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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Walking the walk: the UAE’s love affair with buying shoes

We speak to the first Emirati trainers designer and consider the role shoes play in daily life in the Middle East.
Natalia Shustova is the fashion editor of the Russian magazine The Art of Living and runs a fashion blog called Shoestova. She has bought a pair of shoes every week for the past decade. Antonie Robertson / The National
Natalia Shustova is the fashion editor of the Russian magazine The Art of Living and runs a fashion blog called Shoestova. She has bought a pair of shoes every week for the past decade. Antonie Robertson / The National

You know the saying: “Life is short, buy the shoes.” But what is it about shoes that keeps us at heel and on our toes? We jump at the opportunity to snag limited-edition trainers and savour the feeling of strutting about in designer soles.

Many of us often have moments when, while scrolling through our Pinterest pages or Instagram feeds, we come across a photo of a bedroom-sized walk-in wardrobe and can’t help but pause – not because of the colossal size of the wardrobe, but because of the mesmerising array of shoes, meticulously lined up on shelves from floor to ceiling. It’s a moment where envy and ambition cloud our minds, and we aspire to grow such glorious collections of our own some day.

During these dreamy shoe-wardrobe-admiring sessions, our eyes are drawn to certain designs in particular – call them “it shoes” if you will, which, in recent years have ranged from jewelled Manolo Blahnik and glittery Jimmy Choo heels to Charlotte Olympia kitty flats and Chanel espadrilles. Nowadays, these include trainers, too – pristine white Adidas Superstars and unspoilt Converse Chuck Taylors sit alongside pointy stilettos.

Switch scenes to the Middle East Film & Comic Con that was held a few weeks ago. A sweaty throng of video-game geeks and manga fans dressed in Princess Zelda and Hobbit costumes mingle and challenge each other to card games. This isn’t the crowd that pines over Pinterest photos of pretty shoes, and it sure isn’t the most likely setting for a shoe debut. But it’s where the Emirati toy designer Mo Abedin launched the Pursuers, making him the first Emirati man to design a pair of trainers. The prototype is a unisex black-leather trainer with white soles and a wing-like extension at the ankle. “I’ve always been a massive sneaker fan, but I’m also a sucker for [stories about] time travel and manga, so I wanted to make a pair of sneakers that looked unique, stylish and aesthetically well ahead of its time,” says Abedin, who has been designing toys since 2008.

His role as a shoe designer is not all that different from his experience in inventing toys. “I prepare the designs and concepts and then start working with the shoemaker on how it could work practically,” he says. Abedin has teamed up with Amin Virani, a third-generation shoemaker in Dubai who has been creating footwear at the Italian Shoe Factory since 1995. “His experience, craftsmanship and advice is gold,” Abedin says.

According to Abedin, feedback has been overwhelming, and many people have already signed up to purchase a pair of the Pursuers. Though he has yet to approach retailers, the plan is to stock them in shops across the UAE, starting later this year, costing about Dh1,500 a pair. “My ideal customer is anyone who embraces the futuristic and wants to make a bold statement,” he says. When asked to talk about his inspiration behind the trainer design, he says: “It’s something I imagine a chrononaut wearing.”

Now, a great many shoe lovers will never have heard of a chrononaut – a time traveller from the alternate-reality game SFZero – but that doesn’t mean Abedin’s designs are any less part of the region’s shoe culture. Current style trends show that lines are blurred when it comes to street wear and luxury fashion, and that killer kicks are a desire of the masses, not just of feminine ­“fashionistas”. There’s been an increasing merge of the tomboy, geek and tech castes with the class of high fashion: footwear brands worn five years ago by boys in school are now sported by influential female fashion bloggers, oversized spectacles are “in” and smart watches are in style. Women now spend as much on trainers as they do on designer heels – and if they’re limited-­edition or exclusive designs, they’re all the more tempting.

Having taken part in last year’s Sole DXB fair, the Dubai-based Air Club Middle East sources hard-to-find trainers for Dubai clients. When Nike released its Air Max 1 City Pack featuring ­floral-printed trainers for women this past month, they sold out almost instantly on Nike.com, at Dh660 a pair. Less than a week later, Air Club had them in hand, and they’ve been selling fast – at Dh1,250 a pair. The sought-after liquid-gold-and-silver Nike designs are also available, costing Dh2,500 a pair – a high price to pay for accessories that are normally categorised as athletic wear rather than designer wear.

“Shoes shouldn’t be categorised as accessories,” says Natalia Shustova, a Dubai-based lawyer and the fashion editor of the Russian magazine The Art of Living. She also runs a fashion blog, Shoestova (www.shoestova.com) – a play on her name and tribute to her love for shoes. Shustova won’t say exactly how many shoes are in her collection, but hints it’s a large number. “Let’s just say I treat myself to a pair a week, and I have for a decade.”

Shustova says that shoes are a crucial part of a look. “They reflect your mood, change your body shape and posture, and the message you send to the world around you,” she says.

Abedin agrees. “Footwear can create and complete what you are wearing while also making a statement at the same time, be it at the gym or on the streets,” he says.

While it may seem like Shustova and Abedin come from very different fields, one being engulfed in the realm of manga and the other a full-time fashion influencer, their approach to dressing is the same. When deciding an outfit, Shustova starts with the shoes and then works upwards, and Abedin also says that his outfits are usually based around his shoes.

It goes without saying that a great number of us in the Emirates can admit to being shoe-obsessed, with a shoe-shopping affliction. From Tod’s to Tom’s, at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, 10 per cent of shops specialise in footwear. That’s actually a lot, considering the other popular retail categories: furniture, electronics, jewellery, toys, books, gifts and clothing, which are even further classified into gender and age groupings. It’s a high ratio when compared with international shopping malls, too: 9.7 per cent of shops at Westfield London are shoe outlets, while at California’s South Coast Plaza, one of the largest malls in the United States, 7.6 per cent of shops cater specifically to ­footwear.

Ben Jobling, the international director of the Dune Group, known for its variety of bridal heels as well as more casual but still bejewelled sandals, claims that the market in the UAE is especially significant, since the shopping culture is linked with leisure and luxury. “Our flagship stores, such as our location in the Mall of the Emirates, have footfall figures that rival our flagship store on Oxford Street in London,” he says.

Abedin believes that shoe culture is still in its infancy in the Middle East. “Though it’s growing at a rapid pace, we are still picking it up,” he says, referring to the urban-trend movement. The trainers style fad is without doubt gaining momentum in the region, with men paying more attention to their footwear finds and women increasingly opting for flat-soled lace-up trainers.

But for Shustova, dressy and elaborate heels hold all the charm. Shoes that are comfortable and practical are not always a priority in the Middle East, she claims.

“We have beautiful weather, we drive everywhere, and the outdoor and indoor walkways are very clean. So we can afford to have a high percentage of ‘salon’ shoes in our wardrobes,” she says. “Also, women who wear abayas can add so much colour and variety to their looks with a beautiful shoe. Couple all that with all the great social events in our society and of course Middle Eastern women cannot resist having shoe addictions.”

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