The Greek brand making mythology look modern

In 2008, Christina Martini and Nikolas Minoglou were introduced by a mutual friend and went out for dinner together in Athens. Their subject for discussion? Greek sandals. Martini, who trained at Cordwainers in London, was at that time living in Paris, a high-flying shoe designer at Balenciaga who had previously worked with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. Minoglou, whose grandfather founded a rubber shoe business in Greece in the 1950s, had recently completed an MBA at Babson College in Boston and was looking to set up something of his own.

“We had both realised there was a hole in the market,” says Martini, speaking from her studio in Corfu, where she now lives with her husband Apostolos Porsanidis Kavvadias and young family on an olive farm. “We wanted to make Greek touristic sandals in good quality and export them.”

“Our friends would come to Greece and they would buy sandals and olive oil and go back home,” adds Minoglou. “We knew people liked them. But we realised that the quality and design were not where they should be. We saw Greeks looking down on the sandals, on the heritage. We wanted to do the opposite, take our heritage and make it into something more modern and better. It was a very specific idea, hence the name.”

a black sandel with wings also from black leather, on a wooden shoe mold
Over the past 10 years, Martini and Minoglu have turned traditional Greek sandals into a high-quality product with global appeal © Myrto Papadopoulos

This year, Ancient Greek Sandals is celebrating a decade in the business. Manufacturing in Greece and selling across the world, from America to Japan, via its own website (ancientgreeksandals.com) and Athens flagship, and through retailers such as Le Bon Marché and Net-a-Porter, it has a loyal following across its ranges for men, women and children. Designs range from the traditional leather thin-soled strappy Greek sandal to trendier contemporary versions studded with crystals or in coloured rubbers. The brand also produces sandals with thicker soles for urban environments, as well as clogs and flip flops. The simpler leather styles for women start at about £155 — which is twice the price of the most basic Birkenstock, but only a quarter that of equivalent styles from international designer names — and clogs can go up to £295.

Different regions favour different varieties. From the beginning, Ancient Greek Sandals’ biggest market has been America. “They prefer the more bling styles, the evening styles, the crystals that we’ve done lately. Or jewels from our collaboration with [the fine jewellery brand] Lalaounis,” says Martini. “Americans also like something soft. That’s one of the reasons we did a comfort construction, with a thicker sole. The Asian market likes that too. The French really admire ancient Greek culture, so they prefer the leather styles that have straps and cut-outs. But everyone in the world is familiar with Greek mythology, with ancient Greek art and architecture, so it’s an easy concept to love.”

The brand’s anniversary capsule collection celebrates that perennial fascination with the land of the gods, with 10 sandal designs inspired by ancient Greek sculpture. Martini worked with art historian Xenia Ventikou to select pieces currently found in international museums, including the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A female model runs, wearing a short cream dress and gold sandals
The 10 Years Victory of Samothrace sandals, £205, part of the brand’s anniversary capsule collection . . . © Lefteris Primos

A model in white dress and black hat holds a leather bag
. . . and a leather handbag from the recent accessories launch, £260 © Lefteris Primos

“I had in mind to tell the tale of women, goddesses, priestesses, matriarchs and heroines, each one unique in her own way,” says Ventikou. “We also wanted to cover the whole length of Greek art, from the Geometric period to the Romans.” Martini and the design team honed in on seven statues, two figurines and one vase, finding details and motifs within them for design inspiration: twisted necklaces seen on ancient clay figures; the delicately pleated robes of classical statuary; the ankle-tied sandals found in sculptures of Artemis the hunter; and the wings of the Winged Victory of Samothrace and draped skirts of the Venus de Milo, two of the most famous statues in the world, both found today in the Louvre. “I just love the way that the famous hair-locks of the Dame d’Auxerre were turned into a lace, and the arm bracelet of the Crouching Venus became ankle jewellery,” says Ventikou.

In the still shaky days following the Greek financial crisis, building Ancient Greek Sandals as an international but seasonal brand, outside of the traditional fashion capitals, was always going to be a challenge. Only a handful of Greek fashion brands, such as Zeus & Dione, have made global names for themselves from their home country. Marios Schwab and the late Sophia Kokosalaki both found success in London. “Yes, things can be more difficult in Greece compared to starting up something in a fashion capital,” says Minoglou, “but on the other hand, because Athens is a smaller community, and because we had my grandfather’s and father’s business as a platform, we had lots of contacts with factories and administration. The crisis was in fact helpful because in the four years afterwards, factories were still closing down and those open had excess capacity. We were able to get their attention more easily.”

Seasonality was factored in from the beginning. “We both agreed it was better to focus and do something really well than have a multi-season, multi-category brand,” says Minoglou. “Sales aren’t as strong during winter,” adds Martini. “We have the southern hemisphere, Australia, but there’s no comparison to the European/American summer season.”

According to Minoglou, the company has been profitable, without loans, since year one. “Since 2017 to now, the brand has grown 25 per cent on wholesale and direct to consumer,” he says. “Covid brought us down 30 per cent overall, but now we’re at pre-pandemic levels, slightly more.” The pandemic hit the company with problems in wholesale and the dramatic hiatus in international travel. It halted production for three months. “We adopted a more aggressive strategy in terms of digital marketing because our online shop was up and running throughout. So we did promoted posts to liquidate stock and introduced an upcycled collection very fast that had a lower starting price. We came out of it healthy, with no major scars.”

Two colourful striped crocheted bags and one white one
Hipissa bags, £215. Martini and Minoglu see new categories, such as handbags and homeware, as significant for future growth © Lefteris Primos

The brand, which opened its flagship boutique in Athens in 2019, has recently expanded to homeware, including blankets and leather basketry inspired by Martini and Kavvadias’s home on the olive farm, and introduced a collection of leather bags (starting at £155) and crochet bags (starting at £215), which Martini and Minoglu expect to be a significant future category. Collaborations with other brands and individuals continue to be a way of introducing creative newness into the tried-and-tested sandals. There have already been partnerships with the Australian jeweller Lucy Folk, influencer Harley Viera Newton and the Hotel Sirenuse on the Amalfi coast. Future plans include setting up a store within an international hotel.

While Minoglou is based at the offices in Athens, close to manufacturers and suppliers, Martini continues to finds inspiration in her sea-view location in Corfu, where she moved from Paris the same year they established the brand. “If it hadn’t worked out with the sandals, I’d have to have moved back again,” she says. A decade in and that is not a concern. “For designing high fashion, I don’t think Corfu would work, but for what I do now it’s the perfect place to be.”

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