Barcelona street sellers take on Nike with own-brand trainers

Ethical streetwear co-operative Top Manta says profits will help migrant vendors ‘become legal and work for a decent wage’

After years of selling cheap copies of designer shoes and handbags, Barcelona’s street vendors have set up a co-operative and launched a line of trainers under the brand name Top Manta.

Unlike an earlier attempt to establish a brand in 2017 by sticking a logo on shoes imported from China, the trainers are made in Alicante in Spain and Porto in Portugal.

“We have always been criticised and persecuted for selling copies, but now we have our own brand,” Lamine Sarr, a Top Manta spokesman, told the Guardian.

The co-operative’s spectacular launch presented the Ande Dem trainers, which means “walking together” in Wolof, the language spoken by most manteros (vendors), who are mainly from Senegal.

The name Top Manta comes from the blanket (manta) vendors lay their wares on. The logo is of a blanket, but also represents waves to reflect the fact that most manteros arrived in Spain after making the hazardous journey by sea in small inflatable boats.

The colours of the shoes recall Africa, Sarr said, while the rugged soles make them more suitable for working on the land or a building site than for jogging.

Members of the Top Manta collective at the launch.
Members of the Top Manta collective at the launch. Photograph: Pau Coll

The shoes were designed by a group of manteros with the help of a local architect and designer, Sara González de Ubieta, and a graphic designer, Helga Juárez.

Unlike big brands that mass produce trainers in low-income countries, Top Manta says it has opted for responsible production with the aim of reviving the artisanal shoe industry.

They have produced 400 pairs so far, retailing at €115 (£100). They can be bought from the co-operative’s shop in Barcelona or online. All profits go towards building the brand and helping manteros and their families.

The co-operative has produced a promotional video to be screened on its website and on social media.

“We’re very happy that we’ve got the Ande Dem shoes. It’s a dream come true,” said Abdou Lahat Wade, who will soon be selling them.

“We’re showing those people who always said we weren’t capable of making our own shoes that we can.

“We’re like a brotherhood and that gives us strength and the perseverance to cope with the present and create a future for ourselves.”

The pandemic has been a disaster for street vendors, whose already precarious working lives were curtailed by lockdowns and the absence of tourists, their main customers.

“It’s been really difficult during the pandemic,” Sarr said. “These are people who can’t claim unemployment benefit and there’s been no government support. We established a food bank and we set up sewing machines and people came here to the shop to work on a voluntary basis sewing shoes and clothes.”

Spain’s laws condemn illegal immigrants to a marginal existence. To obtain legal residency, non-EU immigrants must live in the country for three years, prove they have had a fixed address for at least a year, show they are learning the language and have a work contract for a minimum of one year. For many, perhaps most, these conditions are impossible to meet and they remain in a stateless limbo.

By creating jobs manufacturing and marketing shoes, Top Manta has succeeded in getting 120 manteros legal residency and has found jobs for 25 of its members. It also offers training in textiles and screen-printing as well as language classes.

Asked why anyone would choose Top Manta trainers over Nike, New Balance or Adidas, Sarr said: “Instead of supporting a multinational that exploits desperate people in the developing world, you are helping a community that is discriminated against in every way. You are helping people to become legal and work for a decent wage.”


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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