Best foot forward

Luxury alert: The collection at Kethini store in Chennai. Photo: R. Ragu  

In Milan, walking down cobbled streets, you come across a swanky Hugo Boss showroom. The display has a gorgeous pair of tan loafers with an unreasonable price slapped on it. Oh, and those shiny elegant brogues… the craftsmanship is impressive. In a lesser-known part of Ranipet, Tamil Nadu, a faceless shoemaker sits huddled finishing a pair of high-end footwear. He works for one of the numerous Chennai-based industries that have, for decades now, manufactured leather shoes for International design houses. This lot will soon find a place at a luxury boutique in Europe, just like some of the pairs at Hugo Boss.

“Tamil Nadu has been one of the largest exporters of footwear. That’s because tanning was a traditional business in Ambur and Vaniyambadi. Eventually, footwear factories started setting up shop around these areas,” says Gopalakrishna Bachi, owner of Bachi Shoes and co-owner of Language, a city-based footwear chain that was launched in 2009. In a season, the brand makes around 70 styles of shoes for men, 25 for women and 50 for children. Besides Language, Bachi and co-partners Akber and Akhter Hussain also own leather export businesses. After years of manufacturing shoes and exporting for brands such as Stones & Bones, Elefanten, and Superfit, and to countries such as France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., Belgium and Spain, it was time to launch a brand especially for the Indian market.

Like Language, the market today has quite a few Chennai-grown footwear brands… some have been around for years, while some fairly new are still finding their feet, hoping to weather the onslaught of International and national brands that currently flood the market. What’s common to a majority of these brands is that they have been launched by leather export houses and retail only for domestic clients. “India has a substantial market. There is huge potential here. It’s better to retail out of here than go abroad and sell just a few pairs there,” says Gopalakrishna.

Set up in 1927, Gaitonde, one of Chennai’s earliest leather export companies, is still around. Sateesh Jadhav, director, Gaitonde Shoes and Accessories, says, “By 1976, the company was making finished leather products. We were exporting shoe uppers and then by 1980 finished shoes were being sent to the U.S. and Europe for brands such as Clarks and Gabor.” In 1995, it launched a line of footwear specifically for India. Currently they specialise in customised footwear made of salmon skin, ostrich and calf skin, and for people with diabetes. The customised ones are the most popular.

“As local brands, we have a lot to learn. But so do the other International brands. For example, we have researched a lot on Indian feet. They are different from those of Europeans. Ours are wider. In fact, even within the country, feet sizes differ. We design keeping Indian conditions in mind,” says Sateesh.

Of all the leather footwear that’s exported from India, Chennai is responsible for about 45 per cent. Footwear export was a booming market back in the day and saw quite a few taking to the business. “Sometime back, the situation was a little grim but it has stabilised, and now, it’s an upward trend again,” says Sathya Narayanan, director, Good Leather Company. The lucrative market ensured that this company, with a history of 36 years in exports, too took the plunge into the world of domestic retail. And thus Kethini was born in November last year. “We had the drive to create our own brand,” says Sathya. The shoes are designed in Italy and created here at their manufacturing unit in Sriperumbudur. “International brands are recognised by people here. It is difficult for a home-grown brand to make the cut. We have to shell out a lot to make our presence felt,” he says and adds, “To stay ahead, it is important to keep reinventing. That’s a complicated process because it is a challenge to create new stuff with the existing tools.”

While these brands have a flagship store each in the city, Language is retailed out of multi-brand stores in Chandigarh, Patiala, Ludhiana, Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore; Kethini is available in Delhi, while Gaitonde has discovered that the online route works best for a wider, national reach.

Unlike the other local labels, when Chennai-based V. Vimalan started Calonge he opened the first outlet in Dubai. “Since our products are fully hand-braided, it was more in demand in the International markets. Also, the response we got there soon after launching was great. Here, it took some time but now, we are doing well,” says the proprietor of Ayyapa Enterprises that launched Calonge in 2004. He feels that it doesn’t matter where a brand originates from as long as it’s on a par with International brands in terms of quality and style. And his annual turnover of Rs. 4 crore is proof of that.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 3:57:57 AM |

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