One of the first things I noticed about Panama is that the people are wholeheartedly committed to their traditions. Initially it seemed odd that in a country who uses the USD as their official currency and remains a pivotal hub for global trade, there would be such a strong attachment to heritage and history. But now I see that the attempted colonizations and US occupation is precisely why the locals are so attached to what makes them distinctly Panamanian. There's is a beautiful culture that is unique to their stories and their people.
The Cutarras, of which we are bringing a variation to the USA with our new Azuero Collection, are a huge part of the cultural landscape of Panama. A Cutarra is a handmade sandal woven by local artisans, made of 100% leather and is viewed as the traditional shoe of Panama.
There’s no clear documentation on how the Cutarras came to be. Oral traditions tell us that Cutarras first appeared in Panama with the arrival of the Spaniards, who are responsible for introducing cattle into the lands of the Azuero Peninsula. The farmers of that time, all from the local indigenous tribes probably, used the abundance of leather to make a comfortable and durable shoe that would endure the difficult country work. It is believed that the word "cutarra" was inspired by an indigenous chieftain named Antataura (whose other name was Cutatara or Cutara).
With the passing of centuries, the Cutarras changed per people’s needs and the availability of materials. However, the overall design remained unaltered. Traditional Cutarras are still made of 100% raw beef leather and mostly used by men. The Cutarras are part of the traditional costume worn by Panamanian men.
One of our goals when we create a line for By Grace is to incorporate the local history, culture and traditions into our designs. To do so, we complete extensive cultural research. My host in Panama City, insisted that my first cultural experience needed to be a visit to Señor Tacho.
Señor Tacho is the only artisan in Panama City who weaves the old-fashioned, original Cutarras on the foot. Speaking no Spanish I wasn’t entirely sure how this mission was going to work out, but my Uber (yes they have Uber in Panama) dropped me off in the middle of Casco Viejo and I ventured off asking every vendor and street wanderer where to find the renowned Señor Tacho. Soon I found him sitting in the middle of a small market. Through an intense game of charades and with a little help from Google Translate, I asked him to craft me a pair of my very own Cutarras. He walked toward one vendor and came back holding several cut pieces of leather that would be used for the upper part of the shoes. Then he departed again coming back with a bigger piece of stiff leather that would be cut into the sole of the shoe.
In the alley behind the market, I sat on a stool and he sat on a bench. It took him all of 10 minutes to trace my foot, cut out the shape, trim the soles to be the same size and cut holes into the sides to weave the upper leather.
In under a half hour, Señor Tacho had crafted me my very own Cutarras! Watch the timelapse video to see how cool his weaving technique is.
The shoes we’re launching will have a more modern design and much nicer leather (Señor Tacho’s Cutarras are made of the traditional raw leather and they smell terrible!), but I will forever remember his skill and his passion in the creation of these ancient sandals. If you’re ever in Panama City, ask for Señor Tacho to build you your very own pair!
Until next time,