Saturday, October 09, 2010

Mamma Mia, look at this!

At the MICAM international footwear exhibition at Milan, Italy, Shevlin Sebastian watches in wonder at the exquisite styles on display

At the Artioli stall at the international footwear exhibition at Milan, Italy, there is a large poster of the late Hollywood director Billy Wilder. On it he had scrawled the following lines: ‘To my friend Vito Artioli: My gratitude for making me walk comfortably from here to eternity.’

“Billy introduced me to many leading Hollywood actors,” says Vito. “He would tell them, ‘You should wear Artioli, because he believes that shoes are the mirror of the soul of a man.’”

An Indian businessman, Amirali Jaffer, standing nearby, lifts up his shoe, points, and says, “You don’t mean the sole?” Vito laughs aloud, repeats the word, 'soul', and says, “I have a bit of advice for Indian women: ‘If you find a man wearing Artioli shoes, marry him at once!’”

It is sensible advice. Because Artioli shoes sell at 1000 euros (Rs. 60,000) and go all the way to 3000 euros (Rs. 1.8 lakh). So, only the well-heeled can afford his shoes. And that includes Indians also.

“There are a lot of Indians in Dubai who buy my shoes,” he says. “It is cheaper there, because it is duty-free.” Nevertheless, despite the high import duty of 60 per cent, he has plans to open a boutique in Mumbai, because of the rising number of millionaires in India .

Apart from millionaires, Vito also deals with the rich and the famous. He has made shoes for President Barack Obama and the late Pope John Paul 11. “The Pope is sleeping in eternity with my shoes,” he says. Another of his customers is one of the the richest men in the world: the Sultan of Brunei, Hassan al Bolkiah. Then, with a grin, he adds, “There are many actors from Bollywood who are my customers, but, unfortunately, I cannot reveal their names.”

Asked for the reason why Italian shoes are the best in the world, he says, “It is a mix of a long history, technical know-how, and enormous passion. But what is most important is that we live in a free society. We have the freedom to be creative.”

Akbar Shetranjiwala, who owns a high-end shoe boutique in Pune, says, “The artistry and the quality of the leather are mind-blowing. The level of creativity is very high. Here, the consumer readily accepts the new styles, and it becomes a commercial success. In India, the buyers are still very conservative when it comes to designs, but, hopefully, through regular international exposure, things will change.”

Says Rossini Soldini, another shoe manufacturer: “If you look at the map, you will discover that Italy is shaped like a boot. So, maybe, we are destined to make shoes.”

The MICAM exhibition at Milan, Italy, organised by the Italian Footwear Manufacturers’ Association of Italy, is spread over an area of 2 lakh square feet. It is the largest and most-well-known exhibition of footwear in the world. There are more than 1500 stalls displaying footwear for men and women, teenagers and children. Participants have come from 34 countries, while the buyers represent more than 100 countries.

Each stall is designed in a unique style, but what is unusual is that, at most stalls, there is a locked door, with a gorgeous-looking woman sitting in front on a high stool.

First you have to present your visiting card to her. She will take it inside to show it to the owner and only when he gives his assent are you allowed to enter.

“There are people who want to steal our designs,” says shoe manufacturer Andrea Brue. “So, we want to keep a control on the people who visit our shop. We are looking for genuine buyers and visitors. We like references. That is why we examine the visiting cards before we let in the people.”

Once you go inside, they treat you with gushing hospitality. Soft drinks, wine and champagne are on offer, while chocolate nuggets on trays can be nibbled at, while you go about the serious job of looking at world-class shoes.

Of course, there are Indians at the fair. Ajay Bhatia works for the children's company, Ciao Bimbi Shoes. “I came to Italy more than 20 years ago,” he says. “I have an Italian wife and children. I like it here.” He says that the Asian markets, including India, have to mature some more before they will be able to accept Italian shoes. “But I am sure, that in the near future, India and China are going to be big markets for us,” he says.

For that to happen, Jaffer, who owns shops catering to the affluent in Mumbai, Bangalore and Indore, says that the Indian government should reduce the import tax from 60 per cent.

“The buyers of Italian shoes belong to the elite, and they are small in number,” he says. “I don't think reducing the duty will affect the overall market.” Italian shoe manufacturer Marco Nesti says that because of the high taxes, the selling price of an Italian shoe in India becomes too steep. “The Indian government should do something,” he pleads.

But some Italians are undeterred. Flaminio Fabi, who owns the world-famous Fabi brand, is about to establish a tie-up with designer Ritu Kumar. “My shoes will be on display at her outlet in Gurgaon,” he says.

Fabi, a short, bespectacled man, who radiates energy and dynamism, says, “The unusual aspect of the Indian market is that the women prefer the shoes to match the clothes. So we will be making shoes that blend with the clothing. Ritu will be sending us different types of textiles to us.”

When asked why he is interested in India , Fabi gives a broad smile and says, “In India, today, there are a lot of people with plenty of money in their pockets. They want good quality shoes from Italy . The price is secondary. You must remember that Jimmy Choo shoes are selling in India at 1000 euros (Rs 60,000). So, the market is very promising.”

The interesting thing to observe is how the attitude towards India has changed. It is no longer regarded as a poverty-stricken country with low standards. On the other hand, Italian shoe-makers salivate at the size of the market. But even then, sometimes, it becomes difficult to conclude a deal.

Jaffer enters the Cerutti shop and sees ladies sandals, flip-flops, flat shoes and stiletto heels priced between 10 and 12 euros (Around Rs 600). He gets excited by this and negotiates to buy 24 pairs, for a start. But the owner, Mario Cerutti, raises his hands in helplessness and says. “24 is too little for us. We have a conveyor belt that makes 120 pairs at a time. So I am unable to do a deal with you.”

Meanwhile, the best exhibition of Italian shoes are those worn by the women as they walk around, eyeing the shoes in the various stalls. More than 90 per cent wear six inch stiletto heels, as they walk elegantly and gracefully and with a practiced ease. Thanks to mini skirts and hot pants, the shoes, as well as the legs, are on display, to magnificent effect.

“The women look so nice,” says Akbar. “Of course, it would be difficult for our Indian women to walk on these high heels, what with our broken pavements and rough surfaces.”

Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, it felt good to be an Indian in Italy.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

1 comment: