As we are approaching the 10th year anniversary of the workshop, I would like to write a series of essays where I hope I can impart some of my emotions, learnings, experiences, and trails to all who are interested with Marikina shoemaking. Let me start this series of essays with a short introspection as to why I established the workshop. I hope all of you readers will enjoy a glimpse of how I came to create the brand the way it has come out.
–Buddy Tan, founder and designer
I remember celebrating the Christmas holidays with the workshops who have been our family’s clients for many years. The workspaces would be cleared as all the shoemakers and their families would lineup to get food. Having set tables weren’t a big thing with these celebrations, we would often eat where there is an available seat. I remember playing touch-taya, cops and robbers, and patintero with the others kids around the workshops since the streets were usually closed for celebrations like these. In the summers during academic breaks we would often go to the beaches in Batangas with the same people. We would all be packed in a Tamaraw (not the Tamaraw FX) along with rented jeepneys and travel early to spend a day in the beach. Lunch would be brought in large cauldrons and pots and we’d go swimming with the families of the workshops owners and shoemakers as to celebrate the end of another academic year for us kids. There was even a time when beaches got so crowded that we instead went to swim under a bridge in Liliw Laguna, though I forget which one. I remember that stream since it was rocky, shallow, and had lots of leeches. In my youth I was eager to help out in our family business selling rubber EVA and other footwear inputs by being a kargador (porter). Yes, I liked lifting dirty dusty rubber sheets instead of spending time behind the kaha (cash register). I remember our customers praising me for helping out with the business and for doing heavy work. They were my titos and titas. I spent more time with them than my actual uncles and aunts to be honest. I saw how they worked hard to establish security for their families. I saw how their lives were improving as the years went by and how it was all taken away back in 1997. 1990 to 1996 was an unprecedented period of growth for the informal footwear industry.
I remember 1997. Many might know and remember it as the year the Asian Financial Crisis hit the world. I remember it as the year where much of the local informal economy of footwear, particularly for small shoe and sandals makers, was pretty much crippled by a check kiting scheme. From shoe supply stores to informal financiers to workshops, we were all devastated as an entire economy came crashing down with justice still denied to this day. Workshops used PDCs paid to them by wholesellers to secure materials for their products which were apparently bogus checks. Perpetrators to the scheme would get their tinderas to open checking accounts and issue checks posing as customers which are then endorsed by Baclaran wholesellers. This went on for over a year until it got too big that the product sales could no longer sustain the scheme. When the perpetrators decided to bail at the end of 1996, we were all shook as checks started bouncing and effectively wiping out much of the established economy. 1997 was also the time when local companies started looking into importation to keep up with the local growth of the retail sector. At this time malls were expanding and local manufacturers could no longer keep up with the design and manufacturing advantages of Chinese products. While local products remained superior in quality, the speed of which these products are produced is inherently slow. Majority of the major manufacturing factories had downsized or stopped operations by this time due to the labor strikes that were prevalent back then, effectively leading to a reliance on subcontracting to small and microscale workshops. I do not know about how others would frame this story, but this was my experience in the middle of it all. I spent my weekends and summers at our family store. I remember hearing my mother crying as she worried over our future. How my father kept silent while trying to be strong for all of us as we were facing uncertainty. I remember the help that was given by a senior in the industry. We were all hit and things would never be the same after that.
When I started my tertiary education I took up political science as my major. I had planned on proceeding to law school but then I had a teacher who inspired me to teach and help others instead of pursuing a career in law. Men and women for others and we have too many lawyers in the Philippines and not enough teachers according to him. This decision of course did not sit well with my parents. Upon graduation though I went to work various jobs in the private sector. I was not able to take time for a masters degree because I did not have the resources to do so. It was during my time with the private sector when I saw how our local footwear industry is slowly deteriorating due to non-innovation and lack of competitiveness. I argued with my elders as I pointed out that outdated marketing and product development due to lack of R&D would cripple the industry. I was looking at it from a business standpoint and even then, I saw importation as the quickest way to make money while also seeing that local micro and small scale manufacturing is agile enough to ride trends given the proper resources. I eventually found myself working as a consultant for politicians having acquired multidisciplinary experience in the private sector. This led me to spend a couple of years away from the city. This period had me working with the grassroots. We educated them to try and empower them. I had worked with farmers, fisherfolks, and market vendors. Little did I know that my experience with them would impact my perspective when I returned to manage the family business.
After my stint in the public sector I had to take a long break. I essentially became what is now called a hikikomori, a recluse from society. I never met old friends because I just wanted to get away from it all. My only socialization at that time came from playing MMORPGs. In the couple of years that I played online games I developed new friendships which slowly drew me away from my depression and ultimately my reclusion. It was a new start for me and was offered to take over the family business as my father wanted to retire from it, while I wanted to start a footwear making business. Instead of having the store closed I decided to take over management of the shoe supply store and pursue my personal business after stabilizing store operations under my watch. I tweaked the processes of the store and after a year of managing it had developed a pretty stable routine which left me with a lot of time in the afternoon. At the beginning I would just watch movies or play video games during the lull periods while processing in the background on how I can set up a new business which can be competitive in the market. I wanted a business which worked “smarter” than what was already existing by creating higher value products which would essentially yield the same amount of profit for less resources. At this time, I wanted to prove a point that local shoemaking (not marketing) can thrive in the modern market given the proper business model.
HOW DID BLACK WING BECOME WHAT IT IS?
When the workshop was set up, I hired a shoemaker (daily wage against piece rate) to make footwear for me. We started with leather sandals while the team was being recruited. The leather sandals generated little to no interest. A couple of months later my shoemaker recommended that we start manufacturing for bazaar brands. We eventually got 2 clients and started making shoes for their brands. It was at this time when I started studying the local methods and processes to manufactured shoes. I wanted to start my own brand as well and plans were underway as we produced shoes and did more research and development on how we can make a better product, offer a better service, and ultimately make this business model (daily waged variant) more viable. But it wasn’t viable. Local demand from bazaar brands just wasn’t enough to keep up with wages. I needed to have my own retail outlet/brand in order to generate enough revenue to just break even. The final push for me to start my own brand instead of just supplying others shoes was my wedding. The workshop made my wedding shoes and I was fairly pleased that I was quite good even if I just wore them for the first time and for an entire day. You see I was a Crocs kind of guy back then. So I figured that if a guy like me who does not wear leather shoes can find these ones comfortable enough to last an entire day in them then we can reintroduce leather shoes to the sneaker crowd. Thus the brand was born. I started watching factory tours of various foreign brands on YouTube and even more videos on how they make shoes. It even came to a point that when I closed my eyes I’d be seeing shoes.
It started out with “standard sizing” and just selling online the made-to-order service. Eventually, sizing became an issue since Marikina sizing, or the last profiles being sold by the “hulmahan” (shoe last maker/seller) here, did not match the commercial sizing offered by mall brands. I decided to not look at local brands as well since I wanted to compete with imported mall brands since I knew that we needed to sell higher value products in order to make the business model more viable. I needed to prove that Marikina was still viable to both the market and the makers. Our styles appealed to the market back then since the most popular style back then were topsiders/boat shoes while we offered derby wingtips, chukka boots, and double monks. But the sizing issue lost us a lot of money. Shoes would be returned due to “wrong size” even if we just made the size as specified by the customer. This eventually led me to meet clients, especially those who are about to get married in order to take their measurements thus shifting the business model from made-to-order (MTO) to made-to-measure (MTM). No we are not bespoke and no there is no true commercial bespoke shoemaker here in the Philippines.
So during the course of setting up the workshop I got to know my artisans better. After all I needed to know how the old system works and what we can tweak to make it into a win-win-win situation. Even during the start of the workshop, I wanted to set limits so that what we do can be replicated. Even as we moved from MTO to MTM these limitations stayed in place. I wanted to see how far we can push locally available basic raw materials and local talent when set against imported commercial brands. So the basic limitations that were set are: as much as possible, local leather will be used; no imported shoe lasts will be used in order to somehow create a local sizing profile; machineries are limited to what are available to micro scale workshops; marketing would not include paid advertising; and no subcontracting would be permitted. These self imposed limitations are the typical challenges which a workshop/new brand will encounter. I wanted to see if we can create a successful online brand given the limitations set by the local environment where we will be operating in. After all we do not want other workshop owners saying that we only succeeded because we used special materials and machineries. I wanted to pay homage to the previous generations of artisan makers who lifted the industry on their shoulders with their talent and hard work. I wanted to prove that paying artisan workers daily wages is a viable compensation model. I wanted Black Wing to become an inspiration to old workshop owners, micro scale makers, and those who would want their own shoe business. I mean while I grew up in the industry, I hardly knew anything about men’s leather shoes. So if I can make a thriving brand using the same materials, same equipment, and local artisan makers whose proficiency is limited to boat shoes then logically more experienced workshop owners and makers would be able to do the same…
Black Wing became what it is because I wanted to see if it could be done. Amidst all the comments like “pinatay tayo ng imported” (imported shoes killed our industry) and “sakit sa ulo ang gawaan” (running a workshop is a headache), I wanted to believe that the industry that I grew up in could still thrive in this modern landscape. I didn’t want to just build a business, I wanted to save the community. I knew that if we set a good benchmark for other brands and workshops, we can elevate what is left of our industry. If we can elevate the micro scale manufacturers then we can continue with out heritage as shoemakers working in the shoe capital of the Philippines. One could say that Black Wing is me wanting to show that there is still hope for our heritage as Marikeños. That while everybody looked to commercialization and mass manufacturing as a way to fight poverty, there is another way where businesses and artisans can all progress together. Because when one talks about the local shoe industry, especially in Marikina, one isn’t just talking about businesses but about identity and cultural heritage.
Now almost 10 years after, we are somewhat worse off than when I started the workshop. Piece rate labor has hardly improved. I have never heard of workshops permanently hiring shoemakers and I actually hear that there is now quite a demand for shoemakers but no shoemakers are applying. Instead of being competitive in terms of labor, the industry has been left behind especially with the emergence of other more profitable gig work such as being a food delivery rider. The pandemic only pushed us further into the red because when the remaining workshops closed down, shoemakers found other work and found it to compensate better than shoemaking. While this may seem bleak, there is still a silver lining. While we cannot do much for the previous and current working population of artisan makers, we can lay the foundation for a more sustainable future for upcoming artisan makers. The future of the industry lies in the marriage between tradition and modern needs which I will discuss in this series of essays. Because of the improvement in technology and the improved awareness and reach we can ensure that given the proper business model and management, the future generations of artisan makers would have something to look forward to. There is still a future for the Philippine shoe industry, but we need to make more wholistic programs which seek to build local capacity and empower the grassroots.
What is Marikina without real shoemakers?