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Put your best foot forward with hand-painted shoes

Footwear might have been the last thing on your mind while working from home, but these handcrafted shoes can help brighten the festive season

Rohan Arora's hand-painted shoes with Nakashi work.
Rohan Arora's hand-painted shoes with Nakashi work. (Rohan Arora)

For over the past nine months, our lives were centred around staying at and working from home. Shopping, especially for shoes, was the last thing on our priority list. For work-related Zoom meetings, a well-ironed shirt was enough, and good-old sneakers, even chunky sandals, were the best bet when stepping out for groceries.

But as the news of a potential covid-19 vaccine became a reality, people gained enough confidence to step out and socialise, especially during the festive season. There’s now an emphasis on putting your best foot forward after months of being locked in. And while plain shoes get the job done, there’s nothing like having your footwear accessory substantiate your style uniquely.

Perfect for occasions

“A good pair of shoes makes or breaks your look,” says Rohan Arora, footwear designer and founder of his Kolkata-based eponymous label. He’s been creating collections of sandals, formal shoes and sneakers for the past decade that are modern yet festive. “I try to create pieces that can be worn even decades from now, not owing to any kind of phase. As a brand, we focus on the customer’s individualistic and personal style,” he says. Each pair is handmade, using materials like leather, silk or velvet. Painting or embroidery work like aari, zardozi and shisha, add a festive touch. Arora creates heels using mahogany or walnut wood, all hand-carved with the nakashi technique to make motifs such as peacock.

Rohan Arora's hand-painted shoes with Nakashi work.
Rohan Arora's hand-painted shoes with Nakashi work. (Rohan Arora)

The pandemic, Arora believes, has increased interest in customised footwear. “Weddings are now more intimate affairs, and that’s helping people focus on appreciating what they are buying, instead of just going for what’s prepared and ready. We now have clients who have spent a good amount of time to pick out everything in the right way, and that’s a better way to buy things in the long run.”

The flipside, he adds, “The number of occasions has reduced, so people are buying fewer shoes.”

Let’s get formal

Lucknow-based Rahul Shastri, founder of brand Tōramally, says there’s been a growing interest in handmade footwear for the past few years, but there are only a handful of shoemakers in the country who are delivering.

Tōramally’s shoes with hand-painted tattoos.
Tōramally’s shoes with hand-painted tattoos. (Tōramally)

When it comes to shoe styles such as Oxfords and brogues, Tōramally’s dedication to fine leather painting and craftmanship is noteworthy. The striking features of Tōramally creations, which Shastri refers to as “Tōramallies”, are the techniques used on leather: miniature painting and tattoo, and the patina work that highlights how the colour shades.

“Among the hand-painted quality of the shoes, the tattooed shoes are something no other shoemaker does in the country. They are real tattoos, which lend the shoes an exceptionally personalised quality,” says Shastri, who founded his label in 2018.

Unlike for other businesses, Shastri says the lockdown period was good for his brand. “We focus a lot on menswear, and with the slow pace of the pandemic, our audience did find the time to sit back and browse through our collections. It’s been a year when we have cultivated a big clientele so far since we had started, especially from abroad. A lot of it was because of orders from international boutiques, international customers and the boom in social media networks outside the country,”he says.

Tōramally’s sustainable shoes made from discarded materials.
Tōramally’s sustainable shoes made from discarded materials. (Tōramally)

With the growing awareness among consumers around sustainability, Shastri has started a new offering: Tōramally Green, which features shoes from upcycled leather, reused denim and recycled rubber from discarded tyres. “The leather, sourced internationally, is the scrap from our production, but it’s of good quality. Simultaneously, during the lockdown, I noticed that a big stock of wardrobe was denim that I wasn’t wearing anymore. I sourced the rubber from discarded commercial vehicle tyres.” The result: a strikingly distinctive collection, with a body of leather and denim.

Keeping it casual

Another brand that’s making simpler, yet equally stylish, hand-painted shoes is Neha Sahu’s The Haelli, based in Gurugram. Specialising in juttis, the label’s pairs are ideal for everyday purposes.

The Haelli's juttis with hand-painted motifs.
The Haelli's juttis with hand-painted motifs. (The Haelli)

Talking about her label, founded in 2016, Sahu says: “I combined my fascination for shoes and art just for a fun experiment, and then it blew up. Initially, I was painting the juttis myself, but as I saw the demand grow, I started expanding the business with artisans and suppliers. The craft is very uncommon because these are new designs and their reproductions must be similar,” says Sahu.

Till date, the label has launched around 200 designs, but only 120 are currently in use as the others have been phased out. The designs range from bright florals and Indian motifs, to geometric patterns and kitschy motifs. Think blooming cacti, ladybugs and strawberries. “Initially, I was experimenting with limited, common motifs such as flowers and butterflies, but with growing orders, I realised that people want more personalisation. After that, everything you see becomes some kind of an inspiration to what gets painted on the juttis”, Sahu says.

During the lockdown, Sahu saw a decline in business, but the festive and weddings seasons are gradually helping the homegrown business sustain itself. It isn't the same as before the pandemic, though, but it is picking up gradually.

The Haelli's juttis with hand-painted motifs.
The Haelli's juttis with hand-painted motifs. (The Haelli)

The beauty of hand-painted, hand-crafted shoes is that they are unique to the wearer. Apart from the durable design and long-lasting paint, it’s the creative process with which they are made, that makes them last. As Arora says, “The pandemic has made people more appreciative of such things, especially what they have taken for granted for the longest time.”

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