Jun 30, 2008

The Vir Sanghvi Column

When the shoe fits the pocket
After all my sneering about women and handbags in previous editions of this column, I now have to try and defend the male of the species. I’ve always found it extraordinary that women are prepared to pay as much for a handbag as the rest of us would pay for a small car. It isn’t that the bag itself is particularly expensive to make. Markups of 800% or more are routine. But clever marketers have persuaded women that an ‘it’ bag or a limited edition handbag are so desirable that the prices should bear no relation to the cost of manufacture.
Many women have pointed out to me that such sneers could easily be directed at men as well. Sure, we don’t use handbags. But we do wear shoes. And unscrupulous marketers are able to extract such high premiums from vain men that we seem almost as foolish as the women who pay thousands of dollars for bags.
I have usually retorted, in defence of men, that shoes are a complicated business. A handbag started out as a convenience but soon became an adornment. Shoes, on the other hand, are essentials. You can’t really leave the house barefoot. And because we wear shoes for most of the day, it is important that they fit perfectly. Wear shoes that are even slightly tight, and you will be unable to stand. Try running in shoes that are not meant for that purpose, and your feet will hurt for weeks.
So, I have argued, there is no parallel between bags and shoes. When a woman pays $5,000 (around Rs210,000) for a designer handbag, she is buying a status symbol. When a man splashes out on a $500 pair of shoes, he is buying a lifetime of comfort and investing in the future of his feet.
Well, yes and no.
Take the arguments that I offer on behalf of men and their shoes and turn them around to defend women and their Jimmy Choos. Suddenly, you begin to realize quite how hollow they are. No woman who buys Jimmy Choo or Prada is buying comfort or taking care of the arches of her feet. Often, she is actually buying discomfort, given how high the heels can be. Admittedly, there are shoemakers — Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin, for instance — who do pay attention to the balance of a ballet pump and ensure that their shoes remain light on the feet. But rarely do women buy their shoes for comfort alone. Even with Blahnik and Louboutin fans, the primary motivation is fashion and, perhaps, snob value.
Sadly, the same is true of men. I am as willing as the next guy to admire a nice pair of Gucci loafers or to marvel at Prada’s ability to set fashion trends in footwear. But even I do not believe that somebody who shells out hundreds of dollars for Prada or Gucci is terribly concerned about comfort. We buy the shoes because they look nice.
And when we have to explain to ourselves how we can justify buying shoes that are three or four times more expensive than ordinary high-street brands, we swallow deeply and argue that, of course, for Prada, Gucci and the like, one has to pay a little bit more.
So, are we so very different from the women who crowd the Louis Vuitton boutiques looking for the latest limited edition bags of each season?
Regrettably: No, we’re not.
Are we being duped? Should we refuse to buy into the great fashion footwear scam?
Well, that’s an individual decision. And I don’t think that any absolute rules apply. Nobody is going to rot in hell for eternity because they bought a pair of Prada shoes on impulse. We’re all entitled to our luxuries.
Speaking for myself, however, I find that I spend less and less money on shoes these days. This is not because shoes are unimportant. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s because they are too important a matter to be left to fashion.
A few years ago, I worked out that when it came to shoes, only three things mattered: the quality (leather and workmanship), the fit and the look. I found that with designer shoes, the look was always right but neither the quality nor the fit were necessarily what I was looking for. Often, the trendy brands would sacrifice a comfortable fit in the pursuit of a fashionable look. The leather was never bad. But rarely was it particularly special. And as for the workmanship, shorn of the marketing hype, designer shoes were essentially industrial goods, manufactured in huge factories in vast numbers.
So, I decided to work backwards. If I was looking for quality workmanship, where should I go? The obvious answer was to avoid the global labels with their mass production. I found a small Thai label called Ragazze which made fashionable shoes of high quality and still managed to sell them at one-fourth the price of the high-fashion labels.
Then, couple of years ago, I thought more about it. If the Thais could do it, then surely Indians could do it as well. Why didn’t I find somebody who would make my shoes for me by hand?
Fortunately, I rediscovered Joy, a label I remembered from my Bombay days. I’ve known Munna Jhaveri, its owner, for decades. Somehow, it never occurred to me to get him to make my shoes. But once I made that jump, it seemed entirely logical to put my feet in his hands.
So now, Munna makes all my shoes and sandals. They are made to my exact size (my feet are broader than average), I choose the leather, Munna and I work out the styles together, and Joy’s workmen produce world-class shoes in a fortnight to three weeks.
The best part? I wish I could say it came from the pleasure of encouraging traditional craftsmanship or of wearing shoes that fit as only custom-made footwear can.
Actually, the best part is the price. At a time when all the foreign labels are setting up shop in Mumbai and selling very ordinary, industrially manufactured shoes at upwards of Rs20,000 a pair, Munna makes me bespoke shoes at a fourth of their price.
That is one of the pleasures of living in India. You get world-class quality, without the hype and handmade to your requirements — at a very Indian price.

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