Michael Tonello is a former luxury leather liaison and Birkin aficionado. He authored the delightfully wicked and bestselling memoir Bringing Home the Birkin. After years of amassing high end scarves, he now repurposes their silk designs into comfortable footwear through his recently launched brand, Respoke.com, based in Provincetown. Let’s see if his cat approves.
Do you recall your first homoerotic experience with a luxury brand growing up as a child?
Michael: Absolutely! It was mid-1970s, an advertisement I think was in GQ, for the short sleeve Polo Ralph Lauren polo shirt.
What about that polo shirt stimulated you and did you immediately relay your feelings to your mother?
Michael: Duh! It had nothing to do with the shirt. It was all about the stud wearing it. I told my mother that I wanted a subscription to GQ for Christmas.
Does that mean that a stud holding a Birkin bag would provide enough stimuli to carry you to the moon?
Michael: Over the moon!
What’s the origin story of the Birkin bag and what do you think fell out of Jane Birkin’s bag that left Jean-Louis Dumas electrified?
Michael: Jean-Louis invited Jane to visit Hermès and create a bag that would work for her. The Birkin bag is actually based on a couple of bags that Hermès already had in its repertoire — reconfigured. As Parisians began seeing Jane trotting around Paris with her new bag a demand was created for the Jane Birkin bag. Jane agreed to Hermès’ request to allow the production and sale of the bag to the general public. A star was born. As for what fell out of Jane’s straw bag on the airplane we can only imagine. Perhaps the answer is hidden in her smash hit song, Je T’aime?
I’m considering throwing my college pursuits away in anticipation of moving in with my financially stable “daddy” and launching the world’s most in depth study of socialite night time behavior. What should my wardrobe comprise?
Michael: A great fitting pair of selvedge denim jeans, a white tee, and a pair of Respoke espadrilles, of course.
How much does one’s romantic life get shaken to its core when launching a luxury brand like Respoke? Is there salvation in using an attractive realtor to negotiate the commercial space lease?
Michael: My husband is hugely supportive of Respoke. My cat is another question. When I first moved to Barcelona I had a super model type real estate broker who took me to see apartments on the back of his Vespa. Let’s just say I looked at numerous apartments. For Respoke the entire search and deal was done online. No Vespa.
Is it true that espadrilles are quickly outpacing “socks in the bed” as the hottest fetish? Is that why you launched Respoke?
Michael: Shocking as it may seem, socks are as out as RuPaul. Why do you think it is that American men love to visit Spain?!
How do you expect me to browse and inspect the designs of Respoke when both of my hands will be occupied holding on to my man as he struggles to resist the delicious otters and cubs of Bear Week?
Michael: Handcuffs and a leash?
A Make America Great Again hat walks into Respoke. What happens next?
Michael: Did you know that Donald Trump was just in and bought one of our Respoke linen bucket hats? Donald Trump doesn’t have an exclusive on lying.
Provincetown is notoriously expensive and seasonal. The daddies have money. And the lesbians spend. So that’s good. But how did you give yourself the final push to start a brick and mortar store?
Michael: You sort of answered your own question. To elaborate, last year Respoke had a retail partner in Provincetown, the Captain’s Daughters, and they did extremely well with Respoke. We thought long and hard about that and decided to open our own brick and mortar, and also move our ecommerce fulfillment to Provincetown. At the same time, we collaborated with the Captain’s Daughters to do fun ready-to-wear and espadrilles unique to their store for this upcoming season. Win win.
I’m tempted to beat time and just publish a book — any book — while youth is still on my side. Should I rush to have that crossed off my bucket list and let the reviews and sales be what they may?
Michael: No! A shitty book could ruin your career. Baby diarrhea splatter. That bad! You lose all credibility. You lose the trust of the public. No publisher wants anything to do with you again. When’s the last time you heard anyone say “that book was such shit, can’t wait for the next one”?
My favorite stationery is on sale. I’m considering writing lavender scented letters to various CEOs admonishing them for never being involved with the LGBTQ community outside of June. And by “involved” I mean slapping rainbows on shitty products. Should I save the paper?
Michael: Send the letters and coordinate it with a strong social media campaign. There’s major strength in numbers. There are certainly two strong sides to this argument. Da’Shaun Harrison has written extensively on the subject for BET. I’ve never attended a Pride event. I’m gay, happy, out and proud. I do think however that many of these large corporations play both ends against the middle.
Are our mistakes what make our fate?