A New Soul for Old Shoes

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Zhang Jin­wen

Like so many other time-hon­ored brands, Neil­ian­sheng is leg­endary. From the late Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) to present, the shoe­maker has en­dured 164 years of wind and rain, evolv­ing from cus­tom-made court boots to fash­ion­able mod­ern footwear, com­pos­ing a bril­liant page in Chi­nese busi­ness his­tory.

Pi­o­neer in High-end Cus­tomiza­tion

The birth of Neil­ian­sheng can be traced back to 1853, the third year of Em­peror Xian­feng’s reign dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty. The com­pany was founded by Zhao Ting, a na­tive of Wuqing County, Tian­jin. Plagued by poor liv­ing con­di­tions, his par­ents sent him to learn shoe­mak­ing in a shop at Dongsi in Beijing when he was only 12 years old.

The ta­lented and stu­dious child quickly picked up the craft. Fol­low­ing his men­tor, he also paid at­ten­tion to how they main­tained re­la­tion­ships with old cus­tomers. Due to ap­pre­ci­a­tion for his crafts­man­ship and busi­ness sen­si­bil­i­ties, a mil­i­tary gen­eral pro­posed jointly open­ing a shoe shop with him. Neil­ian­sheng was only founded in Beijing’s Dongjiaom­inx­i­ang thanks to fi­nan­cial aid from the gen­eral.

The Dongjiaom­inx­i­ang district where Neil­ian­sheng was founded was not yet an em­bassy com­mu­nity in 1853, but a busy busi­ness zone with a myr­iad of govern­ment of­fices. As a ta­lented busi­ness­man, Zhao chose the ad­van­ta­geous lo­ca­tion with an eye on high-end cus­tomers who could af­ford to use sedan chairs. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that govern­ment of­fi­cials were not happy with shoe­mak­ers for the royal court at the time, so he started by mak­ing court boots.

The brand name it­self, “Neil­ian­sheng,” won fa­vor in the first place. In Chi­nese, “nei” means the in­te­rior royal court; and “lian­sheng” means “con­sis­tent luck in get­ting pro­mo­tions as an of­fi­cial.” Not much more brand­ing was nec­es­sary. For a long time, not only govern­ment heavy­weights from both civil and mil­i­tary realms wore the boots made by Neil­ian­sheng, but the last em­peror of the Qing Dy­nasty wore them the day he took the throne.

Zhao was re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing the old­est ex­tant list of VIP cus­tomers in Chi­nese busi­ness his­tory. To pro­vide op­ti­mal ser­vice, Zhao recorded ev­ery de­tail about his royal and aris­to­cratic clients: size, style, ori­gin, ad­dress, and even hob­bies, call­ing such data Shoe-re­lated Info. All a cus­tomer had to do was send a mes­sen­ger to the shop, and shoes would be de­liv­ered to the buyer’s doorstep. Such a prac­tice paved the road for high-end cus­tom­ized ser­vice in today’s China.

Thor­ough Crafts­man­ship

The Rev­o­lu­tion of 1911 ended the mil­len­nia-old feu­dal au­toc­racy in China, deal­ing a near-fa­tal blow to Neil­ian­sheng’s busi­ness due to a sud­den lack of cus­tomers. In dire need of dras­tic di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, it launched a land­mark prod­uct—hand­made cloth shoes, which have re­mained its sig­na­ture footwear since the Repub­lic of China pe­riod (1912-1949).

Lit­er­ally mean­ing “thou­sand-lay­ered sole,” the crafts­man­ship of the shoes was

in­cluded in the sec­ond group of China’s na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in 2009. The tech­nique has been passed down through ap­pren­tice­ships and oral teach­ing. Usu­ally, it takes more than three years to make an ap­pren­tice a qual­i­fied shoe­maker. The whole pro­duc­tion process in­volves over 90 steps and more than 30 tools.

Of all the steps, mak­ing the soles is the most cum­ber­some. “It’s a lot of work,” ad­mits He Kaiy­ing, a state-level rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­her­i­tor of the in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in the com­pany. “Eighty-one neat and or­derly stitches are made both ver­ti­cally and hor­i­zon­tally, criss­cross­ing an area as big as a match box. An or­di­nary pair of shoes usu­ally takes 2,100 stitches and com­pli­cated de­signs take twice as many.” It usu­ally takes sev­eral hours to fin­ish the soles of one pair.

As an in­her­i­tor of the craft, re­spon­si­bil­ity weighs heav­ily on He Kaiy­ing. “We must never lose cul­tural her­itage while it re­mains in our hands,” he in­sists.

In­her­i­tance vs. In­no­va­tion

In the 1980s, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of re­form and open­ing-up poli­cies in­vig­o­rated China eco­nom­i­cally, ig­nit­ing a new chal­lenge for Neil­ian­sheng. Hand­made cloth shoes had been grad­u­ally marginal­ized into a niche prod­uct or even “arts and crafts” due to com­pe­ti­tion from main­stream prod­ucts such as leather shoes and sneak­ers.

To catch up with the mar­ket econ­omy, Neil­ian­sheng at­tempted pro­duc­tion of sports and leather shoes, which proved non-com­pet­i­tive in terms of prod­uct fea­tures and pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency. Af­ter more than 10 years of hik­ing a bumpy road and mar­ket down­turn, in early 2000, Neil­ian­sheng un­der­went sys­tem re­form as a sta­te­owned en­ter­prise, ul­ti­mately re­align­ing its op­er­a­tional ori­en­ta­tion—to a re­turn to its sig­na­ture hand­made cloth shoes.

“We still tar­get the high-end mar­ket, with fo­cus on civil ser­vants, schol­ars, and en­ter­tain­ers,” il­lus­trates Cheng Xu, deputy

gen­eral man­ager of the com­pany. “We must best our com­peti­tors with top-of-the­line crafts­man­ship as our ef­fi­ciency can­not ri­val that of me­chan­i­cal pro­duc­tion.”

Af­ter many years of work, another ma­jor break­through was made in on­line mar­ket­ing. Af­ter an ex­ten­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Neil­ian­sheng launched a web­site for on­line shop­ping in 2010. “Now our an­nual on­line sales ex­ceed a mil­lion yuan,” grins Cheng. “And it costs only 10,000 to 20,000 yuan for web­site main­te­nance.”

At the be­gin­ning of 2011, Neil­ian­sheng opened its flag­ship on­line stores at Tmall and Jd.com, China’s two lead­ing e-com­merce plat­forms.

In 2013, in com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 160th an­niver­sary of the brand, Neil­ian­sheng or­ga­nized a re­lease show at Prince Gong’s Man­sion in Beijing, de­but­ing nearly 100 lat­est ar­rivals, a vis­ual feast in­te­grat­ing tra­di­tional crafts and mod­ern fash­ion against the back­drop of solemn ar­chi­tec­ture fea­tur­ing Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Since then, the com­pany has launched themed cam­paigns for hol­i­days and ma­jor buy­ing pe­ri­ods in­clud­ing the Alibaba New Year Shop­ping Fes­ti­val and cel­e­bra­tions for the open­ing of Shang­hai Dis­ney­land on May 20, 2016.

But Cheng Xu is most ex­cited these days by the com­pany’s “Big Fish & Be­go­nia” series. “The an­i­mated film of the same name pre­miered in July 2016, at which time we joined hands with rel­e­vant com­pa­nies for a li­cens­ing deal and re­leased a limited-edi­tion cloth shoes series at Tmall. We amassed 400,000 yuan of pre­orders, top­ping the film’s mer­chan­dis­ing. But its num­bers were later sur­passed be­cause man­ual pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity was limited, and we couldn’t fill more or­ders. Neil­ian­sheng made re­mark­able achieve­ments in prod­uct in­no­va­tion, but it is another story for us to fi­nal­ize a plan to feed cus­tomer de­mand by sewing stitch af­ter stitch,” Cheng ad­mits.

Mr. Zhao is an ap­pren­tice to the rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­her­i­tor of the in­tan­gi­ble an­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage of shoe­mak­ing at Neil­ian­sheng. by Wan Quan

Of ev­ery step, mak­ing the soles is the most cum­ber­some for the “1,000-lay­ered-sole” cloth shoes from Neil­ian­sheng, which re­quires ex­cep­tional skills to com­plete a va­ri­ety of pat­terns and styles. by Wan Quan

In 2013, in com­mem­o­ra­tion of its 160th th found­ing an­niver­sary, Neil­ian­sheng or­ga­nized a re­lease show at Prince Gong’s Man­sion nsion in Beijing, fea­tur­ing prod­ucts in­spired d by el­e­ments from Pek­ing Opera and eth­nic hnic mi­nori­ties. cour­tesy of Neil­ian­sheng

Oc­to­ber 29, 2016: Neil­ian­sheng re­leases ases its fash­ion­able “Big Fish & Be­go­nia” series es at the 11th China Beijing In­ter­na­tional Cul­tural ural & Cre­ative In­dus­try Expo. VCG

The head store of Neil­ian­sheng at Dashila, Qian­men, Beijing. by Wan Quan

The Neil­ian­sheng store in the 1980s. CFB

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