and obvious respect and enthusiasm is infectious. Not only were they in full production mode here, but also involved in the prototyping and final design stages of the process.
I felt good about the factory, and it made sense to me. Juan and his brother Pablo are two of the original people that helped shape El Nat. They are today just as involved in the design and product, right up to the point where it ships out from the factory. Pablo also directs the Pamplona headquarters, and Jaun manages sales. I can relate to this mentality- I also live and work in a family business, where the boundaries between each individuals “job” blurs- where a group of like-minded people can sit down and share their passions and aspirations and together to achieve them; then, at the end of the day enjoy a meal together. Belen explained to me that this idea, that the world is a community and in this community we work and live, is what they call the philosophy of the frog. I am beginning to understand the meaning of the phrase that appears on each El Nat box- “Caminar por la vida”, walk for life.
Photos: Carmen Norris