Abdullah Ashhar didn’t start out as a footwear designer. Born in Ambur, a town in Tamil Nadu considered the leather city of south India, the 28-year-old initially studied business at Amity Business School, Chennai.But even then, he was fascinated with footwear – the art of designing it; the process of manufacturing it; the patina leather takes after being used for years. His interest was partly spurred by the fact that he had unique footwear needs – his right foot is a size 8 and left is a size 9.
“Whenever I would buy shoes, one of my feet would be uncomfortable,” he says. “For formal occasions, I’d get away with buying a size bigger, but it became really difficult to find shoes for everyday wear.”
In his search for someone who can help make custom shoes for him, he stumbled on the idea of designing footwear himself. Having learnt through experience how to create a design, construct a shoe and paint leather to perfection, in 2017, Ashhar set up his own custom shoe-designing studio and manufacturing factory in Ambur, called Saaf. “- “I had partnered with (now former business partners)Sadeed Ahmed and Mohammed Aafaque who were leather sole manufacturers at the time, and started making shoes. I started purely with a business perspective but fell in love with the craft.”Saaf currently has 24 employees.
Ashhar now also has 2 more brands – Craftoe for bespoke footwear, and Fifty by Ashhar, a limited-edition line in which the number of shoes produced for each design is capped at 50 pairs. His inspiration? “(Designer) Olga Berluti, who pioneered the practice of creating a patina on leather for men’s shoes,” he says.
Ashhar spoke to Mint about brainwaves, dreams of his own retail space, and sustainability in footwear design. Edited excerpts.
There are 2 spaces – the design studio, and the factory floor. The studio is very calm. It has a table with a couple of lasts (mould for shoes), sketch pencils and cutting blades. The table is topped with a steel plate to stop it from being damaged by the blades when I cut the leather.
The factory floor is loud and dusty! There are the machines for production, and a table on which I paint the shoes once they’re finished. This table has a giant rack of solvents, dyes in various colours and creams. There are also brushes and sponges to paint the shoes: cotton for the burnished effect – always used first – and then woollen for shine.
The production space has changed a lot – with new machinery, processes, designs, and materials. The studio room has been same for years, though – just a couple of gadgets have been added.
I spend about 10 to 12 hours every day, 6 days a week, in here. The part that I spend the most time in changes throughout the year. We always begin developing designs before the season – so for the summer line, we start in December and present samples to clients by the end of January. Then, as the designs get picked up, we start constructing the shoes, moving on to the factory floor.
To make a shoe, we create a last (a form shaped like a human foot) for the shape and cover it with masking tape. We use it to make the patterns that helps to guide us in cutting the leather, which we then stitch together. A lot of time goes in selecting the right kind of leather for different parts of the shoe. Then we paint the shoes – my favourite part! Moulding the toe and the attaching the sole is done by machines.
I need the studio to be calm so I can design – but the production space is always in chaos, and I love it!
A key brainwave was realising how I can add colours to footwear. Shoes can be very boring! A huge percent of men’s footwear is just tan or black or brown. When I was working on a pair of tan leather shoes, I worked out how I could add colours and shading near the brogues or stitches to create a 2-tone effect and give it a burnished patina.
Another was learning which kind of leather works the best for which shoe. Most factories purchase one kind of leather in bulk, usually a kind called corrected grain leather, for use in everything – bags, belts and shoes. It looks smooth and expensive but is of poor quality and doesn’t work with everything.
And finally – the shoes I did for a few grooms that featured zardozi work on leather. I love handwoven work in bags and footwear. It requires a lot of time and effort and even if one weave goes wrong, the entire product falls apart.
I wouldn’t! The only change would be to add a new retail space: a store and brand of my own, in a city like Chennai or Bengaluru or Mumbai. It would very small and done for love rather than profit. I’d put up the designs there that I can’t do for other brands.
The very first shoe I ever designed – a pair of black oxfords. They’re kept on a rack of reference samples. They’re not perfect, but they’re very special to me – they remind me of where I started.
There are a lot more brands using synthetic and vegan leather now. But it’s important to remember that while leather is 100% biodegradable, most synthetic leather isn’t and it usually ends up in a landfill somewhere, harming the environment even more.
There are some alternatives made of natural materials such as bamboo but that is very expensive compared to natural leather. Customers expect natural materials to be cheaper, and since the raw material cost is so high, neither they nor the factories opt for it.
In my factory, we use vegetable tanned leather, which doesn’t use harsh chemicals or effluents. It takes more time and is more expensive than chrome leather (chemically treated leather).But it’s worth it.
When we started seven years ago, the market for custom-made and bespoke shoes was very small. It’s grown a lot since then. Designers such as Mumbai-based Kavith Sainaani, Kolkata-based Rahul Shastri and Chennai-based Mohamed Affan Kolandaiveedu are shaping the future with their creativity and thorough construction.
Rush Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.