I've been visiting Saint-Tropez for more than a decade now, and several times a summer I hop aboard the Bateaux Verts (trust me you'll want to do this during summertime) and chug across the gulf that splits the family-friendly village of Sainte-Maxime and tony Saint-Tropez, known for its megayachts the size of boutique hotels and rosé-all-day parties along Pampelonne Beach. What still charms me about visiting, even though millions of well-heeled clog the cobbled streets in July and August, are the remnants that remain from its storied past, such as the Citadelle, a 400-year-old fortress presiding over the sherbet-colored village and the sea that now hosts summer concerts (saw Sting play this year!). At its soul, Saint-Tropez remains a village of fishermen and of artists and artisans. This year, I went to wish one in particular a happy 90th birthday. Tucked into a narrow lane connecting the port to the town’s main square is Atelier Rondini, a now world-famous workshop opened by Dominique Rondini in 1927 how hand-crafted leather sandals, called tropéziennes. One of his first clients was famed French writer, Collette.
Ninety years later, Dominique’s grandson, 53-year-old Alain Rondini, runs the show, having learnt the trade from his father. He makes about 10,000 pairs per year in the shop, which takes up space behind the boutique and on the top two floors of the narrow building, once the apartment of Alain’s grandparents. Fourteen employees, including his daughters and nephew, assist in the operations and website. Sure, you can order online, but it's not nearly as fun as cramming into the tiny storefront, choosing from various styles and colors lining the walls, and having them shaped, fitted, and hole-punched on your feet by Rondini's version of elves. Among the popular sandal models are the original tropéziennes as well as the thong-style salomé (my personal fave), the lace-up bikini, and the new Seychelles flip-flops, created to fête Rondini’s 90th anniversary. Asked if his grandfather would be surprised at how famous his sandals have become, Alain laughs, “Yes, and I am surprised, too.”
So what does he attribute to the word-of-mouth reputation and staying power of Rondini and their now iconic sandals?
“I think it’s that we are still an artisanal business,” Alain says “That’s something that is becoming rare in the world, and here in Saint-Tropez, too. They give the idea that something special can still been found.”