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Where is India's ‘it’ shoe brand?

India is the world’s largest producer of footwear after China. Yet, when you look for homegrown shoes on the global luxury shelf, there are hardly any options. Young entrepreneurs are now racing to fill up the space

India hasn’t cemented its name in the global luxury market for footwear, but a growing number of homegrown labels are changing the game. (Istockphoto)

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Shoes are such a struggle, complains celebrity stylist Ayesha Amin Nigam. “Imagine, you have put together a nice party outfit: an embellished ivory dress, a shimmery clutch, a delicate diamond necklace—all made by Indian brands. Now all you need to complete the look is a pair of pencil heels that are also comfortable. Which Indian luxury brand will you go to?”

It’s a question she hasn’t yet found an answer to in a career of close to 10 years. Often, when she’s styling actors like Sonakshi Sinha in a bridal lehnga or Vicky Kaushal in a simple sweater and pants for magazine covers, or content creator Kusha Kapila in a form-fitting dress for an event, she ends up picking a Jimmy Choo, a Valentino, even Zara or a pair of H&Ms. “We have such great (homegrown) brands for Western as well as traditional clothes…they look and feel so international, global,” she says. “But when it comes to shoes, we just haven’t delivered yet. Of course, you opt for Indian brands when looking for juttis, chappals, but beyond that… And trust me, it’s not just me…a whole lot of us (stylists) struggle to find a good pair. I don’t know why we still don’t have a homegrown superbrand. Do you?”

India is the world’s largest producer of footwear after China, accounting for 13% of global footwear production. That’s 16 billion pairs a year, including both leather and non-leather—most of which are consumed locally. As these government figures indicate, the footwear industry contributes about 2% to the country’s GDP, employing some two million people. Ancient texts like the Rig Veda (most likely between 1500 and 1000 BCE) mention upanah as the strapped sandal choice of the common man, while the paduka, which came with a knob engaged between the big and second toe, was the go-to for monks. Chandraketugarh, an archaeological site in West Bengal, has evidence of people wearing sandals with raised heels, floral motifs and peacock feathers in 200 BCE.

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Around the 16th century, India had a thriving community of Mochis, shoemakers, cobblers and saddlers, who worked with prepared leather, in present-day Gujarat’s Kutch. They were the unnamed masters of mochi-bharat, a unique kind of embroidery where the artists would craft dense chain stitches in twisted silk thread. In a 2021 book, The Shoemaker’s Stitch: Mochi Embroideries Of Gujarat In The TAPI Collection, authors Rosemary Crill and Shilpa Shah wrote: “Belonging to the humble shoemaker community of Gujarat in western India, they were unrivalled professionals of chain-stitch embroidery, locally known as aari work, after the shoemaker’s tool (aar, the hooked tool) which the Mochis adapted so deftly to use on cloth rather than leather.”

Another form of opulent slippers, the mojari, took shape during Mughal rule. They were woven with gold-silver zari (thread) and embellished with jewels as a display of the wearer’s wealth. Its more muted form continues to be a choice of footwear during festivals and traditional events, much like Punjab’s juttis and Maharashtra’s Kolhapuris, reflecting the history and culture of the places they were born in.

Despite the legacy, tradition and craftsmanship, however, India hasn’t cemented its name in the global luxury market for footwear, whether it’s sandals, heels, chappals or sports shoes. When you ask a friend to suggest a good, comfortable pair of shoes for less than 10,000, the answers most likely will include global brands like Clarks, Bata or Nike. If you are looking for trendy shoes that you would like to see last more than the ones found in the patri shops of Delhi’s Greater Kailash or Mumbai’s Colaba, the answers would be H&M, Mango or Nigam’s favourite, Zara. And if you move into the luxury section, the top answers probably would be Gucci, Valentino or Jimmy Choo. Indian names like Baluja’s, Relaxo, Delco, Khadim and Metro are able to draw only the middle-class consumer.

This is despite India accounting for 13% of the world’s leather production of hides/skins, with an annual production of three billion sq. ft of leather. What’s more surprising is that some of the shoes on display in the Louis Vuittons of the world are made by Indian craftsmen. Perhaps one reason for the absence of a global footwear brand, in reach and quality, is that it wasn’t on the priority list of either the fashion industry or the government for a long time. While the footwear industry got recognition from the Union government as a priority sector under the 2014 Make In India mission, it’s only last year that the authorities decided to initiate the development of the Indian footwear sizing system to standardise size ranges based on the local population. At present, Indians’ shoe-buying decisions are based on European and American size standards.

The other reason, believes Anuj Sharma, fashion designer and visiting professor at the National Institute of Design, is that India has never had professional shoesmiths. “In the past, Indians didn’t wear tailored clothes or closed shoes. It was the British who introduced both. While tailoring clothes picked up, most likely due to high demand, shoe-making didn’t,” he explains. “Think about it: How many shoes does one buy compared to the clothes? Going by the demand, colleges that teach fashion and textile design cropped up, but the same cannot be said about shoes. Learning the technicalities of shoe design is important, which we don’t have at a large scale right now.”

Antonio Maurizio Grioli, dean of the School of Design and Fashion at Pearl Academy, disagrees. “There are quite a few decent shoe designers in India who have a global appeal.” He points out that several Pearl graduates have launched independent shoe labels. He adds that more students are becoming interested in shoe design as the accessory space expands slowly, with more young brands invested in looking beyond garments.

Over the past few years, a crop of homegrown entrepreneurs have entered the footwear industry with a singular dream: to build a super luxury footwear brand that has a global presence. Will they be able to fill the global luxury shelf with a made-in-India and designed-in-India shoe?

 

Stylist Ayesha Amin Nigam.
Stylist Ayesha Amin Nigam.

A rocky road

One reason why creating a global Indian brand continues to be a challenge is that we lack in design sense, something stylists like Nigam often complain about. “Indian shoe creators don’t even get the V of the pointed-shoe correct,” she says. “You can tell the difference between an Indian creator’s (shoe) and someone from outside.”

Grioli does agree on this point. That’s why we don’t have an Indian Ferragamo, he says. “Ferragamo started with creating shoes considering the width of the foot. It’s similar to considering cup size in bras. He was a shoemaker from Italy. In Europe, these artisans are very well reputed and celebrated,” he says. “Unfortunately, in India, these artisans are still seen as secondary. The tailor in India doesn’t have the wow factor. There’s a large gap between being a designer and being the masterji,” he explains. “The masterji or shoemaker has a much lower status and income than a designer but in Italy, where I come from, they have the same standing.”

India has a unique problem. At a time when the country is building smart cities, it’s also deeply engulfed in class issues. A shoe designer, as Grioli says, is only seen as a mochi, not an artisan. Similarly, while many people talk of being vocal for local, they are so enamoured of Western shoes that even if they are offered a well-made Indian shoe, they will opt for a Ferragamo Derby. “Western shoes are good but you have to give Indian shoes a chance,” says Laksheeta Govil, founder of the shoewear brand Fizzy Goblet. “Convincing people initially is tough but when you offer a good quality shoe, it’s easier to gain customers.”

Laksheeta Govil, founder of the shoewear brand Fizzy Goblet.
Laksheeta Govil, founder of the shoewear brand Fizzy Goblet.

Keeping this in mind, Abhijit Ray, a professor at Kolkata’s Footwear Design & Development Institute (FDDI), insists his students learn to focus on making the shoe, instead of just focusing on design. His interactions with industry stakeholders as well as students reveal the lack of expertise. “At FDDI, we are trying to change the syllabus, which includes aspects like design, merchandising and communications, to have a focused approach,” he says. “It will enable students to specialise in their field of interest: be it designing, merchandising or retailing.”

Raw material, especially poor quality leather, is another roadblock for brands that want to create ultra luxury shoes. Ratnesh Rastogi is the founder of the Noida, Uttar Pradesh-based Flamingo Design Studio that designs and produces over 3,000 shoes every day and supplies to countries like Italy, Japan, Australia, the UK and Spain. “The leather quality in India is thin compared to what is available in Europe or even the Middle East. It’s really the gene of the animal,” he says. Although India is considered to be a large hub for shoe manufacturing, the world’s best tanneries are located in Europe and the US.

In the game

The challenges haven’t dampened the spirits of homegrown brands who are in the race to make a space for themselves in the global footwear industry.

Fizzy Goblet is one of them. Known for giving the jutti a fun, chic makeover, Govil started the self-funded brand in 2014 with a desire to offer high-quality, handcrafted Indian footwear, made with leather as well as non-leather, to the global Indian. “I want to be the footwear world’s superbrand,” proclaims Govil. While she doesn’t want to share revenue numbers, her brand seems to be doing well. Endorsed by actor Kareena Kapoor Khan, the label opened its seventh store earlier this year in Hyderabad, after cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. Besides juttis, it has expanded its offerings to include sneakers, sandals, heels as well as chappals. Its recent Puma sneaker collaboration sold out within a day.

A karigaar at work. (Photo: Fizzy Goblet)
A karigaar at work. (Photo: Fizzy Goblet)

“It’s not just about selling juttis, it’s about offering the 360 degrees experience, which will help you create a solid brand,” she says. “You have to get the social media language right. The after-service has to be good. And of course, the product quality, comfort, as well as the design. They have to be the stars.”

While these are indeed some of the ingredients required to create a global luxury brand, you also need a lot of money. Shoe designer Aprajita Toor, who started her eponymous label in 2012 to build the perfect Indian sandal, says creating a luxury product needs a lot of investment because there is less room for mistakes. “In a designer garment, you can make changes but not in a shoe,” she points out. A designer shoe takes about 48 hours to four days to make, depending on the embroidery. A regular shoe can be crafted in a day. “Also, one needs to realise that Indians never really experimented with shoes. It’s one of the most neglected parts of the Indian wardrobe. Not to sound too judg-y, but you will see high-profile people dressed up nicely in designer clothes, etc., but when it comes to shoes it’s a mess.” Plus, “have you seen our roads? You can’t even think of wearing heels.” Having said that, she says, the consumer is becoming more conscious of footwear choices, “which perhaps explains the demand for more variety and quality”.

Entrepreneur Ganesh Balakrishnan, for instance, has an issue most Indians can relate to: Covered shoes make his feet sweat. He would mostly wear sandals or slip-ons for comfort. He began to notice a gap for quasi-formal shoes made with breathable, moisture-wicking fabric that can transition from office to after-hours. In November 2019, Balakrishnan, along with his business partner Utkarsh Biradar, launched the shoe label Flatheads, offering all-day, semi-formal shoes designed for the Indian urban workforce. The brand, which sells 1,500-2,000 shoes a month, uses natural material like bamboo, banana stem fibre and linen to make shoes. During the pandemic, their offerings expanded to include more options in activewear, with slip-ons and loafers for quick grocery runs. “We want to be the Uniqlo of the footwear world,” says Balakrishnan.

CAI, on the other hand, wants to be a preferred choice for aspirational fashion-forward women on the go. Started in 2015, the brand’s target audience is the 18-40 age group. “It was born with the purpose of providing fashionable, modest footwear that is manufactured without the use of leather,” explains co-founder Aradhana Minawala. Content creator Masoom Minawala, an investor in the label and Aradhana’s sister-in-law, started flaunting the products on her social media accounts. What started as an online-only brand now has its first retail store in Mumbai.

Masoom Minawala in CAI.
Masoom Minawala in CAI.

Masoom believes it’s a good investment, considering the Indian footwear market is projected to grow eightfold by 2030 as a whole, and cross the $6 billion (around 493 crore) mark by 2024 in the non-leather category. According to industry estimates, the synthetic/non-leather footwear market in India is close to 60% of the total footwear market.

The trick to staying ahead in the race is offering quality at a desirable price. “To serve a larger audience and compete with international brands, companies need to keep affordability in mind,” she says.

Isn’t it hard, though, to draw the attention of the Indian consumer bedazzled by the luxury offered by Gucci or Valentino? Masoom doesn’t think so. She says consumers are ready to switch to homegrown Indian brands if they get the same quality and comfort at a better price. “People are also turning away from the ‘one fits all’ design theory. Consumers look out for diversity, want their fashion choices to reflect their personality and they are unafraid to experiment,” she says. “The current market demands more embellishments, strong colours, interesting patterns, crafts, among other things, and new brands are doing a brilliant job at incorporating these.”

Leather label Da Milano’s managing director, Sahil Malik, agrees. Since he started Rosso Brunello, an affordable luxury footwear brand, in 2010 to “change India’s footwear industry”, he has seen the consumer become more “aware of what they are purchasing with the rise in disposable income. They are more fashion conscious, they want different styles for different occasions,” he says. “It’s no longer about just that one black shoe for every occasion.” It will, however, take some time for an Indian brand to reach the world map, he says. “The market is diluted with the overtake of international luxury brands now but I feel we are working in the right direction, slowly but steadily.”

While addressing the Meet at Agra—Leather, Footwear Components & Technology Fair in early October, Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal suggested taking the route of road shows, e-platforms and global joint ventures to build a “strong global branding” for Indian footwear, including leather and non-leather.

The sneaker game

Rastogi, a sneaker-head, believes that within the footwear industry, the demand for sneakers is increasing. These don’t need leather; comfortable breathable material, like cotton and banana fibre, is more sought after for them.

Balakrishnan says such materials produce less waste than leather, are easier to handle and unlock a world of possibilities for customisation. “The beauty of fibres is, they are simpler to make. They make the shoe super lightweight. They don’t require cumbersome processing and are cheaper to manufacture. Changing just one thread in a fibre gives you a new design. They let us do an infinite number of things.” When they began working on Flatheads in 2018, he shares, there were just two suppliers for knitted shoe fibres; now there are about six.

During the initial pandemic-induced lockdowns, Flatheads, just six months old, started seeing a drop in business. But they found opportunity on the supply side. They were importing polyester from China in 2019 but when the lockdown stopped imports, they turned to domestic vendors of banana fibre and linen. These vendors, which had been supplying the raw material to the West, now turned to home-grown brands. It widened the ecosystem for Indian brands, says Balakrishnan. Online sales grew, and they grabbed more eyeballs when cricket commentator and actor Gaurav Kapur came on board as an investor and a brand ambassador.

Gaurav Kapur in Flatheads.
Gaurav Kapur in Flatheads.

While there are no figures to reflect the official growth in sneaker demand, the rise in homegrown brands like Fizzy Goblet indicates a rise in interest. Abhijit Ray says he has witnessed a 90% increase in demand among students to design sports shoes in the non-leather category. “People want comfort first, followed by design and then price,” he says.

The growth in the non-leather category, focusing on sneakers, is also reflected in the latest business move by Metro Shoes Pvt. Ltd. Last week, it signed a share purchase agreement to acquire 100% shareholding in Cravatex Brands Ltd, FILA’s parent company, to grow its presence in the sports and athleisure market in India.

“There’s another whole series of stores that we can expand and grow in India from an EBO (exclusive brand outlets) standpoint, but also build the brand for an MBO (multi-brand outlets) business in the whole e-commerce space as well,” says Metro chief executive Nissan Joseph.

Students of design schools are moving towards sneakers too. “We are approaching shoe design with a focus on the subcultures. Sneakers is one of the categories that our students love to learn more about,” says Emanuel Maia, dean, School of Creative Practices, Pearl Academy. They are introducing technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) in shoe designing. Many students coming into design schools do not know how to draw or sketch. AI simplifies the process of generating visuals that will enable the students to be more creative, make changes rapidly and create something that’s elevated in terms of quality and design. Maia adds, “We have students who have started designing shoes for the Metaverse world.”

While a made-in-India jutti or Kolhapuri may not appeal to a wider audience, a comfortable shoe from India will earn fans worldwide. Beyond that, what Indian footwear brands need is corporate backing, a trend that has reached the fashion industry. “How do you think Jimmy Choo or Valentino have reached where they have? It has to do with corporate funds,” points out Toor.

Metro’s Joseph believes there’s no point in going global if you are not meeting the demand in your own country. “We have so much opportunity in India to grow. Why would you look at a farm outside when your own farm has so much fruit to bear?”

Nigam certainly doesn’t want to look outside. “As a stylist, I feel proud when I source all kinds of garments from homegrown brands. I want to do that for footwear as well.”

It’s a familiar story. Much like other crafts, India has the ingredients to make a world-class shoe that brings together traditional skills, indigenous resources and cultural heritage. It’s time to build on this richness.

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