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STEPPING OUT: Singaporean born designer Mashizan Masjum launched his eponymous women’s shoes brand last year
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LOFTY ASPIRATIONS: Winning design of the 2014 Art of Shoes design competition.
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LOFTY ASPIRATIONS: A design by Firdaos Pidau, who is undergoing a BA (Hons) Cordwainers Footwear programme in London.

Head over heels

Singapore's answers to Jimmy Choo are taking a leap of faith, pursuing their craft both here and abroad.
Jun 18, 2016 5:50 AM

ARMED with the mantra: "If Jimmy Choo can do it, so can you," a sketchpad and lots of gumption, a small group of aspiring shoe designers are stepping up to be the next big thing in footwear. To support them, the Textile and Fashion Industry Training Centre (TaF.tc) has revived its Art of Shoes design competition, which takes place for the second time this year.

"Participants will learn the secrets of the footwear trade from our expert footwear trainers in digital footwear design," says Doreen Tan, chief executive officer of TaF.tc.

They can take it a step further by learning from trainers from Italy, Spain, Canada and Korea - in every aspect from pattern-making and construction, to costing and quality control. "It will help us identify potential talent for our homegrown footwear brand partner Pazzion," adds Ms Tan.

Contestants will undergo a four-day course to learn how to develop and sketch footwear designs, which will be submitted for the competition. The designs of eight finalists will be prototyped and showcased at Singapore Fashion Week 2016 in October, and the winner gets a scholarship for the Workforce Skills Qualification Diploma in Fashion Technology (Footwear Design and Product Development) programme, and a sponsored trip to MICAM Milano 2016, the world's leading footwear fair in Milan.

While it seems like trade organisations (TaF.tc is the training arm of the industry body, Textile and Fashion Federation) and the fashion industry are gearing up for a footwear boom, designer wannabes might find that becoming the next Blahnik could be an uphill trek.

"There is a footwear industry comprising shoe retailers and boutique owners, but a designer footwear industry? Unfortunately, not yet," says Mashizan Masjum, a Singaporean-born designer who launched his eponymous women's shoes brand last year.

"In the designer apparel scene, there's a history of very successful Singaporean designers who've made their marks regionally and internationally. For designer footwear, it's pretty much uncharted territory, unlike the very established British footwear scene."

The former documentary producer spent a summer learning the craft from a master cobbler and former Salvatore Ferragamo shoe designer and is based in Singapore and Florence, where his shoes are made using Tuscan leathers and Swarovski crystals. His Fall/Winter 2016 collection will be available at Tangs and Takashimaya, and online (www.mashizan.com). While being a footwear designer is indeed an uncommon path to embark upon, there are a few who have ventured into creating shoe brands here.

"As with every business, as long as you carve out a niche for yourself within the industry, any category can be commercially viable," says Mia Gigandet, who owns homegrown leather and exotic skin shoe brand Emblem, available at department stores such as Tangs.

"The biggest barriers to a fashion startup are trends. As trends come and go some trend-based stock will be made redundant as the trend passes, which is hard for startups with limited cash flow as you now have stagnant stock.

"However, the shoe and accessories industry is a little less trend-based compared to apparel, so less trend-based stock equals less stagnant inventory."

Ms Gigandet adds that one doesn't necessarily need to be trained in shoe-making to start a shoe line, when you could approach a reputable factory that could translate a sketch into a prototype.

Adds Ms Tan: "We are surrounded by top footwear manufacturers and exporters such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia. Knowing this, we can and should tap the manufacturing capabilities of our neighbours."

The homegrown menswear shoes industry, in particular, has been making strides with the launch of brands such as Ed Et Al, Septieme Largeur and Custom Made. However, the women's footwear scene is largely dominated by local retailers of affordable shoes such as Charles & Keith and Pazzion instead of independent shoe designers hoping to be the next Christian Louboutin.

"Business acumen is absolutely vital when entering the fashion industry which is why the diploma programme will teach budding designers, brand owners, product developers, and merchandisers," says Ms Tan.

"Apart from knowing what the footwear trends are and how to design a good and comfortable pair of shoes, the real work is knowing the key factors that contribute to building a brand. Designers will need to identify their target audience and consumer demographics and following that, construct a solid brand strategy and a merchandising plan."

One Singaporean who is determined to buck the trend is student Firdaos Pidau, who is undergoing a BA (Hons) Cordwainers Footwear programme in London. He has won an inaugural scholarship by Cordwainers alumni and shoe designer Charlotte Olympia, which awards funding for the remaining final three years of the course and a year's paid internship with the British shoe brand.

This is the first dedicated footwear bachelor's scholarship to be launched as part of the British Fashion Council Education Foundation, which aims to attract young people into the industry through scholarships and vocational routes. The 125-year-old Cordwainers programme boasts an illustrious alumni that includes Jimmy Choo, Nicholas Kirkwood and Patrick Cox.

"My family is incredibly supportive, especially my mother," says Mr Firdaos, who will be interning with the Inditex fashion retail group this September, after winning an industry project competition. "I was raised in an environment where I was free to pick and choose my life path, as long as I work hard and do it with integrity."

While he admits that it is somewhat unrealistic to attempt a career in footwear design in Singapore, the recipient of the 2014 Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Distinction Award is relishing the experience of pursuing his passion in the fashion capital. "Frankly speaking, there is an established fashion industry in London, and many great designers to learn from and work for," says Mr Firdaos.

"The British Fashion Council also gives incredible support to young designers for them to establish themselves. It's an amazing environment. I sound like a nerd and this course is very tough, but my campus is in my favourite place - London."

Ultimately, the best way to attract talents to build their craft and brands in Singapore is for local consumers to buy local designs.

"We do have a talent pool here, however the consumer mentality in Singapore does need to shift," says Ms Gigandet. "Consumers in Singapore tend to buy cheap or buy name brands, so it is hard for anyone to enter and launch into a market with those kinds of consumers."