Passion Microbrand Culture

Recently, people have been asking me for what I would advise young entrepreneurs in starting their own business. I would give some quick answers but they are pretty much scattered all over the place. Common answers like “persistence” and “timing” are often on top of my head, but it goes deeper than that. Those words are oversimplifications of what I went through when establishing the brand. Yes, what I will say would have been said and heard many times already but here me taking a shot at explaining it and hopefully, inspire another to find their own path as well.


Passion is Purpose

There many reasons for starting a business, usually for monetary rewards, and brand building is always vital to establishing an identity to differentiate you from the market. You guys would not believe how many inquiries we get as to whether we can make RTW shoes for rebranding and how many offers there are for use to put up retail spaces around Metro Manila. If my primary purpose is to make money, that would have easy decision. But as many of those who usually sit through my ramblings would come to realize, my primary purpose is not profit. Profit is required to run the business, as food is nourishment for the body, but any business/brand needs heart for it to connect to people. Given a choice, people would support a brand with a heart and one without. Passion is one one of my main purposes – I want to learn more, push the craft forward, help more, and influence others positively.

Inject Your Personality

Microbrands are truly unique, we have the opportunity to create something with more heart. Since microbrands are usually run by an individual or a group of individuals who share a common passion, it is easy to inject you passions into your products and services so that it creates a distinction which sets it apart from other brands of the same product/service range. Remember how small startup restaurants run by the owner is always a hit? Then once they start to expand, the original flavor is lost and the brand just becomes like any other restaurant brand. Old patrons would leave saying that it’s not the same as before anymore. This is because while the process and recipes of the original are retained, the heart that goes into the service normally isn’t the same anymore. Microbrands are very similar to persons, people fall in love with what makes us different. Expanding the brand mostly means some compromises, the trick is to know how much you can compromise before your quality and image is affected.

Know Yourself

In knowing yourself, you can keep your passion microbrand truly unique. It’s easy to get swayed by the bandwagon as your fears play on you. Usually seeing others looking more “successful” plays a trick on us that we would want to catch up to them, that others are getting ahead. A perfect example of this is seeing the competitors ad campaigns. A widespread campaign of others can play on your insecurity. You can become afraid that your current and potential clients would be siphoned off by the competition. But in knowing yourself and your service, you would eventually know your market. There is also the difference between knowing yourself and just being stubborn. If your concept doesn’t gain traction then it may be time to go back to the drawing board. If adoption is slow then you may not be reaching your intended audience. Remember, a passion based microbrand is very personal; all people are not equal, some are more likable than others, but there will always be people who are willing to support you. If you do not know yourself then you are like a dead leaf then you’d be swaying where the winds take you, and not where you want to go. When you know yourself, you can ride the winds and still get to where you need to go while keeping your identity. Most startups that fail are usually due to not having their own identity and just riding the trends.

Customer is NOT King

This idea goes against what is taught to us by our mentors and textbooks. But the phrase “the customer is king” applies to mass consumer products and services while being an empty promise being used as a marketing tool. The customer is king until things go wrong, then they become liabilities which the business needs to address. Instead of promising that the customer is king, it is better to treat them as partners, as friends; we as business operators will be working with them after all. Mutual respect is key to achieving lasting relationships with clients, and groveling for a sale then not offering proper after sales service is a sure fire way of creating one-transaction deals. I’m sure all of us has experienced this one way or another be it from a credit card company, a preneed agent selling you insurance (not all but usually the less serious ones), or even big utility companies…

Instead of promising the customers that they are king then failing to make them feel like it after the transaction has been done, why not treat them as partners who will help develop and grow the business. Microbrands usually attract a niche market and it helps to have a sustainable customer relations strategy which aims to grow the business alongside the relationships that are going to be built with each transaction that the brand does.

Fail, Learn and Persist

Failure is inevitable. Failure is essential. I know it sounds cliche but what matters is not whether you fail or not, but how you get back up. Failure is one of the best teachers since it forces us to rethink our plans and strategies. The present business model of Black Wing is actually a product of multiple failures during the infancy of the brand. I was forced to look for solutions because most clients who order online do not know their actual shoe size. It doesn’t help that there is a lack of proper sizing standards available locally. Too many erroneous orders forced me to meet the clients to take measurements in order to minimize sizing errors. This eventually became the business model which is still being developed and upgraded until now.

Taking failure to heart is a bit hard but it helps in forcing us to learn from it. Ignoring the failure and not caring about it only results in its repetition in the future. It is an easy error to make to just move on from a failure. While it is true that we should move on from it, we should carry with us the lessons from it which is how to avoid it and how to address it if it should happen again.

Failure can sometimes cripple our will to move forward. Failure can easily humble us and show us our imperfections. Persistence is key to this as long as the goal is proper. Being a microbrand, mistakes can make or break us but we can recover easier also. Small organizations are more flexible. Imagine a product line which costed millions to develop suddenly failing upon a few months of launch; this would cause startups to close and shares of big corporations to tank. Microbrands can weather such mistakes since deployment would usually be smaller and while it can hurt the brand, microbrands can regroup and recoup. This is why persistence is important for a microbrand. The evolution of the brand is usually through a cycle of failures and successes. Taking lessons from genius inventors, who had tons of failure before hitting that one defining success which had an impact.


I hope that these can help others get a jump start on starting their own microband. Each has their own path and own way to reach a goal. There is no step-by-step guide to success because if the textbook theory worked, all who followed it would be successful. Remember that most game changers are usually outsiders and became successful because they saw an opportunity that those from within missed.

Passion and persistence are important to any microbrand. Financial rewards will follow as long as proper accounting is taken into consideration during the planning stages. As much as possible, stay away from trends since it is not sustainable for microbrands to rely on riding the trends. As I mentioned earlier, microbrands are more effective in targeting niche markets.

Pray hard and give thanks for all successes and failures. Stay passionate and true to your craft/product. Do not lose hope in times of hardships and persevere. Your work ethics are a reflection of your person and so as long as your heart is true and good, you will be rewarded.

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Basic Leather Shoe Care and Rejuvenation (PH Version)

I have always been frustrated about polishing shoes. Ever since I was a young boy, I would polish my shoes by using “Kiwi” and a shoe brush. I forgot if it was a horsehair or nylon brush, but just when I thought that I had done a good job I would see a classmate’s shoes done better. And in my ignorance, I would put more polish thinking more polish would result in a better shine. It came to a point that I was using liquid polish in high school.

When I was in ROTC during college things remained the same. There were no instructional videos back then so while our officers were talking about fire shining their boots all I could do was listen and ask how it was done, try it at home and fail miserably. I also tried spit shining but without knowing that I had to be patient to build up that polish and gave up eventually. I went back to applying a thick coat of wax using a rag then brushing it vigorously to get it to shine. There was shine… but no gloss.

Years later, YouTube has provided me the opportunity to learn again, but this time my concern is that most of the nice materials/brands are not available locally. Not only that, there is a mismatch between your entry-mid tier shoes and the classy high end creams and polishes. I decided to study the readily available materials here in the Philippines and apply them to our local leathers. Here is a short video on the steps in doing a general shoe maintenance for locally tanned leathers.

 

 

I will now discuss the materials that I used in this video.

  1. “dirty” brush – for the outsole, I used a regular stiff nylon brush that is used for laundry. This is to be able to scrub off the dirt that is stuck on the bottom of soles. For the upper, I used a nylon shoe brush which I got from the supermarket (Unimart) which is stiff enough to brush off the dirt but gentle enough on the leather.
  2. Wipeout – a basic general purpose dirt remover/degreaser. Works well with most leather. It is advised to try on a small spot that’s hidden to see if the leather will repel or absorb it. I would advise against using it on soft and porous leathers which are mostly found in bags and “soft shoes” (usually the brown/tan ones) from Aldo, Pedro, Ecco, Rockport, etc. Normally, leather cleaners such as saddle soap are used  but should also be tested first. This can be skipped if the shoes aren’t used as much, I’d recommend cleaning every 3 to 4 months for pullside leathers, if the shoes are used on a regular basis.
  3. Shucare shoe cream – this is usually available in SM Department Store (or you may contact us if you cant find any) and acts like a moisturizer and rejuvenator for the leather. It has a bit of bees wax which will give your shoe a bit of a polish when you brush it.
  4. Local horse hair brush – the local brushes are a bit stiffer and loosely packed but is good enough for your basic buffing. Just remember to brush it against a clean rag every so often to rub off the wax that accumulates on it as you brush off the wax from your shoes.
  5. Cotton rag – I like to use a muslin (lampin) cloth for the creams and pranela for waxes. Of course you can use old tattered shirts/clothes also as long as there is a good amount of cotton in its composition.
  6. Shoe wax – you have an option of using local or imported waxes for this. Kiwi, of course, is an imported product and is the most well known. If you can, you can also buy their Parade Gloss variant for an easier time in getting that mirror finish. For local waxes, I would recommend using Shineboy. It is not as harmful to the leather as Kiwi in the long run.
  7. Imported horse hair brush – for the final polish, I use an imported horse hair brush since it is softer and gentler on the wax layer, minimizing hairline streaks to create a gentle shine and is great for creating that transition from the high gloss polis at the toe box to a standard polish in the body of the shoe.

This maintenance regiment should be done every few months. Normally, alternating between creams and waxes on a monthly basis should be good enough. I’ve had clients bring in their 2-3 year old pairs which have no signs of any maintenance whatsoever but are still good. Of course I go through the whole reconditioning process once I get those to extend the life of the leather uppers as well as giving it spiffy, maintained look.

Industry Categorization and Segmentation – Getting to the root cause of the problem

When one has an ailment, it helps to properly identify the problem by studying the symptoms first. Proper education is key in order to come up with a proper diagnosis and eventually a cure. The shoe industry, like manufacturing related industries, both has a mass production component and an artisanal component with a lot of hybrids in between. In order to help push our industry forward, it would help the regulators (yes government, that’s you) to actually know what programs they want to push in order to help the industry instead of consulting the “industry leaders” who represent only a small fraction of the industry although they have majority share of the income produced BUT is not the business model which the industry actually needs. I want to discuss the various industry segments/categories which are currently part of the industry. I would like to exclude sandal makers since while they are part of the footwear industry, I would like to focus on the shoe industry since the sandal industry is an entirely different animal in itself. I will use my own terminology for the meantime as there is no official name for the various industry players, please feel free to comment for inputs in order to improve this essay.

  1. Marketing Brands – big brands such as Gibi and Rusty Lopez which are considered as the industry leaders since they are the only ones to have achieved a level of commercial success which can be considered as the goal for most industry players. They are normally traders who coordinate with various local but mostly foreign suppliers. Majority of their inventory, if not all, are actually outsourced. Some in house development, but no actual in-house mass production.
  2. Manufacturing Brands – brands such as Bristol and Gibson shoes are considered as major manufacturing brands since most, if not all, their inventory are produced in-house. What makes them different from a traditional Marikina based production operation is that their production method has already mechanized or is machine assisted.
  3. Manufacturing Subcontractor – these subcontractors usually supply and manufacture for the big marketing brands. The operations are usually production line with division of labor and is mostly done traditionally (by hand). Before, they would also supply to small shops and department stores but as the retail industry has evolved, they are phased out due to their inefficiency which resulted in high wastage and slow production rates. Subcontractor size ranges from micro (less than 25 people) to medium scale (with around 100 workers). There are only a few shoe subcontractors left, with most focusing on low cost shoes going by bargain bulk rather than value.
  4. Artisanal Brands – these brands produce medium to high value shoes which are usually produced in-house. Black Wing falls under this category as while we are slow to produce, the products are usually of higher value which offers better quality than mass produced shoes. The shoes could either be handcrafted or machine crafted but the focus is more on the art of shoe making rather than the focus on quantities in order to achieve profitability.
  5. Micro Brands – these have come about fairly recently in our industry’s history. Traditionally, these are private label brands which are usually sold at small shops across the country. When the retail industry shifted from the town centers towards mall, they have all but almost vanished. Then the bazaar scene happened and micro brands started popping up, taking the place of the “shoe emporium” brands. Usually they find their niche but do not produce their own products. If you could remember brands like Manila Sole among other niche micro brands populating the bazaar markets. Nowadays, micro brands are all over the place, using the Internet as a medium to sell their products. Almost anybody can become a micro brand nowadays, but only a few will actually be able to scale properly and develop their brand identity. From bazaar to online and very recently, to pop-up stores. Micro brands are usually very entrepreneurial and can adjust to shifting trends quicker than the big marketing brands.

Each of these categories are faced with different challenges but are linked to each other. Of course, being from the same industry, the root cause of all existing problems stem from a specific source. I would like to discuss some of the issues affecting each of these industry categories in order for us to trace the problem and eventually come up with a solution.

Marketing brands, whether big or small, usually have issues with production and market reach. With the production side, it is because their subcontractors usually have problems with costing, quality control, and delivery schedules. In a very competitive market, price is normally the first battleground especially for entry level brands. Local brands, such as Gibi and Rusty Lopez, are such localized brands that they have to compete by lowering their price points to compete with mid tier (at least from our local perspective) brands such as Aldo, Pedro, etc. With mass production, quality control tends to become an issue unless there is an in-house team which will ensure the product before it gets shipped out of production. There is usually a lot of concerns with the build quality and the actual design and engineering of the shoe because of the lack of standards being applied both with local and foreign producers. For local production, funding and delivery schedules are usually a big issue. Most subcontractors cannot actually meet buyer quantity requirements as the retail environment changed and fast fashion had a boom, the modes of production still hasn’t changed. Going hand assembled shoes in a fast fashion world spells disaster since marketing brands won’t be able to adapt quickly if they stayed with local producers. The retail environment has the local brands’ supply chain as more department stores open, marketing brands which use these department stores as their primary mode of reaching to their markets are forced to keep bigger and bigger inventories. It is actually a concern for me that these big marketing brands are becoming “too big to fail”.

For manufacturing brands, the issue is similar to marketing brands except that they control their production. So their concerns are more on the scaling of production to reach out to a broader market. Quality control is in house so the risk of returns is minimal. But the supply of skilled artisans are dwindling, hence their need to modernize and import machines to assist in production thereby shifting the mode of production from artisan to machine operator.

Manufacturing subcontractors have bigger problems because they have to contend with costing, design, and production issues. Most of these operations survive by offering low margins, and a small miscalculation can often lead to loss of profits and even worse, negative income. Most of our local subcontractors often have issues with adapting to fast fashion since their are many considerations such last and pattern development. If you take notice, a typical Marikina made shoe has a profile which can be found across ALL Marikina made shoes. It is only with the newer workshops where we can see slight variances to the typical commercially available lasts being sold at shoe supplies here in Marikina.

Artisanal brands are fighting for a dying craft. The problem for small artisanal brands is mainly scaling up. It is hard to find proper shoemakers nowadays. Normally, the craft has been passed down through a loose form of apprenticeship. There was never a formal apprenticeship system in place since most of the old shoemakers are very protective of their knowledge and wouldn’t pass on all their knowledge to the next generation. This has kept the growth of shoemaking craft slow since new shoemakers spend much of their time rediscovering techniques and methods already known by the older shoemakers.

Micro brands struggle in finding their niche, or finding a local producer to realize their niche product. The downside that most of these micro brands espouse is that ethical production is usually the first thing to go. They haggle to keep costs down since they have to compete and one of the first thing that their suppliers trim down is labor cost. This is why micro brands who participate in price wars are never sustainable. The cost to develop is high for suppliers and these micro brands want to get it at “competitive” rates. Imagine buying products for cheap but their mode of production is not up to scale with the cost. While the consumer and micro brand both get what they want, the supplier-producer and ultimately the craftsmen are the ones to suffer for that “bargain buy”.


Whilst each industry segment has its own share of problems, you will notice that majority of the issues that they both cause and encounter stem from the same source, and that is the mode of production. Since our mode of production is primarily labor intensive, the issues stem from the lack of modernization from our labor force. There are different ways to address this, both of which are very doable but without the cooperation of the business owners, we are doomed to perpetuate a system wherein our local artisans long have been taken advantage of by businesses for their own benefit.

The shoe industry is built upon it’s primary resource, which are the shoemakers. Shoemaking is a craft and art in itself, it takes years to master to design and make a proper pair of shoes. While there are two separate schools of thought for pushing the shoe industry forward (I will talk about this more in future essays), which are developing either mass production or artisanal shoemaking.

The glaring problem right now is that we are running out of shoemakers, both in the formal and informal sectors. We do not have master shoemakers anymore. Very few can make a shoe straight from scratch since for the longest time, local shoemakers are trained per task in order to limit their knowledge. We have to bring back the shoemaking craft by educating existing ones and training future ones in the art of shoemaking. It is the responsibility of this generation to fix this. In order to address these local issues we have to address the main source which is an inefficient and unprofessional production mode. Proper business mapping and direct consultation with the shoemakers themselves (not just the business/workshop owners) are the first steps which need to be undertaken in order to have a better grasp as to how we can address all concerns and develop strategies for inclusive growth, because that is what is needed for sustainability. Our goal right now is the make the industry more sustainable than profitable, because long term profits gained from sustainability is better then temporary high profits brought about short sighted profit taking.

Hasegawa Standard Polish Method

Taking care of our leather shoes is natural for us, we were raised that way. I remember growing up that I had to polish my shoes at least once a week when I was in grade school. Back in the day, since there was no Internet or YouTube to use as reference, we had to rely on the instruction of our elders on how to polish. Some advice are more helpful than others and usually, unless given personal instruction, we are left to figure things out for ourselves. I have to admit that I never excelled in shoe shining. During ROTC, I would always try to do fire shining to achieve that gloss finish for my combat boots to no avail. After asking around from the upperclassmen, they recommended spit polishing and I tried that also but have not been able to achieve the same amount of shine that they have on their boots. Oral instruction is after all, inferior to getting actual experience or at least watching the actual process while being instructed. From here we try for ourselves and practice until we get the process right or we find our own way.

I started learning about proper leather shoe upkeep last year after I stumbled upon a video while doing research. I didn’t know about Yuya Hasegawa san at that time but was amazed by the video “Shoe Shine Like a Boss”. Here is the video:

Back then I didn’t pay attention to who the man was doing the polishing in the video but a few months after, I found another video which really caught my attention. It was the official video of Brift H, the famous shoe shine bar in Japan.

It was the first time I’ve heard about a shoe lounge and was inspired by it. Hence the effort last year to create cobbler services based on shoe maintenance and restoration. What inspired me was the way Hasegawa san was so passionate with his craft that he was able to create his own method of shoe polishing which earned him the title of World Champion of Shoe Shining last year.

Before his “The Armoury” video where he detailed his method was released, I tried to research his method and found one published magazine article where the method was translated. Here are the steps as detailed in that article I found:

  1. Remove the shoe laces
  2. Clean insides with denatured alcohol
  3. If the outsoles are leather, polish edge with #285 emery paper
  4. Apply water based dye on sole edges
  5. Remove dust from upper via brush, insert shoe trees
  6. Strip down shoes using cleaner, remove wax and some base paint
  7. Apply and massage shoe cream with fingers, massage into the creases
  8. Apply neutral cream on the tongue to prevent color migration onto the lining
  9. Use brush to permeate cream into the leather pores, use pressure from spring bounce
  10. Buff the shoe with cloth to remove excess creams
  11. Drop water, if repelled, the shoe has absorbed the cream properly
  12. Apply wax generously on the shoe tips and edges using fingers
  13. Apply wax with water onto the cloth, water acts as a lubricant for the wax, alternating between with and without wax (just water) on the cloth with elbow grease
  14. Polish in a circular motion; apply around the shoe in different areas to allow airing time as you work on other areas
  15. Check for wax permeation by dropping water and seeing if the water repels
  16. Add a little water on the brush and buff entire shoe
  17. Rub toe box and heel with water on clean cloth, vertical motions create a smoother and smarter finish
  18. Apply oil on the sole, this will add water resistance

Some of the materials used in Hasegawa san’s method is not available here locally, such as his leather cleaner and sole oils. The creams and waxes that he used are Saphir, which is quite expensive and is not that accessible. I will be publishing a video using our locally available materials which I have tested and worked well so far with our local leathers while adapting a bit of this method for a quick polish for the regular shoe owner.

Shoe shining is a craft in itself. The one year I spent studying how to polish shoes have taught me that, as with most things, different situations call for different materials and sometimes a different approach. Hasegawa san’s method is a great foundation to build upon your own method. Majority of us want our shoes to look clean and smart, and going through the basics (I will explain this further next time) and having a sound understanding of basic leather care will go a long way to extending the life of our shoes, from a simple Black Wing to high end brands such as George Cleverley and Berluti.

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Small Scale Marikina Shoemaking

Marikina has developed its own identity as the shoemaking capital of the Philippines. Over the years, trends and traditions have evolved to suit the industry demands and thus created its own brand of shoemaking. As I was learning shoemaking from a journeyman shoemaker (who eventually became Black Wing’s first foreman) during the first year of the workshop, I noticed that the local method had to make do with whatever locally available materials that we had in order to make proper shoes. This resulted in a mix-match of various materials and methods in order to recreate the purpose of the construction methods without the proper machineries and materials.

Due to a slow demand for quality Marikina handcrafted shoes in the late 90s and 2000s, the quality of materials available for the local shoemaker has deminished. We were then left with entry level raw materials which were readily available for the mass produced “probinsya” markets. Because the industry never fully mechanized, all shoes, even the cheap leather ones which can be bought for Php800 are all handcrafted. This created a talent pool of shoemakers who can be further developed into a world class workforce should they be guided properly and developed in order to serve a more discerning market. So I would like to tell you the processes that a shoe goes through in a typical Marikina workshop before it goes to market.


STEP 1: Hulmahan – Shoe Lasts

Shoe lasts are the foundation of every shoe. It determines the final shape of the shoe, its dimensions and the proportions of the design which will be patterned on it. Development of the shoe last usually starts with what we call a master last. This is the initial prototype where the initial specs are determined and tested. From the toe box, arch, instep, width/girth, heel profile, all these and many other features of the shoe are designed and implemented in this step. It is an art in itself where a proper last maker translates the basic foot proportions and creates the basic shoe profile. Traditionally, there were master last makers who develop and sculpt shoe lasts for local brands to use but recently, it has been difficult to find last makers who are masters of their craft. The rise of low cost, mass production shoemaking has made it a not so lucrative profession and skill since most local shoemakers now just make do with what is commercially available.

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Most shoe lasts now come from commercially sold ones from the local shoe supply shops which are usually based on imported master lasts then are locally reproduced. Other shapes and profiles come from replicated profiles from commercially available shoes which the workshops want to replicate. Shoe last piracy is still an issue since most last factories keep a copy of the good lasts that they have reproduced and sells it to their other clients. It’s something which is endemic to the industry which can discourage small designer brands from developing their own lasts since R&D costs resources just to be copied by other workshops.

STEP 2: Pagapapadron (Padron) – Design and Pattern Making

If the shoe last is the foundation of the shoe, the design and pattern implementation are the essentially the soul of the shoe. The design determines the purpose, from formal to casual, from aesthetically pleasing to functional purpose. Then the pattern is the implementation of this purpose, which can make or break the shoe. While the master pattern would almost always fit well, the subsequent sorting usually have issues which require handlasting in order to address the imperfections. What do I mean about this?

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Our local padronista, or pattern makers, have a variety of methods to scale the pattern to different sizes. The local term for this is “sortidos” which basically means to create a set of patterns with covering all sizes. They have a variety of methods available to them in scaling the patterns but most local patternmakers do not test the pattern but instead rely on their instinct when it comes to doing quality control on a pattern. While this works for less complicated designs, such as boatshoes and basic loafers, when it comes to oxfords and monkstraps the error margin increases as the pattern gets further away from the master pattern. There have been conflicting schools of thought from the professionally trained pattern makers whether they should go for the formula method or the radial method. Either way, the key step to pattern making for production is actually pattern testing.

The biggest threat right now to the MSME shoemaking is the lack of experienced pattern makers. Most of the old pattern makers are retired and the new ones are not that experienced yet, not to mention lackingnthe proper mentorship from senior patternmakers which make for part of the problem. Another is the lack of proper professionalization of the industry. Small workshops simply do not have the budget to maintain an in-house pattern maker. Most of the pattern makers are freelance and would like to keep it like so for the reason of not being bound to a single workshop.

Once the patterns are finalized on paper/cartolina, they are stuck to more sturdier materials such as thick plastic or thin metal sheets. These would make it easier for the cutter/clicker to mark the leathers for the individual panels.

STEP 3: Cutting – Clicking

Clicking is the traditional term used to refer to the cutting of the leather for upper assembly. The term is derived from the the clicking sound the leather cutting tool makes when lifting the clicker die/blade from the leather. The use of a clicker die makes things more accurate and uniform and is good for production lines. Micro and small scale workshops however, employ the use of cutters but instead of using a clicker blade, we often use regular sharpened cutter blades and scissors to cut our leathers.

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It usually starts with the cutter curating the hide, checking for defects and marks them with a silver pen or white pencil in order to avoid them when tracing the pattern over the hide. These are usually insect bites, scratches, burn marks, and paint that have accumulated on scars when the hides are tanned. Once the defects are marked, the cutter then determines the pull of the leather, or “task ng balat”, in order to ensure the firmness especially in areas that bend. After that, the cutter traces the pattern onto the leather, carefully calculating the maximum yield. Experienced cutters make for less wastage. In mass production facilities, they have computer aided pattern markers in order to maximize the yield of each leather hide.

STEP 4: Areglo – Upper Assemble

The next step is to prep the uppers. The local term is “pagaareglo” which is a series of steps in order prepare the cut leather for permanent stitching. This usually includes skiving, which is the thinking of the leather along the edges so that the overlapping area between panels won’t be so thick. Skiving can be done manually using a blade or mechanically using a skiving machine. More advanced workshops employ the use of a splitting machine in order to equalise the thickness of the leather or to get the desired thickness per panel before skiving.

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The next process is to add details like brogues. Hand stitched elements can be added during this stage as well. Once the details have been added, the pattern is assembled by joining it along the edges. Rubber contact cement is usually employed to create a temporary hold over the pattern edges so that it would be easier for the sewer to close the uppers. After this, the lining is also cut and assembled to be given to the sewer for closing.

STEP 5: Tahi – Closing

Closing is technically the last stage that the upper goes through before the upper gets sent to the shoemaker for the next process. This is a pretty straightforward process which requires a lot of skill on the part of the sewer since the stitches highlight the design, reinforce what I call the “line” which guides your vision to follow a specific path along the shoe, and also give strength and support along the seams of the shoe. Enclosing the brogues with stitches are also part of this process which if vital in producing a good looking pair of shoes if the design allows for it.

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STEP 6: Lapat – Lasting

Lasting, or paglalapat, refers to the act of pulling over the built leather uppers onto the last then is fastened/secured onto the insole, or letehan in local terms, via shoe tacks. The toecap and heel also receive stiffeners (could be board or leather or even plastic cement/engrudo) in order to form a hard counter on those areas to provide both form and structural integrity to the shoes. The leather is allowed to sit on the last for some time, usually a day or two, while also being heated for the leather to form and hold its shape. There are a few days that we go about this, during sunny days, we just leave the shoes to bake under the sun. For more mass production methods, a coal oven cabinet is often employed where shoes bake inside for around 4 to 6 hours before being taken out for individual hammering or “baldog” or ironing out the leather for better form fitting crease removal. With us in Black Wing, we usually let the shoes sit under the sun since the coal cabinet can severely dry the leather, we also make use of custom mounted heat guns instead of using open flame via a Bunsen burner for safety purposes.

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Sometimes, we have to wet the leather if it is too tough. Once wet, the fibers loosen up a bit allowing for the shoemaker to pull on the leather better and once the leather dries up, the form will hold better. In some production lines, steam would sometimes be utilized in tandem with lasting machines to cut lasting time exponentially.

STEP 7: Enya – Welting

The welt is a strip of leather that goes around the bottom of the lasted uppers. Its main purpose is to act as a brace for the welt stitch which is determined by the method of shoe construction which will be utilized. It is an integral component for Goodyear welted and Blake rapid shoes. The shoe brand Allen Edmonds even developed a method wherein they were able to use the welt as the brace to maintain the form of the shoe instead of using a metal shank as a spine. On the traditional Goodyear method, the welt is hand sewn to the insole. Once done, form or other midsole materials are put in before the outsole is attached.

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For majority of Marikina manufacturers, a Blake stitch is the preferred method due to its economy and speed. The welt used are usually decorative although with us in Black Wing, we use the “welt line” of the marks created when the welt is removed during resolving as a guide for relasting the shoes. It follows the same process as the Goodyear welt minus the stitching of the insole onto the welt.

STEP 8: Midsole

This step is often disregarded for low cost shoe production. That is why on cheaper shoes, sometimes you’d feel that there is air in between your insole and the outsole. That is usually the space that was filled in by the midsole but instead was left empty by the shoemaker and adhesive was put in order to bond the insole and the outsole. Or sometimes they use thick cardboard as their midsole which eventually disintegrates over time.

The proper midsole material is actually cork. Cork has a property of being flexible and can hold a shape over time, which is perfect for support purposes. Do you ever wonder why Birkenstocks feel great after a while of using them? It is because its primary material is cork and once it molds into your foot, the support that it gives becomes something that hard to replicate with non-cork based footwear.

The metal shank is also installed in this stage in order to act as the spine of the shoe. This counters the wearer’s weight when pressed down as the wearer walks on the shoes. Without a proper spine, the mouth of the shoe will open up every time weight is put on the shoe. The higher the heel, the bigger the gape.

STEP 9: Swelas – Outsole

Attaching the outsoles is the final step to close the shoes. Outsoles are usually rubber or leather in nature. Some are unit soles or component soles which are already built and is usually made out of plastic and rubber compounds. Craft rubber outsoles are usually cut from sheet rubber, or tire interiors in our case, in order to accommodate custom widths and lengths. The same can be said for crafted leather outsoles which is what is usually used for custom shoes. Unit outsoles are good for mass production but cannot be easily used for custom fit shoes. This is because the outsole determines the instep shape which is the base of the shoe last. Ever wonder why some RTW shoes (from Geox, Hush Puppies, Aldo) are tighter than others even if they are from the same brand? It is because the outsole determines the fit of the shoe since it determines the shape of the base of the shoe. Custom crafted outsoles are better since the width can be tailored to your feet, making for a more comfortable fit.

Once the outsoles are glued, we will carve a channel running around the outsole to provide a guide for the Blake stitch. Once the outsoles are stitched, we attach the heel in order to seal the ends of the Blake stitch. Nails and screws are then installed to mitigate the heel wobble that might occur with use. Locally, commercial heels made of either rubber or stacked marine plyboard are used. We normally use the marine plyboard since it simulated stacked leather well. To enhance the look, we sometimes wrap the heel with “stacked heel” whihc is basically a thin cutout sheet of a stacked leather heel to give it a more “natural” look, especially for unpainted outsoles. We then present an option whether to attach a sole protector, which is a thin rubber sheet, in order to help protect the base outsole from wear as well as provide better grip. The sides are then sanded down to create a smoother finish.

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STEP 10: Finishing

This is the final stage before the shoes are boxed. Normally, final quality control is implemented here in order to verify the shoes for the client. This is also the stage where the shoes are cleaned of stray adhesives, frayed leather edges, minor marks and scratches. Any shoe makeup will be applied in this stage before being waxed and polished for presentation to the client.

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I hope this has been informative to you guys. This is how we typically do shoes here in Marikina. Some methods may vary a little from others but the general steps are as was discussed. Most Marikina workshops produce handcrafted shoes and are rarely machine assisted hence is very labor intensive which is why we are slow to produce and cannot sell abroad in commercial quantities. As the greatest weakness of Marikina is production, it can also become our greatest asset if utilized properly instead of being wasted on cheap shoes. I have set our limitations as according to Marikina’s limitations in order to show how far we can take local materials, methods and talents with just a few major tweaks to how we do things. Black Wing is the result of that.

Now we are working towards the more. We will make Marikina great again, but not with the way the oppressive system of undermining our artisans via the pakyaw system and scrambling to produce cheap shoes. We are what we eat. In our case here in Marikina, we are what we make… so if the mindset of the industry players here is to make cheap, low cost, low talent bargain footwear then it just goes to show how we have lost the dream, the pride, the honor, the essence, the truth of being the shoe capital of the Philippines.

Recently, there has been a boom in local shoemaking. This is largely part to the awareness to the plight of the Marikina shoe industry, the high cost of doing business with Chinese suppliers, the development of a sense of patriotism among the millennial population to #supportlocalph and the shift of the general market behavior from looking for cheap bargains to looking for best value proposition in products and services.

While the boom is very much welcome here in Marikina, I am concerned that the industry players, while benefiting from this, hardly changed their business model and just rode on the wave of interest without thought to the sustainability of their business models. The main concern is that the labor practices have not changed. The industry players had a chance to change our labor practices to fit modern acceptable standards to make it sustainable and appealing to the new generation as a profession. Most Marikina made shoes are not made ethically to be honest. And the market perpetuates this practice by continuing to drive local brands to sell at cheaper prices. If this continues, as most old industry players know but wont acknowledge publicly, is that after this generation, we wont have any more local shoemakers. If we do not create a proper and sustainable business model for the local shoemaker, the local knowledge and and craft dies with the aging ones now. This is the reality of Marikina shoemaking. More than the marketing, more than #supportlocalph, more than Black Wing. We are trying to save our local culture, not by patronizing cheap shoes made by novices, but by aiming to elevate our craft to be properly recognized as being able to compete on even grounds with artisans from Italy and the UK. It is a work in progress, still an uphill battle but I know we can do it. We just need a little more time, and a market who is aware of our cause.

 

Rekindled

It’s been a while since I last posted here on the blog. We have been busy tweaking our internal processes and improving our builds. As most of our returning clients from 2014-2016 would notice, our fitting and silhouettes have improved and our senior shoemakers have progressed their last making skills to be able to make a sleeker looking shoe even with a wider fit. This was done throughout 2017 and we’ve been trying to expand our offerings also by easing on the self-imposed limitations that I implemented to show other small workshops what we could do with Filipino talent mixed locally available materials from Marikina. I was in talks with small local entrepreneurs wanting to launch their own shoe brands, local tanneries for developing leathers for a more upscale market, foreign investors wanting to develop our local industry to be ready for export, and retail estate suppliers for a possible retail outlet expansion. Yes, it has been a busy and tiring 2017. And we were to busy being Black Wing Shoes that I nearly forgot what we wanted to become from the beginning.

Routine and Mainstream

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Logically, when a brand reaches a certain size and becomes “mainstream” it should scale up production to meet demand and increase it’s reach by expanding it’s territory. By taking advantage of the brand reach, the brand and business would perform better financially, making it more financially rewarding for the business/brand owner. But then again, in doing this, the brand may alienate the founder and the market that supported it in the first place. This is what almost happened to us. We were performing at my established maximum output and retraining shoemakers so we could expand production, I feel that we technically hit mainstream when our organic marketing strategy grew our Facebook following to 10k towards the end of 2017 and 8k over at our Instagram account with support and followership growing still. We got busy, I got busy, so busy that I forgot how to stop and listen to my heart more than my mind. I went into talks with people in hopes of expanding the brand, because it was the next logical step. It was routine, almost textbook even. And everybody whom I talked to felt really positive about the possibility of Black Wing going mainstream. To be honest, even I got excited about it. Imagine the possibilities, just imagine what could be accomplished. I got so caught up in maintaining Black Wing’s operations that I set it on a path of growing financially but stagnating as a brand. This is the risk of routine. Routine is a trap that most businesses fall into then they wake up after some time only to realize that the competitor has already gotten ahead and that they are so far away from their original vision. Routine can kill passion, it is the promise of the happily ever after which it’s not. Without passion, without love for what you are pursuing, the endeavor becomes empty and the fire that once blazed can be easily snuffed out by opposition and the occasional disappointments.

But if the goal is just to set up a good and profitable business then you’d want routine and want to become part of the mainstream. Innovation can be part of the routine, keeping up with trends and releasing improvements every couple of years becomes part of the product-service life cycle. The heart of the business becomes something that is out of a textbook. Routine can kill the spirit of the business by killing the passion that drives it. I felt trapped, trapped by deadlines, trapped by my responsibilities to the business, I was trapped by the thing that was Black Wing. While we are moderately successful, I never saw us growing towards our original goal: which was to revive and make our local shoe industry great again.

But as Duke Leto Atreides (Dune) would put it: Knowing that there is a trap is the first step to avoiding it.

Stepping Back

Like any responsible business manager, I strove to created a system to monitor and regulate the routine which was Black Wing. This was so I could clear my head and get time to fix our bearings. It was also a way for me to train a new manager, so I hired a new assistant. Easing the burden of monitoring everyday tasks greatly helped. I got to experiment and explore shoe care and maintenance services, develop my finishing skills and understanding of locally available materials, talking with people to explore options and possibilities. Stepping back from micromanaging gave me time to think and assess as to where Black Wing is, where it was headed, and where I would want it to be.

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Earlier this year, I took another step back by cutting production by 20%. This is to ensure quality control and give us enough breathing room to develop our sister, or should I say “child”, brand. It was both a business and personal decision as I personality felt that Black Wing had gotten away from me and away from the vision of what it should be. I decided to bring Black Wing back to where it was last 2016. I have to admit, 2017 was my lost year. A good thing that came out of it was I was able to experience what I do not want to happen to Black Wing when we are able scale it up successfully. R&D was pretty much shelved during this time and it mostly became about business expansion. I felt that it lost it’s heart, so I decided that I want to bring it back.

Core techniques that were developed during 2017 were actually my finishing skills. This is when I studied how to recondition and properly polish old and new shoes. While I might still be a novice at it, I would share my experiences and knowledge in future posts for this year. I also learned how to effectively use locally developed acrylic leather paints to stain and paint leather to make it part of our service offerings. What I basically realized at the end of the whole “keeping busy” part was that, as an entrepreneur, one must be aware of keeping balance between keeping up with the everyday routine tasks required to maintain a business and poking around and finding ways to innovate your business model.

Reviving the Passion

2017 was not a wasted. Like I said, while the business innovation stagnated in a sense, we were able to polish our methods and I got a glimpse of one of the possible paths that Black Wing can go through once we achieve proper scaling of our production. While taking in the experience, I was already trying to find ways on how we can avoid the trap of stagnation which is akin to what I call the subcon trap which I have mentioned in previous entries. Basic gist of the subcon trap is that as a subcontractor/supplier, you become to busy fulfilling orders and following instructions that you forget to think for yourself and one day wake up with all your competitors working on the next big thing already. When that happens, your business would have a hard time catching up which can sometimes lead to the failure of said business. Black Wing was in danger of having this happen to it.

That is why towards the end of 2017, I have been searching of ways to innovate the service further and create new services for us to expand. Instead of expanding production capacity, I decided to opt for the expansion of our service offerings and implemented the reduction of our production quota earlier this year so we can do some R&D which is pretty much like investing for a more sustainable future for the brand. It has been difficult and frustrating but now we have our prototypes tested and methods updated for the additional services which we will be offering this year.

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First off, “The Lounge” services will continue for those wanting to avail of it. It is where we recondition and polish your shoes whether it came from us or not. We would however caution that if the leather used for your shoes was heavily processed, we might have issues when cleaning/conditioning them. Second, our “child” brand Dapper Tod will officially be launched within the quarter. Preorders for sizes kids 5-10 for certain styles will commence next week. You guys might want to visit our Facebook page dappertod for details and updates. Third is the development of our semi-bespoke offering. This is a step up from what we do at Black Wing and will offer more options as well as the creation of the clients’ own last but is still a couple of steps below full bespoke. That is it so far for our commercial expansion, now we go to the more interesting part.

When Black Wing was conceptualized, it aimed to create awareness among local shoemakers as well as consumers that locally made shoes can still compete in a global market while starting at the local level. I believe that we have achieved that goal and that we have proven that we can stand against the ebb of foreign brands being brought in by marketing companies (who instead of growing local brands, pursue a less difficult/stressful but more capital intensive route to expanding their brand roster). We have also proven that micro can work. We are operating with less than 10 artisans when we hit our breakthrough 2 years ago. It can be done, and with the artisans receiving standard wages with performance bonuses and benefits. Happy workers and artisans make for good products and services after all. Recently, I have developed a performance grade system which aims to keep track our our artisans so we can properly grade them in terms of their talent for their craft. It is a simple method of meeting the required units/points per week and then mistakes will be subtracted from the weekly score which will be then tallied every quarter. I am gathering data right now in order to set benchmarks. After which I will publish the mechanics of the system for other workshops to use. This is to professionalize the craft in order to bring the dignity back to shoemakers so that it would be treated as a serious profession and not some “no-choice” job because of a lack of formal education which makes it akin to no-skill laborers. The push for mass production has taken the artisan out of the profession and transformed the shoemaker into a living and breathing version of a machine which is being deployed in more advanced facilities in China, Vietnam, and India. And these shoemakers are poorly paid hence the lack of younger people who seek it to become their profession. Local artisan shoemaking will not be relegated to the history books of Marikina and as part of a museum tour or experiential workshop. It is a heritage industry, one that most industry players and local officials fail to see and develop instead they force mass production models and “going big”. We are now a segment of the industry which is neglected in favor of big business since our voices cannot be heard still. For the longest time, we had no representation. Real shoemakers have had no representation this past decade. Businessmen and big brands represent a segment of the industry but not the industry as a whole.

This is why I will be working on a program which seeks to develop local artisanal shoemaking by coordinating with the various stakeholders and talking to our LGU so that our industry segment would be officially recognized. We are technically the marginalized sector of this industry because business interest takes precedence and the stakeholders are divided, often fighting against each other for the favor of big business. I will be talking more on these initiatives once we get the ball rolling. But suffice to say, the passion for this industry and this art has been rekindled within me and the fight starts a new.

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As we look towards the future, we must look at it with a hopeful perspective. As I have learned with my recent personal struggles, it is important to first identify the issue, learn about the issue and accept the consequences, pray for wisdom and guidance, keep a hopeful perspective, formulate and test solutions, and keep on pushing forward never giving up. We owe it to the future generations to keep this segment of the industry thriving. As a Marikeño, I owe it to those who came before me to not let our heritage die out.

Business and Leisure Interview

Here is a video of an interview I did last December 2017 for sir Butch Gamboa’s Philstar column and was eventually translated into a short video feature for the Business and Leisure website under the Strictly business segment.

The interview also got reactions from readers of his column. The article can be read at:
https://www.philstar.com/business/2017/12/08/1766520/readers-react

We hope to bring more awareness about our industry in order for us to properly revive it in a sustainable environment free from predatory pricing and opportunistic businessmen. We have a chance to rebuild the industry, we have to do it right this time.