Monday, 30th October 2017

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Stepping it up

Young designers are redefining contemporary footwear with creations inspired by everything from tribal art to Bollywood, says Sushmita Biswas

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 28.07.13
  • Footwear designer Rohan Arora

When Payal Kothari worked as an apprentice with Nina Footwear on New York's Fifth Avenue, she'd walk to work and marvel at the shoe displays in the stores along her route. Today her own brand,Veruschka, is a favourite with Mumbai's smart set and is also selling in upmarket boutiques in Italy and Tokyo. She makes about 150 customised pairs a month and a peek into her collection reveals footwear in bold colours like neon, teal, red and burgundy. "My USP," she says, "is the use of fabrics like satin and velvet with metallic detailing in peep-toes and pumps."

In Delhi, footwear fanatics will soon be able to trip daintily into Taramay, a store opened by shoemaker Nayantara Sood, whose eclectic collection includes a range of ballet flats, wedge pumps and flat sandals. Sood set up Taramay in 2010 and has just opened her own store. Her shoes also occupy rack space in select boutiques in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. She says, "My design sensibility is very much cued to international trends yet rooted in Indian craftsmanship."

Sood has a workshop in Nizamuddin in Delhi but hires karigars from other shoe-making units. She says: "Every season is different but in one season we make 15-20 new designs."

  • A practising lawyer, Shinam Seth took a sabbatical from work to set up her footwear label

Kothari and Sood are part of a growing tribe of shoe designers making glamorous but comfortable footwear with a distinctly Indian edge and carving out their own niche in the fiercely competitive footwear game. They're putting people into everything from ballerina flats to loafers to wedges and stilettos, and they look for inspiration from soaring skyscrapers to African tribal art — and, of course, Bollywood.

Taking a cue from the global trends, in India too experimentation is the name of the game with designers using not just leather but an array of materials from wood to cork to suede to velvet and even jute. They are also flinging in plenty of bling in the form of metal studs, sequins and colourful embroidery to add a dash of drama to the heels. Prices start from Rs 2,000 (for flats) and can go up to Rs 50,000 for heavily embellished shoes.

It goes without saying that Indian shoemakers face a tough battle to establish themselves in a market dominated by globe-conquering footwear brands like the Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo. But they're getting a foot in the door with a mix of smart design with an Indian edge and smart pricing. Says Kothari: "Unlike the international brands, our shoes are not in the same six-figure league, but are priced moderately."

  • Nayantara Sood was studying brand strategy in London but changed track and did a one-year course in footwear design

Since women are the big spenders when it comes to shoes, most of the designers are focusing on women's footwear with its incredible choice and variety. One exception is Mumbai-based label AKA Bespoke which does both men's and women's footwear. The label is a brainchild of three friends — Aeiman Jarwala, Karan Berry and Ateev Anand. Says Anand: "We thrive on the classics with a contemporary aesthetic."

AKA Bespoke deals mainly with customised orders of men's and women's shoes, but also retails from Bungalow 8 in Mumbai. In its first collection, the trio decided to give subtle twists to classic styles. So they went ahead and designed a Derby and the classic loafer for men in neutral colours. Says Anand: "We enjoy conjuring up 'old-as-new' designs. For instance, Kolhapuri chappals are tradition, but when they get a brush of contemporary colour, they represent the marriage between vintage and nouveau." The wedding season is the busiest time of year for them when they race against the clock to turn out around 70-80 bespoke shoes for customers who want to be smartly shod.

At a different level, for fans of Bollywood and funky styles, Calcutta boy Rohan Arora's line of handcrafted footwear will not disappoint. His edgy style first came into the limelight at the Lakm Fashion Week 2010 in Mumbai, where he showed a line of quirky shoes titled Naya Daur, inspired by iconic films. It included everything from boots to brogues and ballet flats and caught everyone's attention.

  • Payal Kothari's creations for her label Veruschka make extravagant use of fabrics like satin and velvet with metallic detailing; Pic by Gajanan Dudhalkar

In 2011, he followed it up by showing a range of quirky footwear at that year's Lakm Fashion Week using the theme of inflation in Kaal Aaj Aur Kaal, which had embroidered shoes with high heels to footwear with less embellishment and heels and even newspaper print khadaus (wooden chappals). His latest summer line boasts Kolhapuris in quirky colours and Punjabi joottis in pop colours.

Arora has his own workshop, in Picnic Garden in Calcutta, with close to 45 karigars. Apart from selling from his Facebook page, Arora retails from fashion stores like Zoya and Kimaya in Mumbai, Ogaan in Delhi and from his workshop.

There's also Delhi-based lawyer-turned shoe-designer Shinam Seth with her store The Yellow Polka that offers shoes in vibrant hues. Seth took a sabbatical to set up her footwear label. "My collection is a potpourri of Western and Indian styles inspired by a dramatic colour palette," says Seth.

Seth has gone back to practicing law but she still manages time to research on latest trends, source new materials and to consult with clients on design. She opened her store at Shahpur Jat in Delhi and today, she has five to 10 karigars working at her production unit making 40-50 new designs every month.

  • Novelty shoes are Rohan Arora's forte; Pic by Soumik Bag

On the other hand, Mumbai-based fashion designer Sabbah Sharma took to designing shoes in 2009 with a line of very simple and basic shoes for women — mostly flats. Sharma, who first started by launching a clothes label Sabbah Sharma, in Mumbai, soon diversified and started designing shoes.

To get hands-on technical training in shoe production, Sharma first made several trips to shoe-making units of Nagpada in south Mumbai. Today, her forte is making statement shoes in fabrics ranging from durable furnishing fabrics to suede, rexin and even polyester. Currently, her line includes an array of brogues, ballerinas, wedge pumps and even Kolhapuri chappals. Sharma makes 60-70 pairs of shoes in a month in her workshop in Mumbai.

In the shoe design game, customisation is key and designers turn out their creations according to the requirements of their clients. Sharma customises a lot of her creations for the wedding-wear market. She says: "Most brides prefer wedge Kolhapuris in bright colours."

AKA Bespoke's Anand also believes that making bespoke creations is the right way to go. The most expensive shoe that the trio has ever made was a Swarovski encrusted heel for a bride that was priced at Rs 34,000. Kothari, too, customises shoes for her clients.

  • AKA Bespoke, launched by Karan Berry, Aeiman Jarwala (centre) and Ateev Anand, likes to give a contemporary twist to classic styles

All the shoe designers are experimenting with innovative materials to create unique pieces. Kothari, interestingly, is not very fond of leather shoes and instead uses Nappa leather (full-grain leather), suede, silk and satin. Arora's quirky shoes are made from chicken-leg leather and even kalamkari. Sharma, too, likes to use fabrics such as brushed cotton fabric (which gives a grainy texture), suede and furnishing fabrics. AKA Bespoke also has a line of sandals designed with PVC material, which is one of its hotsellers.

Filmy theme is the USP of Arora. Kothari recommends neon-coloured flats and pointed-toe pumps as the season's must haves. At another level, Seth is all for jewelled Kolhapuris and handcrafted mojris.

At an entirely different level, for AKA Bespoke, classic styles work best and this season the trio is reinventing classics like the Oxford and court-shoes for both men and women in a new avatar by using a contemporary colour palette.

Some of the shoe designers have come into the business armed with formidable qualifications. Kothari mastered the technical art of accessory design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, and worked as an apprentice at Fifth Avenue brands like Nina Footwear. Sood, however, found her way into shoe design by chance. She went to the UK to do a Masters in brand strategy from the University of London. But, once in London she did a year-long diploma course in footwear design from the London College of Fashion in 2008. And Karan Berry and Ateev Anand learnt how to handcraft footwear at Cordwainer's College in London.

  • Sabbah Sharma likes to turn out chunky pieces like brogues and wedge pumps rather than dainty types of footwear; Pic by Gajanan Dudhalkar

While design may take centre stage, these designers have to ensure that it is not at the expense of comfort — if they want to have happy clients. For instance, Kothari roots for creating wedges with high-counters (ankle straps), which will not hurt the ankle. Her soles are made in rubber for better grip. Sharma, on the other hand, sources rubber sheets and cuts it in-house for making heels. For cushioning, Seth uses camel leather for her mojris while Arora uses soft calf-leather for inner lining.

Almost all the designers have ambitious plans to woo clients. AKA Bespoke is currently retailing a limited edition line from Mumbai, but also has plans for selling overseas. Says Anand: "The eventual plan is to become a global luxury accessory brand."

Similarly, Sood, who has just opened her store in Delhi, wants to open more stores in other cities as well. Kothari, who does a lot of business on Facebook, also has plans to woo her clients by setting up stores in Tier II and III cities. Arora plans to open his own stores in Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi by year end.

Shoe designing is a tough game, but these designers reckon there's plenty of room in the market if they put their best foot forward.