Shoes Completing the ensemble

Stepping Through Time
Shoes are so important that these have been central props in many fairy tales and mythologies. The Greek god Mercury had winged shoes that allowed him to fly and run at the same time at breakneck speeds. Then there was the old lady who used to live inside a giant shoe. That old lady must have been spending a fortune on air fresheners though.

Shoes are also a symbol of luck. That's why you will see that in many countries it is a ritual to tie a string of old shoes behind the car of the newlyweds. Poets like Rabindranath have eulogised the footwear in a poem titled 'Juta Aabishkar' (Invention of the shoe).

The actual discovery of shoes goes back a long time when man ran after wild beasts and painfully realised that the undergrowth was, well, painful. Possibly in the ice ages they realised they needed shoes after they looked down and saw their feet break off after being frozen. The North American Indians, Eskimos and Siberians wore thick animal leather shoes to protect their feet from the cold. The present generation moccasins come from such a period where the biting cold used to be pretty hard on the soles. It's puckered upper portion is all the similarity remaining with the original where the pucker was cause by the fastening strings. In warmer climates people preferred sandals. The Chinese depictions as well as accounts in the Bible attested to different types of footwear. Basically shoes were meant to serve as protection against the uneven surfaces.

The Egyptians made simple but very effective footwear out of grass and papyrus back in 1600-1200 BC. These were rounded in shape and were custom fitted to the foot size of the wearer. The pharaohs wore long sandals that look as if they were difficult to walk in. No wonder they had slaves to carry them on throne wherever they went. Those with peaked toes denoted the wearer to be a king, prince or priest. The Romans on the other hand prepared sandals called caligae that were made out of three stiff layers of cow skin with cord to tie to the feet. In the later days of the empire the nobility wore shoes encrusted with jewels. Similar designs were used by the soldiers who did not have any specialised footwear. They would use these thin slippers to go into battle. Maybe historians should look into that account as a reason for the fall of Rome. It must be hard to trample over dead opposition soldiers when your feet hurt.

In the eleventh century there was some semblance of a boot where leather was wrapped around a two inch thick sole and tied to the feet. It's very much like if you put a towel over your feet and tied it around the ankles. The 17th century saw the advent of long boots which were then adapted for military use. They used wood and cork for the heel but these were not very durable or comfortable for that matter. Many studies were carried out to come up with the right footwear. Basically there were two types. One was based around a metal sole with leather wrapped around it. The other used wood and stitched leather all around. In the 18th century different sized feet were given added comfort with padded insoles. Then came the rubber soles that started off in America. Called plim soles these were created in mass numbers and widely used. These rubber soles were gradually strengthened and sold under different brand names one of which was Keds. The fit and comfort was less of a factor the for the shoe makers than was the style and display of their workmanship.

Made In Bangladesh
The shoe industry in Bangladesh began in the 50's and 60's when entrepreneurs came in from China, Pakistan and India. They set up factories employing locals to create shoes using all imported materials. All that was done here was to simply assemble the shoes. In Dhaka's Mitford and Babubazar areas there used to be many Chinese owned factories.

Things changed though soon after the Liberation War when such factories were abandoned. Locals took over the management while many ex employees set up their own. The shoe industry gained momentum in the late 70's and early 80's. Back then there were famous outlets such as Msko Shoes in Elephant road, Derby, Baly Keds, Beauty Shoes in Gulistan, Radur Juto at the Paltan Corner and Dipali and Rupali Shoes at the Sakura market near Sheraton. Although the craftsmen were local, all the material used except for the leather were brought in from abroad. Back then the fashion dictated bell-bottoms with high flat soled shoes as well as straps and artificial leather covered shoes.

Despite the fact that countless factories have sprung up the local shoe industry has not developed as much s it should have. Aside form the leather all other materials including the rubber, pasting and cutting forms are all imported. The importers hike up the price, which makes it less profitable for the manufacturers. Also in the because of the open market China, India, Thailand and Hong Kong are flooding the market with inexpensive items. The local manufacturers complain that in terms of quality ours are much better but the customers are lured by the foreign designs. Not only that that government provides no benefits for the shoe manufacturers. As for the employees there aren't any training centres where they can be given formal training.

Some local companies on the other hand, are doing very well by creating brand awareness. Mostly these are made in collaboration with foreign organisations. They use the foreign raw materials as well as their designs and molds. These shoes are created for both export as well as local sales though being a bit pricey they have not caught up in the local market that well.

Established in 1978 Radu is one of the oldest shoe-manufacturers in Bangladesh. Back then it was known as Panjab Tannery. Presently the caretaker Samiuddin Wara told us that it started off as a profession for their ancestors. After the separation from Pakistan operations were set up in both India and Bangladesh. The same designs are being manufactured both in Dhaka and Calcutta. The problem is that even though leather is available locally the rest of the materials have to be imported and the spiralling prices are cutting down on the profits by increasing the manufacturing costs especially for testing. Despite the hardships the organisation is still doing well because of a loyal customer base who have been buying their footwear for generations.

Ask anyone to name a shoe brand and they will invariably mention Bata. Its one of the largest multinationals doing business in Bangladesh serving everyone from the tiny tots at home to oldest members. To top it off this has been going on for generations. In fact it has a selection for just about anyone in any profession that is unmatched by other manufacturers. There is everything from plastic shoes for wet seasons as well as leather, artificial leather and cloth. The company has deep pockets as a result they have some of the best technologies for design, production as well as training of personnel. In the past few years Bata has stopped creating its run of the mill designs and has come up with some trendy items based on customer wants. It seems just being big isn't enough. To stay big a shoe company has to meet the customer demands and come up with current styles as well as reliability and comfort.

Eastern Progressive Shoe Industry (EPSI)
They have been in the market since 1967 creating unique original leather shoes. Even though it had a big market back in the 60's at present it is a different story. They make shoes mainly for the defence personnel such as the army, navy and the air force. In fact they are the only manufacturers providing footwear for the defence sector. So the civilians who get trampled by the defence personnel know which brand shoe is imprinted on their backside.

Factory in-charge Nurul Islam explains that the high cost of imported raw materials needed to create the soft shoes for the regular consumer was not as profitable. To maintain high standards of quality they have had to face a lot of financial difficulties. These shoes are made completely out of leather as a result they are heavier than those made of other materials. The general consumer prefers lighter footwear. Of course a lot of these shoes are used as casual wear by the general public. Nurul Islam considers it a sad fact that the local people prefer foreign shoes even though according to him the ones produced locally are of better quality.

Apex galleria
Apex mainly started business for export purposes in 1991 in co-operation with Italy. These are also marketed locally with foreign personnel maintaining the quality assurance. They started opening up showrooms locally around 1996 with mainly items for men. Although their quality is of a world class standard their sales in the local market are limited due to the high prices.

Dhaka Bazaar
This is also another export-oriented company that produces footwear in collaboration with Italy and Japan. They make shoes alongside many other leather products. They have their showrooms at Rifles Square, Bihsal Center and on Mirpur Road. They have similar worries regarding the local market where genuine leather shoes can cost as much as 1000-1200 taka whereas the general public would want cheaper alternatives such as rexin shoes for less than 400 taka.

Aarong collection
Aarong has been creating sandals since the 80's. They have been creating designs that complement special outfits such as kurtas and fatuas. For women they have special selections that are adorned with silver and gold glitter. Also included in their collection are formal and casual sandals.

Leatherex started off with a slogan called Healthy Walk that focused on shoes that are tailored for comfort and health of the feet. They opened their first outlet in Concord Arcadia shopping centre in Dhanmondi in 2002. At present they have three outlets but their preference lies in exports.

The market is comprised of a huge assortment of local as well as foreign manufacturers. In Dhaka most of the shops are situated in Elephant Road. All kinds of shoes are made here including some amazing designs with glass heels, embroidery work and lace. But many of the shopkeepers sell these as foreign made items because customers consider that to be of better quality. Its seems what the customer does not know won't hurt them. The customers are more into the design than comfort.

Another big shoe market in Dhaka is the Pallwell market near the Jonaki Cinema hall in Nowa Paltan. Many different branded items are found at relatively low prices.

In the past two decades there has been a strong upsurge in awareness towards local products such as in cases of clothing and entertainment magazines. But such a thing has not happened in case of shoes. The manufacturers blame this on several factors such as the influx of smuggled goods across borders. Then there is the high price of raw materials. As a result customers prefer the cheaper synthetic items that come in through illegal routes. But to get out of this rut the manufacturers themselves have to fight the importers by creating shoes that follow the customer demands. Following the market trend to create what the customer really wants in terms of design and quality would be the greatest way to turn around this preference for foreign goods.

By Sultana Yasmin
Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny
Photo: Munem Wasif
Photo Direction: Khaled Mahmud, Head Office

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