It seems like we have so many choices today, but the more I look the more I find the same low-quality cookie cutter shoes, the same starchy shirts, and the same pair of artificially worn jeans. In a race for returns, companies have ramped up and outsourced production leaving many of us with full closets, yet nothing to wear.
As a millennial and a conscious consumer I have a few problems when it comes to shopping for new shoes…
- Finding ethically made shoes is difficult. After my recent trip to a Vietnamese garment factory I’m even more devoted to fair trade.
- Finding shoes that fit right, that I can walk more than a few blocks in, is insanely frustrating. It’s frustrating because I have very average feet and I expect it to be easy to find comfortable shoes. Yet, pair after pair just aren’t quite right. A blister here, a weird rub there… I’ve left style behind, wearing my running shoes everywhere.
- Settling for shoes that are “okay” happens too often. I buy a pair, wear them for a few days before realizing they aren’t comfortable or I was suckered into buying them by a pushy salesman. Then they sit around for a few months until I finaly donate them to Goodwill.
- Can I be original for once without paying $200 for shoes? Everywhere I go I see the same Vans, Nike, and Topsiders that have outcompeted all other brands.
…but I also have a solution.
- Go to the source. Find out who’s making my shoes so I know where my money is going.
- Go custom.
- Have shoes made for my feet. Not the average shape of a 27 year old’s foot. My actual foot.
- Chose my own style… no compromises.
- Enjoy the unique experience and value my shoes more for it.
So here’s how I found my custom, ethical shoes at a very reasonable price:
One small detail: I had to travel half way around the world to do it…
Highlighted in travel guides as a must see tourist destination where you can get a tailored suit at bargain price, Hoi An was an easy choice for me to start my search for custom shoes, but it wasn’t quite what I expected.
From the capital city I flew to Da Nang in the middle of Vietnam, rented a scooter, and made the 30 min ride along the coast to get to the “ancient city” of Hoi An. It’s a historic port city that was a hub for traders coming as far away as Portugal, India and Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage site has been preserved for its cultural as a South-East Asia trading port from the 1400’s… and today it’s still somewhat of a trading port, dominated mostly by Americans and Europeans on their Southeast Asia tour.
As soon as I arrived my shield went up and I assumed my defensive stance against buying anything. There was a high density of tourists and pretty aggressive vendors selling everything from trinkets to tailored suits and I was a little overwhelmed.
I wasn’t expecting to get the same feeling you get when you walk into an outlet mall and I was dissapointed when I did. So, I did what I always do when I feel overwhelmed – I made my way to the fringes.
Away from the ferver and feeling a little more comfortable, I started my search.
In an older building on the outskirts of the local food market I met Cam. Cam is a shoe vendor who owns her own custom shoe business. Her store front is basically a 6×3 foot space with custom shoe designs on display.
I had a lot of questions about who made the shoes she sells, where the materials came from, and how the whole process worked. Cam was happy to explain the shoe making process with me over a plate of rice and vegetables at her sister’s food stand -I try not to make decisions on an empty stomach (rule #2).
Before I agreed to buy a pair of custom shoes from Cam, I had to see where my shoes would be made. I was afraid I would put in my order only to find out later my shoes were mass produced behind the scenes. So, I got on the back of her scooter and she drove me to her house to show me the process.
This is what I found:
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I jumped on the back of Cam’s scooter and was whisked away. But after a couple main streets and a few sketchy alleys later we popped out here:
I quickly realized this shoe making operation was quite literally taking place in a converted home.
When I entered the “shoe shop” I was relieved to find that it was nothing like the garment factory I had been in a few weeks earlier. The atmosphere was relaxed. Her family (and friends) welcomed me in and were excited at the opportunity to practice their English. A few men worked casually on different pairs of shoes, while others watched, relaxed, and did what we all do with every free second – killed time on their smart phones.
Cutting the sole… not everyone in the operation is an artist.
Here are the main panels of the shoe in their infancy. Using a stencil he outlines the panels of the fabric with a silver pen before cutting them out with scissors and punching holes with that weird-looking hammer, nail, and cutting board you see at the top of the picture.
About half of the guys working were shirtless… and I can’t blame them. I was drenched in sweat after my first 15 minutes of walking around Hoi An with my backpack on. It’s f’ing hot and humid in Vietnam this time of year.
Trimming panels for the right fit and sewing the panels together.
After the body of the shoe is formed and sewn, the sole is added. This giant sewing machine is the only part of the process that seemed industrial.
Getting My Shoes
I decided to put in my order for my dream shoe.
I picked a style she had on display and began making my modification requests, going over the whole shoe. I knew what I wanted in my head and did my best to describe to her my perfect shoe. Using a few other shoes as examples I showed her what features I wanted for each part of the shoe and then picked the fabric.
Cam proceeded to measure my feet in a few different ways. She measured the length (obviously) but also the circumference of my feet at the base of my toes and my arch, as well as the back of my heel to the base of my ankle. Coming from my typical experience of only choosing the difference between size 10.5 and 11… I was already impressed with the customization.
After putting in my order I had to wait two days…
With my specific modification requests I was a little nervous, but… my new shoes turned out great.
What’s special about these shoes?
Besides being shaped to the length, height, and width of my foot, I also had a few other modifications to make them more comfortable:
- No metal – This type of shoe usually comes standard with metal in the heel and toe to give it a tight rigid look. It also makes the shoes really uncomfortable.
- Soft heel – Shoes like this usually have a hard wood heel. I opted for a soft sole throughout to make it more comfortable to walk in.
- These shoes have a story.
The transparency of my shoe buying experience was a breath of fresh air and I doubt I’ll ever walk back into a retail outlet to buy shoes again.
But even though I’ve taken a step or two in the right direction, my journey for the perfect shoe isn’t over.
The next step is to integrate environmentally friendly materials. The materials in this shoe are largely petroleum based and I don’t have much insight into where they were sourced. As I work toward creating a positive impact shoe, my next pair will have to come from sustainably sourced or repurposed materials.
If you have some advice, ideas, or tips to help me find sustainable materials let me know! And, if you have had similar experiences please share so we can learn from them.