BEST FOOT FORWARD
Bespoke shoemakers are offering well-heeled men the chance to step out smartly in a mix of classic and trendy creations, says Sushmita Biswas
It was the discomfort of wearing ill-fitting shoes that prompted Pranav Bhalla to launch a bespoke footwear portal for men. Bhalla had size 11 feet and always had to hunt high and low for shoes that would accommodate his large tootsies. “My feet
always hurt. Nothing worked for me,” says Bhalla. He discovered lots of men shared his problem of getting right-size, quality shoes and, in an eureka moment, realised he’d found a gap in the market.
The enterprising 29-year-old tied up with his sister-in-law Rupam Bhalla to launch Dnuvo, a portal selling bespoke men’s shoes. Customers either e-mail their details or make an appointment on Dnuvo’s website and the company sends an ‘outfitter’ to take their measurements and help them browse through the company’s designs and catalogue of 70 different types of colours and leather.
Cut to Pune where Naman Shah’s Cuero (it means leather in Spanish) offers fine quality handmade shoes. Shah’s client list includes corporate hotshots and top Bollywood celebrities. Prices start from Rs 9,000 (for Oxfords, and brogues) to Rs 40,000 for shoes made from exotic leather like stingray, which is highly durable, or ostrich skin. Some of his hot-sellers include tasselled moccasins, brogue boots and a style called the Magnum Opus, which is also known as wing-tip Oxfords. Around 75 per cent of his orders are bespoke.
Bhalla and Shah are part of a growing tribe of handcrafted men’s shoe-makers making comfortable, stylish footwear with a distinctly Indian edge and also trying to carve out a niche for themselves in the fiercely competitive handmade international footwear game.
So it’s no longer necessary to cross the seas to be fitted into a pair of custom-made, full-grain Italian shoes. These homegrown foot-soldiers are putting men into everything from classic brogues to stylish loafers to Oxfords. And if you’re buying bespoke shoes, you can have initials, emoticons or any other personal logo embroidered, embossed or printed onto the shoes. Interestingly, these shoe-smiths are not coming to the market armed with shoe designing qualifications but are mostly driven by an ardent love for handcrafted shoes. Says Shah: “Growing up, I was in awe of my father’s impeccable dress sense — his matching leather shoes with belts. As a kid I was never allowed to wear floaters.”
It goes without saying that Indian bespoke shoemakers face a tough battle to establish themselves in a market dominated by globe-conquering footwear brands like John Lobb, Christian Louboutin and Heel & Buckle. Says Bhalla: “Unlike the
international brands, our shoes are priced moderately without compromising on quality and comfort.”
These Indian men’s shoemakers have ready-to-wear options, but their biggest USP is in bespoke and custom-made shoes. To understand the shoemaking business, it’s important to understand the distinction between the two. Bespoke shoes are made from scratch according to the client’s specifications and require a very high-precision, time-intensive process. On the other hand, customisation is when a client selects an existing design based on the colours, details and materials and then the shoe is made. Bespoke is the buzzword for these shoemakers and makes up about 80 per cent of their orders.
For Mumbai-based Nirali Ruparel, it’s all about bespoke orders and giving her New Age Man a wide choice. Ruparel quit her luxury magazine job to set up her bespoke label, Achilles Heel. She says: “In India, men don’t get too many sartorial options and we offer a wide range of colours and styles.” She has positioned her brand in the ‘affordable luxury’ category and priced her products at a relatively reasonable Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for her prêt line and Rs 15,000 for custom-made footwear. Ruparel aims to be the Louboutin of the Indian market. While her services are by appointment only at her funky studio in south Mumbai, one can buy online too at www.achillesheel.co.
At a slightly different level, there’s also Mumbai-based SS Homme, an Indian bespoke menswear brand which specialises in bespoke suits, jackets and shoes, set up by Sandeep Gonsalves and Sara Gonsalves in 2012. “We cater to the dapper man who has personal taste and understands the importance of dressing well,” says Gonsalves, who’s just back from attending a trade show in Paris called Premiere Vision.
The brand’s clients include top-level businessmen and Bollywood’s top actors and directors. While Sandeep has a Master’s degree in business management, Sarah was a fashion stylist in a luxury magazine before setting up the brand. “Much like the suits, the process of making bespoke shoes is also the same — from choosing the design to selecting the shade and the leather,” says Gonsalves
Potential buyers have to make an appointment on the SS Homme website. “We make eight to 10 bespoke shoes in a month, which rises during the wedding season,” says Riddhika Shah, marketing director and head of accessory design, SS Homme. The bespoke shoes start at Rs 15,000 and can go up to Rs 27,000 depending on the level of customisation. Around 90 per cent of their orders are bespoke, and their hotsellers include criss-cross loafers, dual-tone brogues and patent leather tuxedo shoes.
On the other hand, Delhi-based company The Shoe Factory set up by Nina Dutta and her late husband Robin Dutta has established its own foothold in the world of customised shoes. The Shoe Factory, set up in 2013, doesn’t keep large stocks but it does have a small line of ready-to-wear shoes on its website for clients to check out.
All of Dutta’s shoes are one-of-a-kind, made to the client’s specifications. “Footwear complements you. And today, men are competing with women in terms of number of shoes they have in their closet,” she says.
Playing with elements of design is seen as the way forward and all of them have their different strengths in handcrafting shoes. Gonsalves’ SS Homme is into minimalism and shuns flamboyant details in Derby lines and loafers. By contrast, classic styles with a contemporary twist are Dutta’s forte. Also, her creations come in everything from full-grain, natural leather and fine suede to fabrics like denim, canvas, silk and even Indian handloom.
For Ruparel and Gonsalves, it’s Nappa and patent leather that win hands down. Cuero uses raw-hide from Argentina. Bhalla, on the other, hand uses calf and sheep hide and also printed leather.
In terms of manufacturing most of the bespoke shoes are made at their workshops. Dutta has a workshop in Noida where she hires skilled cobblers. Shah of Cuero has his own workshop in Pune where he employs traditional shoemakers to give a hand-patina finish to leather and to make shoes. Ruparel has a workshop in Parel in central Mumbai where she has a team of karigars executing her designs.
Some shoe-makers also get unusual requests for designs that are tough to execute. Ruparel talks about making bespoke slip-ons with black and white studs. And Bhalla got a request for a pair of shoes that would match the person’s car seats. Gonsalves recalls one wedding client wanted red suede loafers to match his jacket with his initials on them.
And be very clear about one thing: when it comes to bespoke trends, simple blacks and browns are no longer the only options. Says Shah: “Today, you have a variety of shades including tan, burgundy, cognac, cherry, midnight blue which are doing well. Dressy shoes like two-tone loafers teamed with bandhgalas and denims and leather mojris are some of the other really hot designs.”
Almost all the bespoke shoemakers have ambitious expansion plans. Gonsalves is opening a studio in Pune mid-year. Cuero’s Shah is moving even further afield and is opening studios in Bangalore and Mumbai in the coming months followed by a store in Chicago by the year-end. This will be followed by pop-up stores in Nagpur, Nasik and Kolhapur. Bhalla’s also looking at tapping the US and European markets.
Fashion is important when it comes to shoemaking, but comfort is key. Bhalla’s Dnuvo shoes come with leather insoles and leather lining for cushioning and half-rubber heels to reduce shocks. Dutta of The Shoe Factory says: “Even the smallest details matter — like the use of Spanish foam that lines the sole or the use of adhesives at the seams.” Says SS Homme’s Shah, “For vegans, loafers are lined with non-leather alternatives too.”
While design may take centre-stage, these designers ensure their handcrafted shoes are made to last. But here, maintenance is the key. Says Bhalla: “Leather shoes wear out with time and if kept on the shelf, they wear out faster. Wax polish your shoes once a week. Put them in a shoe tree whenever possible. Wipe your suede shoes only when they’re dry. Wear bespoke leather shoes every alternate day, not every day.” That will mean, needless to say, you will need two pairs!”