In these times, launching a business to make expensive, heavy, leather-soled shoes by hand in the Middle East might not be the most obvious thing to do. And especially if you are moving from France to do so.
But for Sibylle Arnold-Shish, the founder of the Dubai-based bespoke shoe makers The Cobbler, it was a gap waiting to be filled.
"Customers here in Dubai are already especially used to bespoke tailoring, perhaps more so than in Europe, even than in Paris," she says. "Lots of people here work in banking, for example, and need to look pristine, while labour costs also make bespoke more accessible. And now they are keen to explore bespoke through something else - through shoes."
Arnold-Shish, a former cosmetics marketing executive, set up the business last year. The ready-to-wear men's shoe brand with a bespoke shoemaking service on the side was inspired by her husband whom she describes as "passionate" about shoes ("though I have to admit I rather like them myself," she adds). The couple even brought shoemakers over from France to oversee design and production.
With a Dh10,000 starting price and a delivery time of up to six months, this a shopping experience for discerning clients only. And even in a market used to international designer brands, demand has been high.
"It's when we tell customers how long a pair will take to make that we see who is truly interested in bespoke and who understands what it is about," says Arnold-Shish. "Waiting for your shoes is part of the pleasure; you have enough time to really long for them."
Waiting might not suit everyone but those with the patience will appreciate its necessity. Once every detail - from style to shape and leather to colour - has been decided on, feet are measured, and wooden lasts (forms in the shape of feet) are made. These can be used for future orders thus speeding up the process for another pair.
Then the shoemaker starts working the leather: cutting, sewing, lining, welting, heel carving and finishing; a process during which two more fittings may be required. It takes commitment.
"There is a very big difference between handmade and factory-made shoes that still isn't well understood," says Caroline Groves, a shoemaker who specialises in bespoke for women, a rarity.
"There are typically no machines involved at all. It's all the hard work of rasp and file and hammers."
So why bother, aside, that is, from the benefit to those with unusually-sized feet or orthopaedic problems? Shoemakers say that, with the seeming global ubiquity of designer names, they offer something truly personalised. Bespoke shoes are an investment in craftsmanship, which is undergoing a renaissance in many product areas. They are also, given current economic woes, a wise financial investment with each pair built to last a lifetime. The resulting shoes are unique; even if, that is, most customers opt for a simple pair of Oxfords or loafers("though I think in time more funky designs will come," says Arnold-Shish).
"If they're not a designer, as most customers aren't, sometimes you need to supply the tools - a little help, in other words - to allow customers to figure out what they really have in mind because the options are limitless," says Patrick Zamparini, who founded Io Uomo, a Venice-based bespoke shoemaker that launched in Dubai two years ago. Zamparini visits Dubai every six weeks to set up a "pop-up" atelier for 10 days, where fittings and orders are taken.
Shoes start at Dh3,000 and take between two and six months to make. "A shoe tends to be something between us and the customer but the result is very personal, which is an aspect that customers often really like," he says. "Of course, some have problem feet while others are just shoe addicts."
Then there are those who go for the more outrageous. Zamparini, whose shoes are all made in Italy, speaks of customers who want pairs in very brightly coloured leathers, or with gold trim. "It's why I always draw up a shoe first, so the client can see what they are getting," he says. "Sometimes they need reminding of the gap between their fantasy and what they might actually wear."
Maybe then, if they were Snoop Dogg, for instance, they might turn to Steven Alexander to make them a really outlandish pair of golf shoes - a sport in which, of course, the clothes might be more outlandish still. "When you wear shoes that are tailored for your own personality it feels great," says Alexander, who launched his new shoe company at this year's Omega Dubai Desert Classic tournament. "Your confidence when walking onto the first tee is powerful. Your playing partners are likely to comment on your shoes even before you tee off."
Some clients love good leather so much, they might even be found on the shoemaking course run by Carreducker, the bespoke shoe company, in London and New York. Seven students from all over the world, including the Middle East, undergo a full shoemaking apprenticeship crammed into two weeks.
"It's called an 'intensive' course and that's for good reason," says Deborah Carre, one half of the company that has also just launched an evening class version of its £1800 (Dh9,947) course. "Students have to use leather knives and other precision tools when they may never have handled any tools before. They each make a pair, some of which are terrible, some amazing. And some students actually go on to be shoemakers."
Ironically perhaps, it is the bespoke shoe doubters who would most benefit from seeing the level of craftsmanship that goes into a pair, which explains their prices. Carre says: "Years ago, we were brought up to look after our shoes, to keep them clean and repair them to ensure they lasted. But now we live in a throwaway society and don't think so much about what is on our feet beyond how it looks. But I think that is changing. Bespoke tailoring has had all the attention for years. Now it's the turn of bespoke shoes."
Indeed, what is telling is that the scene is now attracting young bespoke makers offering a suitably modern, fashion-aware sensibility, too. The French shoemaker Pierre Corthay, for instance, has recently set up a bespoke shop in Dubai, while Sebastian Tarek - an Australian shoemaker who has worked for John Lobb Ltd and GJ Cleverley & Co in London over the past decade - is hotly tipped for bringing a more minimalistic style to bespoke shoes, with clean lines and the use of hand coloured raw leathers. "I've worked for a number of the old, classic firms, which I love, but I'm also aware that they're not always to my taste," he says. "And I'm not alone."
Surely though, there is something altogether topsy-turvy about this world in which it is men and not women who are mildly fetishistic about footwear?
"The assumption is that it is women who are really into shoes," says Arnold-Shish. "But women don't tend to want timeless designs, nor to spend a lot on flats, so typical bespoke shoes are not naturally for them. Men really like polishing their shoes. They develop a real expertise in them. And, once beyond the watch or wallet, beautiful bespoke shoes are a real means of self-expression for them. A gentleman has one kind of relationship with his clothing. But his relationship with his shoes is a deeper bond."
WHERE TO ORDER
The Cobbler Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), Gate Building, Ground Floor, Marble Walk, 04 386 3490 and Level Shoe District, Dubai Mall, 04 501 6920, www.cobbler.ae
Io Uomo 39 0423 60 489 email@example.com, www.iouomo.biz
Steven Alexander www.stevenalexandergolf.com firstname.lastname@example.org