There are designer shoes and then there are Gina shoes: so delicate, desirable and exquisitely made you'd be forgiven for believing in fairy stories about tiny elves and an old shoemaker. There's certainly a romantic fairy tale - with at least one beautiful princess involved - behind one of the world's most luxurious shoe brands, established in 1954 in London by the master shoemaker Mehmet Kurdash.
Kurdash arrived in London just after the Second World War and was en route from Cyprus to Australia to seek his fortune when he met Margaret, a Swiss nurse, who was en route to India to become a missionary. They married and stayed in London. Hailing from a family who could trace bespoke shoemaking roots back to 1893, Kurdash started making women's' shoes using the most luxurious kid leather available.
The label he stitched neatly inside each shoe was Gina, which was named after the glamorous Italian movie star Gina Lollobrigida. Kurdash never compromised on quality. Nor did his three sons, Attila, Aydin and Altan, who later inherited the family business in the mid 1980s and are who are responsible for the latest episode of the Gina story, which picks up in the Middle East. So far, only two Gina boutiques exist, both in London. The city is also home to Gina HQ, the Kurdash family and the factory that makes every single Gina shoe worn on the red carpet, by high society or by royalty.
Finally, after roaming the globe to find a site deemed worthy of their iconic slingbacks, mules and flats, the Kurdash clan found one. Last week, the first Gina flagship opened outside the UK in the prestigious Fashion Avenue of the Dubai Mall. Sandwiched between Lanvin and Ralph Lauren on the ground floor (close by Tom Ford and Givenchy) is the shiny new 929-square metre Gina temple. With its five metre ceiling and vast Swarovski crystal sculptures, this is a fitting homage to shoe adoration.
Designed by the trendy architects Caulder and Moore, the space includes cutouts of the Gina shoe logo, which create a twinkling stained glass effect, a giant arch to an exclusive couture area (inspired by the curve under a Gina shoe heel) and wall-to-ceiling-to-seat furnishings covered in luxurious champagne suede. Whereas certain luxury shoe brands have chosen dramatic expansion in Asia, the United States and Russia, Gina has resisted overexposure, preferring to be stocked in less than a hundred small boutiques in jet-set places such as Monaco, St Tropez, Cannes and Marbella.
Successfully luring Gina to join the big boys of the Dubai Mall, which opened last November, is the crown jewel for Dubai's latest shopping experience which this year hopes to attract 40 million visitors. Just as the luxury-loving Gina couture customer will welcome being able to indulge in this distinctly stylish brand closer to home, the sensibilities of the brand will find a home away from home in the Emirates, where eyebrows are rarely raised over colossal price tags or glitz.
Gina opened its first couture salon in Old Bond Street in 1999 to a media frenzy. One particular pair of pale mint green alligator mules finished with 18-carat white gold buckles and inlaid with 36 princess-cut diamonds made headlines. At Dh108,67, they later got a mention in the Guinness Book of Records, which acknowledged them as the world's most expensive slippers. It's not simply a case of skins from the finest Italian tanners that award the brand its luxury status but the sheer craftsmanship involved in the production of every shoe. Each one will undergo up to 100 procedures from start to finish.
A week prior to the new shop launch, I was given a tour of the 465 square metre factory in Hackney, East London, where 40,000 shoes are produced each year. Although I don't actually meet any elves, I do meet Ron, a shoe technician. Like the rest of his colleagues on the factory floor, Ron gets in at 7.30am and leaves at 6.30pm. Sitting near him are craftsmen using tiny hammers to knock tiny nails in to dainty, exquisite party shoes fit for Cinderella to wear to her ball.
Close by sit three specialists meticulously gluing Swarovski crystals onto straps, one by one, for Gina's autumn/winter range. The perfection of each design (which are all given Hollywood-sounding names like Elvis and Casablanca) are reliant on fabric, cut, colour and striking design. These days, pattern cutting and design are digitised by a small team overseen by the Kurdash brothers and occasionally, Kurdash senior, who at 85, still pops into the factory at least twice a week.
"My father instilled a philosophy in us that people will always respect you and there will always be a place for you if you stick to high quality," Aydin Kurdash, the youngest son says. "It's still in here." He pounds his fist against his breast with feeling. "One of the hardest things in the past 25 years has been not to compromise. My father once said: 'If you ever bring synthetic into this factory, I will take my coat and hat and leave and never come back.'" (They haven't so he didn't).
In the early days of Gina, it would have taken Mehmet Kurdash two to three weeks to create a single pair of bespoke shoes by hand. Working from a dark basement in Ironmonger Row, Shoreditch - "with pans on the floor to catch the rain" - he sold through small shops. "My mother used to deliver shoes wrapped in brown paper using our pram," Aydin recalls. During school holidays the three boys were given little jobs to do. "I can remember being six and gluing down soles," says Aydin. "We were of course in the unique position of learning a craft passed down from generation to generation from our father, whom we adored and didn't get to see so much because of his work ethic."
Mehmet's reputation as a master shoemaker was legendary. He used basic tools, often no more than heat from a flame and physical strength and no one was able to do a pointier winkle picker toe or fashion a stiletto heel quite like him. He even developed what was called the "wheel heel" in 1962, a lethal disc on the point of a stiletto that cost $7.35, (Dh26.98) and even got a write up in Women's Wear Daily.
Because of his success, his sons were privately educated. Atilla studied law at university before joining the business to look after financial administration; Aydin, the musical talent of the family, won a scholarship to music college before taking over retail marketing for the brand, and Altan cares for interactive business and IT. All three play an equal part in the design concept. "We saw our father struggling to realise his dreams and felt it was our first responsibility to help... we all shared his passion.
"I was 20, an age when you think you can change the world. It was a case of, 'Come on bros, we've got to help the old man out'. I felt we could chase it all in a matter of months. Then I could go and conquer the world? become a rock star!" Was it John Lennon who said that life's what happens when you are busy making other plans? Twenty-five years later, all three sons have proved their father's original concept is as relevant as ever. Last year's turnover totted in an impressive £7 million (Dh42m).
"What's great about this is a terrible week for us is when someone returns a shoe saying there's a problem with the heel," says Aydin. "Not that we lose money. We don't have to answer to a financial man in a suit telling us what to do. "We had to be fussy about who stocks us because it must be an environment sympathetic to the laborious process behind the making of our shoes." He adds: "We are particularly excited about the Dubai shop because it takes in elements of everything we've developed and learnt in our own shops. That's the thing about retail. You can't click your fingers. You have to try things out. You might try out red in company colours, then decide to change it. After a certain amount of time, you settle down to a colour that sums up what the brand is about. It can take 20 years to perfect."
Kurdash reveals that at least one more store will open in Abu Dhabi later this year. "We've already got a lot of clients in the Middle East. Many customers love the way our flat shoes work so well underneath the abaya and equally with western clothes. We occasionally reference our father's notebooks, which we still have. Designs mostly start with a blank piece of paper and an image that to me sums up femininity."
Weddings are an occasion for a splurge on Gina couture, which can exceed Dh24,151 (ready-to-wear rock in at Dh4,227). Sophie Rhys Jones had a couture pair made for her wedding to Prince Edward. Britney Spears, Victoria Beckham, Catherine Zeta Jones, Kylie Minogue and Jennifer Lopez also wear bespoke Gina. "Princess Diana used to come into our Sloane Street store; she was lovely," says Aydin. Interestingly enough, Gina devotees also include fashion mavericks such as Madonna, who wore Gina shoes on her Confessions on a Dance Floor album cover (2005).
"Our shoes are not copies of whatever is in fashion, although we do incorporate trends," says Aydin. Gina frequently collaborates with designers like Giles Deacon, Julien Macdonald and Vivienne Westwood for catwalk ranges. "We swim with these people. It's energising to see what we can do. Our brand isn't so much what we do as what the customer expects from us. There is no point in designing out of character. The bottom line is: would Gina Lollobrigida wear it?"
I ask Aydin if the star is herself a fan. "You know, I did once ask my wife, Angie (who is head of public relations) to track down her number. She found one in LA and Rome. The LA one didn't work. When I called Rome, Gina Lollobrigida herself answered! I was gobsmacked. The more I tried to explain myself, the more I kept thinking: 'She thinks I'm some weirdo fan.' It was an awkward conversation. It ended with me saying I would sort out something. I'm not surprised we never heard back."
Around 7pm, I leave Aydin in his state of the art showroom, surrounded by the latest sparkling sapphire blue autumn/winter range. As I pass by the floor below, the factory lights are off and it's suddenly oddly quiet. I wonder: is this the witching hour when those magical little elves arrive?