If clothes make the man then it’s his shoes that are his signature. Even in the heat and dust of Saigon, there are those inevitable occasions when a great pair of shoes, along with the style and confidence boost they bring, simply cannot be beat. It might sound out of place in a land where cream-colored plastic slippers and ragtag flip-flops hold sway, but Andy Nguyen believes the (handcrafted Italian leather) shoe is now firmly on the other foot.
“The market in Asia is saturated with cheap shoes of low quality which you can buy almost anywhere,” says Andy in the plush confines of Mangii Shoes (7/9B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, D1). Surrounded by vintage blackand-white photos and racks of classic Oxfords and stylish double monks, the young entrepreneur says the idea of starting his own brand of luxury custom-made shoes sprang from a mix of business, fashion and a bit of science. “The Vietnamese by nature are very hardworking and meticulous which makes us good workers,” he says. “But we lack the know-how to make our own high-quality products which means we end up making shoes, clothing and furniture for foreign companies. Vietnam is one of the largest shoe manufacturing nations, but it’s just labor, not creativity. That’s a pity because it’s something that we Vietnamese can do.”
“I’ve always loved shoes,” he continues. “But the shoes I found were either too expensive, too ugly or too painful. I knew there were other people like me, desperately looking for good shoes to wear. The market is here.” With that, he spent three years learning from a shoe master before purchasing his own workshop and spending the next two years repurposing it from mass production to making shoes by hand. “It wasn’t really ‘brainwashing,’” he says with a laugh, describing the arduous process of changing the mindset of craftsmen who had spent decades making shoes based on someone else’s designs and specs. “But it took a long time to convince them that a market for high-quality shoes did exist, even if it meant making only 10-20 pairs a day instead of a hundred. They simply found it hard to understand why we needed to spend so much time on a single pair of shoes.”
With a slight Singaporean lilt acquired from studying Chemistry at the National Institute of Singapore, Andy seamlessly transitions to the fascinating science of shoemaking as he takes my measurements using both a Brannock Device and a tape measure. “Shoes are the only fashion item that involve science. Just look at all the research that has gone into creating the perfect running shoe,” he says as he pronounces my feet mostly symmetrical. While 70-80 percent of his customers can comfortably fit his ready-to-wear line, some need custom-made shoes because one foot (usually the dominant one) may be millimeters larger than the other or genetics and environment may contribute to a variance in foot and toe width. “Vietnamese tend to have shorter, wider feet with splayed toes because they grow up walking barefoot or wearing flip-flops while Europeans usually have longer, narrower feet with the toes closer together because they’re used to wearing shoes from a young age,” he says. “Shoe companies use a vast amount of data to find the median for their customers in a certain location, meaning a shoe size in one region of the world may fit differently than the same size somewhere else.”
Andy next has me try on a pair of fitting shoes to determine what minor adjustments are needed – where the shoe feels loose or tight for that truly customized feel, something that measurements on their own cannot capture. From there, it’s simply a matter of selecting from the ten or so shoe and boot styles the shop specializes in (although one-of-a-kind shoes are also a possibility) and the type of leather from several books of swatches of standard and premium Italian dyed leather and patina which can be uniquely hand-colored. Andy’s philosophy is to balance practicality and luxury, spending money where it should be spent–mainly in the premium construction of the shoe using high-quality but not ultra-premium materials, the difference between a USD200 pair of shoes and an USD800 pair. “Some people may really need that quality,” says Andy, “but the majority need something that looks great while lasting ten years. If luxury products are unaffordable, I’ve lost the opportunity to provide my customers with something they really deserve.”
I settle on a trendy double monk in a navy Italian leather. It’ll take at least a week for the shoes to be made in Andy’s workshop where craftsmen use traditional methods to hand-make the shoes, starting with stretching the leather upper over a last that’s been modified with tiny fractions of leather and cork for a perfect replica of my feet. While it’s the upper that everyone sees, the secret to a well-made pair of shoes is actually in the sole, made up of the insole, the welt and the outsole (the part that touches the ground). “Anyone can make an upper,” says Andy, “but less than 20 factories in all of Southeast Asia can stitch the sole because it’s so time-consuming and requires a high level of skill,” as opposed to gluing the shoe together which is what most shoemakers do. “It’s the hand-stitching that gives a well-made pair of shoes longevity. The first stitch holds the shoe together while the second stitch in the outsole ensures that the shoe is reparable. Simply cut the outsole and replace it with another piece of leather. Once it’s stitched up again, the shoe can be completely like new,” says Andy.
Just over a week later, I’m back at Mangii Shoes to try on my new pair of shoes and they fit like a glove. It’s the best gift I could’ve given myself, thanks to the Cinderella Man
Ready-to-wear shoes start at VND3,600,000. Custom-made shoes start at VND4,500,000. The shop also sells beautiful dress socks and other shoe accessories. Visit www.mangiishoes.com for more.
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN