This post was sponsored by CANO. All opinions and editorial direction my own.

Until very recently, I didn’t really know what a huarache was beyond a Spanish word I’d heard now and again. If you try looking up the word online you’ll find an odd medley of results, mainly dominated by trainers that aren’t exactly of the sustainable or ethical variety, and that definitely don’t originate from a Spanish speaking country. But did you know that huaraches are actually part of an incredibly rich history, and have existed for generations in Mexico before their name was co-opted by a white American corporation? In the last few weeks I’ve learned all about the huaraches of the past, and hopefully the future, and it’s a truly fascinating area.

The Mexican tradition of huaraches is extensive and varying. Being from the UK I have less contact with, or knowledge of, Mexican culture than many others (and I still have yet to visit South America), so there’s something really interesting to me in coming to learn aspects of a culture through its traditions, especially ones that have been passed down for centuries between family members. Huaraches is definitely one of these. The word literally translates to ‘sandal’ in english; it refers to a popular style of handmade leather footwear in Mexico that is said to originate from the states of Jalisco, Michoacán and Yucatán in particular, which can often be found for sale in indoor artisanal markets or roaming tianguis. Huaraches are also pre-Columbian, meaning their design and craftsmanship predates the European colonialisation of Mexico, and they are known to be the shoes of the indigenous people who lived in the area that we now know as Mexico. The durable and effortless nature of their design and material means that for many years they’ve been associated with farm work and rural communities, with some reporting their huaraches lasting up to twenty years, but they’ve also found popularity through other subcultures too. In the 1960s they enjoyed a heyday among hippie and surfing communities in America, as famously mentioned by the Beach Boys, but these days they’ve grown to be popular through all of Mexico.

There are many reasons why huaraches are an incredible shoe option, and yet nowadays it’s incredibly difficult to find a pair that have been ethically crafted in Mexico itself. But not any more, thanks to CANO, who are on a mission to bring Mexican craftsmanship to a global audience with their ethically crafted, high quality huaraches.

Together with their team of artisans, CANO design and create shoes that are sustainable, durable and timeless in style; always inspired by the traditional huarache, but with a modern twist. After many months of preparation, CANO was founded at the end of 2016, and started production of its first products in 2017. Their goal is twofold: to promote the huarache and its sustainable craftsmanship, and to empower and enable the artisans they work with to provide for themselves and their families. For a pair of huaraches to be truly authentic, and not just a sandal, it is argued that they have to be made by hand, and this is exactly what CANO ensures. Their huaraches are made in a small town called Sahuayo, in the state of Michoacán (one of the states huaraches originated from), by artisans that they found after visiting a variety of workshops, factories and living rooms in a scrupulous search for the best in town. CANO have a close relationship with their artisans, spending several months in Mexico each year and united by the common goal of promoting handmade Mexican artistry around the globe. Both parties closely collaborate in the creation and manufacturing of models, and CANO treasure the relationship they’ve fostered with their artisans. Because of the nature of creating each pair by hand, it is said that you never find an identical pair. In this way, every creation is completely unique to its owner.

The art and craftsmanship required to make huaraches is truly awe inspiring to someone like me, an admirer with no skill herself. It requires a proficiency and artistry that have been passed down through generations over hundreds of years. Despite the techniques being rooted in an incredibly rich history, the rise of cheap labour and technological outsourcing has created high price competition and driven down salaries for artisans and their families. Seeking to right this wrong, CANO embrace the slow, traditional methods of making that honour years of tradition. Their huaraches are completely handmade, using only hands and a knitting needle, and each pair can take up to six hours to weave. The resulting shoes are so precise, detailed and strong that they are almost akin to an artwork, designed to last a lifetime. Most of CANO‘s artisans were taught to weave huaraches by their parents and grandparents whilst they were still children, so each pair is also infused with a sense of attention, love and decades of practice that simply can’t be replicated in the fast fashion arena. These artisans are proud of their skills, learned and honed over time, and the products they produce. Their expert knowledge results in shoes of the highest quality that can be worn for years to come, as CANO strives to create fashion items that have no expiration date.

It’s a true return to the way that things were supposed to be created: with love, expertise and history. Handcrafted by experts who truly know and adore their craft. The kind of artisans that have been doing this for so long and so well that it comes as naturally to them as breathing.

The materials that CANO use are also sourced as sustainably as possible; as their leather is a locally sourced by-product produced by nearby wide open ranches in Michoacán, Jalisco and Colima, which CANO have personally visited. The leather is tanned using the traditional 200 year old vegetable tanning method, which doesn’t use any toxic or harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde or chrome. Whilst the unsustainable chrome tanning process takes 5 days, the artisanal way slows this down, using a 14 step process that takes up to four weeks to complete, as well as multiple days where the leather dries naturally outdoors. The tanning agents used come from certified European suppliers and are made from leaves, woods and fruits such as chestnut trees and pomegranate.

CANO‘s manufacturing processes is also designed to be as zero waste as possible, which the traditional Mexican method for creating huaraches lends itself to well. Whilst most shoe designs require pattern cutting, leaving significant amounts of waste and scrap materials that aren’t suitable for use, huaraches don’t waste any material as they are made from multiple strips that are then woven together. These strips can be cut from almost any part of the material, leaving almost no waste behind.

Most of CANO‘s tejedoras (weaving artisans) are mothers and, after finding their orders were too high for one or two artisans in a workshop, CANO centralised their operations by collaborating with a local workshop to create a smooth system that allows the tejedoras to work from their own homes. The workshop prepares the leather strips and the basis for the shoes before distributing them to the artisans’ homes where the shoes can be woven, before collecting them to be soled and polished at the workshop again. By having the freedom to work from home the women are also able to care for their children while earning triple wages compared to what they would usually earn as a tejedora, thanks to CANO‘s commitment to truly fair practice as opposed to just meeting minimum standards. You can learn more here:

While many brands over the years have tried to capitalise on the popularity and aesthetic of the traditional Mexican huarache (more on why I don’t think that’s cool here), I don’t think there’s anything that can beat the true authenticity of craftsmanship that is the sum of decades of experience and heritage. On a practical level these shoes are created from natural, by-product materials and dyes and are built to last for years, whilst their design also lends itself to breathability and moulding to the shape of your feet specifically. But more than that, it’s great to find a brand that’s bringing investment to the very region where these shoes originated, collaborating with artisans and paying them far beyond minimum requirements. Whilst their authentic aesthetic and nifty designs are great on a consumer level, it’s the way this business runs that truly sets them apart. I, for one, can’t wait to see huaraches become as popular as the 60s once again, but with the profits going back to the tejedoras and to Mexico, where it truly belongs.

If you want to grab a pair, CANO are currently taking pre-orders on kickstarter, and they’ll be with you just in time for Spring/Summer

Disclaimer: This is the first time I’ve ever written about a leather product on this blog, mainly because it’s not something that’s ever had to be a huge concern for me. I’ve accidentally lived a fairly leather free life (apart from the odd pair of second hand shoes I think) but this was never a deliberate choice, so it’s not something I’ve ever had to think much about. My hope is that Ethical Unicorn will always be an inclusive space for a variety of people with different sustainable goals, and I know I have many readers of this blog who do, and will continue to, buy leather. My hope is that posts such as these will provide options to buy leather from companies like CANO who are far better than high street alternatives, and who work incredibly hard to minimise their environmental impact and care for their artisans. This post on Ecocult goes more in depth in its discussion of leather production and is really interesting (also Alden followed up with extra research and interviews and learned leather alone isn’t valuable enough to cover the cost of raising a cow), but if you don’t want to purchase leather, that’s fine too! I will continue to profile vegan friendly sustainable options too (for example not all vegan leathers are good for animals or the environment, but Pinatex is pretty darn cool!)