MADE WELL

A tiny work­shop in Marik­ina makes shoes to your pref­er­ence and to your mea­sure.

Esquire (Philippines) - - STYLE - BY CLIFFORD OLAN­DAY

The six-per­son team of Black Wing Shoes is crammed into a small space cut within the con­fines of a rub­ber fac­tory. The shoe­mak­ers are ar­ranged around the room, their work­ta­bles set against the four walls, the shoes in their hands in dif­fer­ent stages of pro­duc­tion, from as­sem­bly to stitch­ing to lin­ing to last­ing. There is a wall of shelves stocked with leathers that look like thin tongues of dif­fer­ent colors. And here is a shoe in the making, a pair of cap-toe ox­fords, re­splen­dent in its inky dark­ness and the clas­sic form that it is slowly tak­ing on.

Pro­duc­tion works like clock­work: Shoes go ‘round and ‘round, from one set of hands to an­other and an­other, un­til it is done and all that is left to do is for the client to pick them up and put them on. But right now, there is a prob­lem. There is a back­log in pro­duc­tion be­cause not only is the less-than-twoyear-old com­pany a small out­fit, but also there is grow­ing num­ber of men who want their own pair of cus­tom­made ox­fords, penny loafers, desert boots, and more.

The at­trac­tion is un­der­stand­able. You’d will­ingly travel all the way to the Marik­ina work­shop for shoes that are made to your pref­er­ence and, more im­por­tant, to your mea­sure.

“It’s built for you,” af­firms Black Wing founder Buddy Tan. Pic­ture this: You walk down the street and see an­other fel­low with the same shoes—but why does his pair look bet­ter than yours? To put it bluntly, it’s be­cause your feet are fat. You may be flat-footed and so, to ac­com­mo­date your wide feet, you go a size up when buy­ing shoes. A big­ger size, of course, means longer di­men­sions, which in turn make the fit of your shoe look a lit­tle awk­ward. “With made-to-mea­sure, the di­men­sions are cor­rect,” he points out. “We’ll take into ac­count your pro­por­tions, and we’ll en­sure when you fit the pair, you feel that it’s really for you.”

Buddy’s of­fice is an even smaller space on the adjacent lot. White boxes that hold the prom­ise of fin­ished shoes are stacked on sev­eral cor­ners. A ta­ble is cov­ered in discs of wax and pots of paints plus a dirty yel­low sponge. Two men ar­rive for their ap­point­ment (It is hard to se­cure one, by the way. There are no more slots for this year). He gets to work, trac­ing the shape of each foot on a sheet of pa­per and tak­ing six mea­sure­ments, from the toe box to the an­kle and ev­ery­thing in be­tween, with a tape mea­sure.

The data is then trans­formed into a shoe last. And here, in the cre­ation of the phys­i­cal ren­der­ing of a client’s foot, is where the in­ge­nu­ity of Black Wing comes in. Be­spoke re­quires craft­ing a new last for each cus­tomer, while ready-to-wear makes do with lasts that are avail­able in the mar­ket. Black Wing lies some­where in be­tween. Their sap­a­teros pads a ba­sic shoe last with scraps of leather or rub­ber and then, us­ing a san­der, sculpts it ac­cord­ing to the ex­act di­men­sions of the client’s foot. This method makes the en­tire process eas­ier (no need to build a last from scratch) and, more im­por­tant, pushes costs way down. The big­gest draw of Black Wing might be the price, which start at P3,500, a shadow of what cus­tom-made shoes go for.

As for the styles, they are al­most lim­it­less. “As long as we can craft it by hand…,” goes Buddy. But once clients find out that they can really get what they want like, say, a pair of long­wing brogues in navy and gray with vi­o­let ac­cents and a blue sole, it con­fuses them. The pos­si­bil­i­ties—Dou­ble or sin­gle monk strap? Round or chis­eled toe? Oxblood or chest­nut

brown?—can be over­whelm­ing, so much so that the next time Buddy hears from some clients is three months later.

Of course, you can al­ways come in with a pic­ture that the work­shop can use as a start­ing point. From out of a card­board shoe­box comes a black monk strap that was pat­terned af­ter a Ber­luti and here on the ta­ble is a derby that mim­ics the heft of a Prada.

An­other op­tion is to trans­mit all your ideas to Buddy, who will then de­sign the shoe of your dreams from scratch. He has prob­a­bly cre­ated over a hun­dred styles, he says, in­clud­ing a mini-version of a dou­ble monk for a very lucky kid and, on rare oc­ca­sions, footwear for ladies (Buddy says he can’t de­sign women’s shoes, but an el­e­gant two-tone kiltie says oth­er­wise).

Black Wing is more than just a lo­cal source for cus­tom-made shoes. Buddy holds a de­gree in po­lit­i­cal science and, in a pre­vi­ous life, worked for the gov­ern­ment, “over­think­ing” pro­cesses and cre­at­ing sys­tems, which may ex­plain how he set up the com­pany: “We’re not gun­ning for prof­its. We’re gun­ning for sus­tain­abil­ity. This is more of an in­dus­try ef­fort rather than a quick buck.”

Af­ter a two-year break, he took over the fam­ily’s rub­ber busi­ness and then de­vel­oped his pas­sion project, a madeto-mea­sure shoe ser­vice an­chored on the idea that small can in­deed thrive in the world of big busi­ness. There is also a mat­ter of pride as a son of Marik­ina, the shoe cap­i­tal of the Philip­pines. For the past decade, big shoe brands have been im­port­ing their wares from China be­cause the city couldn’t keep up. It goes like this: Ev­ery time a su­per mall opens, lo­cal brands need to come up with a large amount of stock to place in the stores of the new mall. “Gibi or Rusty Lopez will tell Mark­ina shoe­mak­ers that they need in­ven­tory worth one mil­lion pe­sos,” Buddy shares. “Marik­ina says give us six months. China can do it in two weeks.” How do you com­pete with that?

“We want to make a lit­tle bit of a change,” he con­tin­ues. “We’re pro­vid­ing an al­ter­na­tive busi­ness model for shoe­mak­ers by not be­ing slaves to the big brands. You can ac­tu­ally start your own [busi­ness.] You just need pas­sion and you need to love what you’re do­ing.”

You also need to tweak the sys­tem. Ac­cord­ing to Buddy, the Marik­ina shoe in­dus­try still op­er­ates un­der a piece rate sys­tem as in a shoe­maker gets paid per pair he com­pletes. “Imag­ine, a reg­u­lar sap­a­tero gets P50 per pair. For him to make P500, he has to make 10 pairs,” he says. “But if you count how much time it takes to make hand­made shoes, you’d only be able to make six in an eight- hour pe­riod. Qual­ity would be the first to suf­fer.” Buddy has made it a point to in­vest in his sap­a­teros, pay­ing them in wages, al­lowances, and even in­cen­tives. That’s just one ex­am­ple of how the businessman up­dated lo­cal pro­cesses so that it works in the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment. Even be­fore the work­shop opened, Buddy spent many months eas­ing out bad prac­tices and re-train­ing his shoe­mak­ers.

As for the fu­ture, Black Wing is al­ready on its sec­ond phase, an off-ther­ack line of sneak­ers with rub­ber soles akin to Top- Siders. But that’s just a part of the big­ger pic­ture. Buddy has also set up a com­mu­nity work­shop in San Ma­teo where most of the novice sap­a­teros now live. Th­ese shoe­mak­ers may not be very skilled but “...all of them have drive and a lot of them have needs, and those are the qual­i­ties that you need for peo­ple to enjoy train­ing.” Apart from ex­pand­ing the busi­ness, the real goal of the new line is to train shoe­mak­ers so that, when they be­come suf­fi­ciently skilled, they can move to Black Wing’s made-to­order oper­a­tions.

It’s a really good plan for the lo­cal in­dus­try—and you get a great pair of cus­tom-made brogues, boots, or loafers, too.

12 Eraño Manalo Street, Barangay Sto. Niño, Marik­ina City. +632 941 5692.

WHAT DO YOU WANT? Ox­ford? Brogue? Cap-toe? All of the above? The op­tions are al­most lim­it­less for made-to-mea­sure shoes from Black Wing Shoes in Marik­ina.

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