If you’ve ever walked into a shoe store and bemoaned the lack of options or sizes for your particular feet, you’d be happy to learn about the thriving bespoke shoe business in town. “It would surprise most people to know just how big the market is, be it for personalized designs, or accurate sizing,” Topon Das, a bespoke shoemaker and shop manager told Weekend Tribune, his voice booming with confidence.
Just a 5 minute rickshaw ride from the start of Dhanmondi 15 on Sat Masjid Road leads to an alley lined with about 65 shoe stores that offer buyers everything from slippers to formal shoes for men.
Afif Sarker, a legal professional based in Shankar, Dhanmondi, states: “I am a big guy. I couldn’t find my size of shoes in any big brands shop. So I decided to order from there.” Almost 90 percent of the clientele of this alley come with sizing issues, and the remaining buyers just have particular tastes and like their footwear customized.
As we chatted with Topon Das, the shop assistant chimed in with some details about the business. Working while he spoke, stitching the borders of a black sandal, he said “All our shoes are made from pure animal leather including goat, cow and buffalo.” He pointed to a display and said “Look at the piles of different shades leathers. All come from the proprietor’s own tannery in Savar.”
The conversation was punctuated by the sounds of hammering over the leather sheet spread over a thick glass platform. “Prices almost double when the shoe is custom made from scratch,” Topon informed us. He pointed at the sandal he was working on, and then to a similar one on display. “The display one costs Tk700, but this one here will cost Tk1500 because the customer made a lot of changes to the original design.” The shoes are made ready between three to seven days.
Readymade shoes generally cost less because it’s simply cheaper to manufacture in bulk, using a single template for a large number of pairs, but that’s not the only factor driving up the cost. The shoemaker invited us to consider the material used. “There is leather that costs Tk150 per yard, and higher quality leather that will set you back by Tk450 per yard. It takes a practiced eye to spot the difference and understand the quality. This is where our clients need to trust that we are giving them quality in exchange for a higher price tag.”
Another shoemaker Rafiq talked about the challenges of large-scale production for online platforms, and offered his reasons for why the alley stores aren’t keen on that direction. The first issue was that these stores are simply not equipped for mass production. “As you can see, the shops here aren’t that big. Each has about 4-5 workers. Also, since we’re located in a residential area, we are only allowed to work till midnight, since making shoes is noisy work, with all the hammering.”
It’s important to visit as many shops as possible before placing the order
Topon Das echoes this sentiment. “From experience, we’ve seen that bulk production yields smaller profit margins. On top of that, delivering big deals results in a drop in our regular customers.” These are the main reasons why the shops choose to stay small and maintain exclusivity, dealing with customers on a one-to-one basis.
Interestingly, some of the older shops advise caution when shopping in the alley, stating that not all stores are authentic and offer quality products. A few stores such as Jonaki Shoe, Shojib Shoe, Pavel Shoe and Jony Shoe have earned repute as reliable places to shop.
The shopkeeper at Jonaki shoe stated that the minimum income of the shop was Tk 5000 per day, which puts the total market earning in the area above Tk 3 lakh per day. Because this business is so lucrative, there are elements which try to take advantage of the demand. “In recent years, there are many who have started business here, seeing the prospects, but ended up collecting their products from Old Dhaka to sell, instead of crafting them. This is having a negative impact on the rest of us.”
Afif Sarker who knows about this market because he lives in the area said “I was satisfied with their service the first time. Second time it was not up to the mark. Sharing his experience about both purchases, he said “While the shoes look very good on the shelf of those shops, the makers lack scientific knowledge about making comfortable shoes and not all of them are well trained. So quality is not consistent, unlike with mainstream brands.”
The shopkeepers, however claim that 85% of their customers return to them. One of them, Kalam said “On average, six out of every ten customers are old ones.”
Having spent the day at the shops, what we have learned a few tricks to getting the most of your bespoke experience. Firstly, it’s important to visit as many shops as possible before placing the order. Secondly, while window-shopping, it’s important to note whether the shop has its own workshop at the back, and tools of the trade out and in use. This will tell you whether they actually produce the shoes or will hand you a knock-off. Finally, check the soles and inserts of the shoes to see whether they have the store or maker’s mark on them, or some foreign mainstream brand, like Hushpuppies. This will help you separate the authentic bespoke from the fakes.