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Delhi’s bespoke shoemakers are carving out a market niche with focus on fit, quality

With offerings ranging from juttis to match your wedding attire to classic leather shoes, these niche shoemakers mostly cater to men, but are making inroads into the women’s market too.

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New Delhi: Nina Dutta, a Noida-based businesswoman, received a call once from a college student who had saved his pocket money and wanted to present a pair of perfectly-fitting leather shoes to his dad, who had retired from the Army. It was his parents’ silver wedding anniversary and the lad wanted it to be special.

For Dutta, who co-founded a customised shoe-making venture called The Shoe Factory for the Indian market in 2012 along with her late husband, the act was so overwhelming that she gave the boy a big discount. That’s not all. The pair fit his father so well that he himself called Dutta to thank her.

“It is these small moments that give you pleasure,” Dutta told ThePrint. That’s why, she said, customised shoe-making is a personal experience, unlike buying a pair off the shelf or online.

Amid the e-commerce boom that has spoiled shoppers for choice, a niche bunch of bespoke shoemakers are winning hearts — and loyal customers — with their products’ exquisite designs, perfect fits, comfort and options to give that unique look to footwear.

Whether you want a pair that matches your wedding attire or classic leather shoes that never go out of fashion, these artists offer all the options.

While most of these brands currently cater to men, they’re making inroads into the women’s category as well.

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The other players

In a cosy space in Lajpat Nagar, Ayush Dewan Khurana, founder of Modello Domani, was brainstorming how to expand beyond his glamorous collection for men and venture into the women’s market, a dream he wants to realise by 2024. 

As a young boy, when Khurana realised that an expensive pair of shoes he had purchased from a big international brand was actually manufactured in India, he knew this was his calling. Step by step, he built his networks of artisans and raw material suppliers, and kick-started his range of shoes in 2010. Today, his shoes are fully designed, sourced, and manufactured in India. 

“My brand is the first one to fit into the affordable luxury category,” Khurana said.

His hot-sellers are royal crest juttis with the Modello Domani logo embellished in zardozi. This pattern, which is his copyright, is always in demand, he said. It can be paired with a sherwani or any other ethnic attire, and his customers come from all over to match this pair with their outfits.

“I want my shoes to be comfortable. And when they take them off, I want them to slip into my slippers,” he said, pointing to the slip-on collection.

Comfort was also the top priority for Sukrit Khanna, founder of Artimen, which offers a bespoke-only collection of fine leather shoes for men. 

Khurana, who has a master’s in international technology management with specialisation in the shoe industry from the University of Warwick in the UK, learnt the nuances of shoe-making from his father, Rajan Khanna, who was an exporter of shoes in the 1990s.

Today, the family runs a shop with a fine collection of women’s shoes in the Shahpur Jat market in Delhi under the brand The Shoe Garage. This was the first shop that opened in Shahpur Jat, which was a village then, and its popularity only grew. Within years, it was listed among the top 100 shops in Delhi.

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Clients ranging from film stars to industrialists

For Khanna, the transition to shoe-making from his corporate jobs was personal. When he wanted a pair of shoes for himself to wear at a wedding, he found that the collections for men were either not to his taste or too expensive.

“I got a pair made for myself in my father’s workshop, also in Shahpur Jat, and when I posted a few pictures of it on Facebook, queries started pouring in,” said Khanna.

This gave him a glimpse of the high demand for good quality shoes in the men’s section, and with the help of his already established setup at The Shoe Garage, in 2016, he dived right into launching his own brand, Artimen.

“Artimen caters to the premium section, and I want my customers to come back again and again. I want Artimen to be a Sabyasachi (well-known fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee) of shoes,” he said. 

Quality is also king for Dutta, who has been serving her loyal customers for many years now. 

“When clients pay more and wait for a product, they expect that kind of durability, comfort, fit, looks, functionality, and quality. I have got clients who have been my customers for years, and some of them have become very good friends,” said Dutta.  

And for those who’ve slipped into a pair of shoes designed for their feet, comfort becomes the new normal. Graphic designer Ritika Bohra also tried a pair of customised shoes a few years ago, and she hasn’t looked back since. “My shoe size is seven, but most shoes are not a good fit for my feet. My feet are slightly narrow, so I switched to getting them custom-made from Shahpur Jat,” she said.

Many customers have also switched to these niche shops due to medical needs. Delhi-based businessman Prakash Singh experienced pain in a bone in his foot while walking, and a friend suggested that he try customised shoes. He went to a store in Connaught Place and ordered a pair two months ago. He has visited the store a few times to try the fit, and the final product will reach him soon.

However, the demand for the customised shoes isn’t limited to regular shoppers. The industry also caters to fashion designers and celebrities, with special designs in the right colours to match the designers’ collections.

While Dutta supplies shoes to designers such as Suket Dhir and Sahil Aneja among many others, Khurana has a wall in his shop with pictures of Bollywood celebrities including Amitabh Bachchan and Ranveer Singh, and cricketers like Sunil Gavaskar, all shod in Modello Domani.

Khanna’s Artimen is a favourite of owners of big corporate houses such as the Kajarias and Jindals, to name a few.

‘Affordable luxury’

The Covid-19 pandemic was a setback for the industry as the demand for shoes fell. But the market is slowly recovering.

“Those were testing times. Pre-Covid, my dream was to make Modello Domani the most premium designer brand. But I had to revamp the entire brand. We realised that spending power was going down and we converted the brand into an affordable luxury. Our prices actually started falling down,” Khurana said.

There is, of course, fierce competition with big international brands as well, but these Indian entrepreneurs are confident that people would prefer quality or comfort over big names.

To accommodate the demands of quick shopping, both The Shoe Garage and Modello Domani have also launched a range of off-the-rack offerings.

While a pair of men’s shoes from Dutta’s workshop costs between Rs 12,500-35,000, Khanna’s products range between Rs 7,000 and Rs 20,000. Relatively conservatively priced, the Modello Domani range starts from Rs 1,000 and goes up to Rs 10,000. 

So, the next time you’re shopping for shoes and can’t find the perfect fit, bespoke ones can open a whole new experience for you.

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