There are clunky, cloth-covered wedges in shapes that look like a corkscrew or a ball. The upper section is embroidered, beaded, sequinned or printed with pictures of movie stars. At the recent Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week finale, fashion designer Rohit Bal sent out decadent lehengas and structured jackets with black velvet loafers with Kashmir’s beautiful flat embroidery.
Rohan Arora is the fashion world’s best kept secret. His eponymous label is only four years old but has already shod the feet of top fashion designers such as Bal, Manish Malhotra and Shantanu-Nikhil. Arora, 29, is a specialist in customising shoes, especially high-end ones. The Kolkata-based shoe designer pays as much attention to each pair as if it were a couture dress.
Like Manolo Blahnik, the legendary Spanish shoemaker who makes every piece by hand, Arora wants to rid the world of “sterile modernisation” and bring back the real craft, using obsolete techniques possible only by the human hand. “My father wanted to throw me out when I told him my plans,” says Arora, as he tracks his journey over a phone interview. “I was aimless after a Commerce degree. I was at a cousin’s wedding where she wore an expensive designer lehenga, but her heel broke as she went on the stage. It was my coup de foudre,” he laughs.
Since there was no obvious training in shoe-making in fashion schools, Arora did the next best thing. He visited cobblers’ workshops in the Moulali area in Kolkata. “No one wanted to help. On the third day, I dressed in shorts and a ganji (vest) and asked for a job. I was hired. I bought the cobblers beedis and chai for Rs 200 a week,” he says. He worked with the artisans to learn their craft for three months and then moved on to make shoes for local retailers such as Khadim’s and Ajanta. “It paid the rent for my workshop,” he says.
Eventually, a young fashion designer who was participating in the Lakme Fashion Week as a GenNext newbie, found him. His shoes were priced at Rs 1,000 a pair, but she offered a take-it-or-leave-it for Rs 300. He took it, and thus was introduced to Mumbai and its fashion folk. Arora’s reputation has spread by recommendation. In Mumbai to customise an order for Sunita Kapoor, actor Sonam Kapoor’s mother, he met Bal and the final shoe order came through. Good quality shoes use only Argentinian leather for their soles. “For one, they are personalised for your feet alone, so sizing is never an issue,” he says. Arora is hardly excited about India’s giant e-commerce market. “You have to try shoes before buying them,” says Arora, who will open his own store in Ballygunge Place next month. If a customer outside Kolkata is looking for him, he can find his address and number on the internet. There is something to be said about the slow and steady.