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Penelope Chilvers is featured in SUITCASE Volume 20: Homelands.
British shoe designer Penelope Chilvers’ relationship with Spain goes beyond siestas and sangria. Having spent every childhood summer in the Spanish province of Girona, she became enthralled by the work of local craftsmen. Developing her own expertise in artisan crafts, Penelope completed her Masters at Complutense University in Madrid and then spent several years at the forefront of Spain’s creative revolution.
Order Volume 20 Reflecting the bullhide moccasins that she fondly remembers from growing up, Spanish culture can be seen throughout her collections. From perfecting the Spanish riding boot (which has graced many royal feet) to colourful espadrilles, Penelope’s designs reflect the vibrant culture and easy-paced living characteristic of Spain. She let us into why she can’t get enough of Spain’s sunny south, the towns we can’t afford to miss and the wine we need to drink.
What’s your first memory of southern Spain?
I lived in Madrid in my twenties as an art student and a painter. It was the time of La Movida, a time of transition after the death of the dictator, Francisco Franco. Due to decades of isolation there was a cultural delay in which Spain lagged behind the rest of Europe. But then in the late 70s and 80s Spanish cities exploded with new creativity, sexuality and nightlife. Pent-up feelings for freedom of expression were released. It was a magical time to be there. During that period, my Madrileño friends and I would pile into cars and drive out of the city to explore – to Ronda, Toledo and Salamanca. After Madrid, I went to live in Barcelona. It was only recently, through my shoemaking, that I came across and fell in love with Andalusia.
Where did you go on your original visit to southern Spain?
My first trip down to southern Spain was for the EXPO in 1992. Spain was in a year of huge transition; a cultural explosion and investment into opening up the country for everyone – with the Olympics in Barcelona and the Universal Exposition in Seville, all in one year. I was eight months pregnant with my daughter Gemma, which turned out to be an advantage. It was 40 degrees in the shade and there were 40,000 people descending on the city of Seville, but I was invited to skip all the queues and sit wherever I liked. I drank horchata while others drank cuba libres all day long.
Where do you go to now and what has kept you coming back?
The picaresque tradition of wandering in search of adventure, made famous by Don Quixote, has always inspired me. My husband and I recently travelled down to the hills behind the Sierra Nevada to visit the region we’d read about in Gerald Brenan’s South of Granada. We walked up mountains in search of our refugio (mountain refuge), where we ate lentejas a la cazuela (lentil stew) and travelled without a proper plan. I love to stumble across places and be surprised.
The rhythms of rural life have changed but if you go off the beaten track there is evidence of a slower, less consumerist world – where every part of the pig is still eaten; plastic bags are kept in cotton tubular pouches of plaid cotton for a second use on the back door of the kitchen (not just since Ikea helpfully told us how); summer tomatoes are conserved in bottles for the winter months, and foraging is not a modern trend but something that has been passed down for generations.
What’s your favourite Hotel?
While I worked on my recent piece for SUITCASE, the photographer Emma Hardy and I stayed at Hostal El Lince. It’s a “casa rural” which is welcoming, reasonable and very Andaluz in style. There is also a charming and beautiful country house in the hills above Seville – that calls itself “a hotel for people that don’t like hotels” – named Trasierra. It’s divine, and I am lucky enough to be shooting my summer ’18 collection there.
Which restaurants do you dream of?
It sounds like a fairy-tale name but Juan Camisa (translated to John Shirt) is also a fairy-tale place. A wooden shack with open sides where horses snort outside and wait for their owners. I dream of their gazpacho and their prawns on rock salt. It’s a wild and wonderful place all about the good life, with no frills.
Where can you find the best wine?
Fulanito has my favourite label design, and name (it means so-and-so). It’s a very drinkable Ribera Del Duero.
Where do you stock up on beautiful leather products?
I love to visit local artisans and see how they work – the saddle makers, the belt makers, the wood turners, the basket weavers and potters all need to be supported before they disappear.
What three towns can we not afford to miss?
Cordoba, Granada and Seville are all all rich in history. They say the Alhambra is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, don’t they? All are a must.
Your Spanish motto?
“Don’t try to rush things. For the cup to run over it must first be filled” – Antonio Machado (poet).
What makes the South of Spain feel like home?
The south of Spain is my place of work and the people I work with seem like old friends now. The Andaluz are very hospitable. I feel privileged to live in England and yet feel so at home in Spain – to be able to have a boot in each camp.
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