A young Indian luxury shoe brand from Chennai is acquiring a global appeal | Fashion Trends - Hindustan Times

A young Indian luxury shoe brand from Chennai is acquiring a global appeal

Jun 30, 2024 05:07 PM IST

Bridlen, a luxury shoe brand from Tamil Nadu, blends British and Japanese craftsmanship to produce high-quality shoes that cater to clients worldwide.

Tamil Nadu has been among India’s biggest leather production hubs for well over half a century. The state, the largest exporter of leather products, is home to several shoe factories that are clustered around Chennai. A majority of these companies make hundreds of thousands of leather and, of late, non-leather shoes for everyone from Cole Haan and Clarks, to Adidas and Crocs. A select few, however, cater to finickier clients, from boutique European, Japanese, and Spanish shoemakers to heritage English brands. Affan Leathers, located in Tiruvallur, is one of them, but that is not the reason why it features here.

A pair of Bridlen shoes is a beauty to behold.
A pair of Bridlen shoes is a beauty to behold.

About 12 years ago, foreshadowing, in a way, the growing ambition of boutique luxury brands from India, the three-decade-old company started selling its shoes in Japan under the Bridlen brand name. “In 2017 when I became more involved with the business, I wanted to offer the same level of quality we offered in Japan to the world,” says Mohammed Affan K, who heads Bridlen.

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Bridlen-- A curated selection

Bridlen is perhaps the only Indian made-to-order shoe brand with a clear, serious intent. Its shoes are retailed in London and Singapore as well as in Delhi and Kolkata; it regularly organises trunk shows across the world; and last year, to the delight of shoe fiends, it hosted the winning designs of the annual World Championship of Shoemaking in Chennai while the shoes were on a world tour.

The company offers Goodyear-welted shoes under two main lines – made-to-order and ready-to-wear – in a range of styles, from the green tassled loafers Affan is wearing on the day of this writer’s video interview with him to derbies, monkstraps, and oxfords. Goodyear-welting is a labour- and material-intensive shoe construction method invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear Jr, whose father invented the rubber vulcanisation process. The welt is a strip of leather sewn around the bottom edge of the upper leathers, to which the outsole is later stitched. Goodyear-welting allows a pair to be resoled a number of times without damaging the uppers unlike the more commonly used – and quicker – cement construction in which the upper leather is glued directly to the outsole. (Your sneakers as well as shoes from several fast-fashion brands, for instance, use cement construction.)

Bridlen sources its leather from artisanal tanneries such as Charles F Stead in England and Mastrotto in Italy, and its lining leathers are made in Leather Working Group-certified local tanneries. Most of the materials that go into his shoes are imported simply because the kind of quality he seeks is not available as yet in India, says Affan, who describes Bridlen’s style as a “British-Japanese mix.”

The Japanese influence and aesthetic comes from Jose Maria Watanabe, who co-founded Bridlen with his late father Hasan. The Japanese shoemaker has shaped the brand’s distinctive philosophy and mentored Affan on shoe- and last-making. “The Japanese are known to make things better than the original. They take British styling and make it better, same with American styles. That’s what we have done. We take a lot of our inspiration from the British, which means our lasts are rounded, much sturdier. But they are also sexier, more aggressive,” says Affan.

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About the brand

Bridlen, which employs 50 people, makes about 10,000 pairs of Goodyear-welted shoes annually. Its shoes are priced between 9,000 and 49,900. Its made-to-order shoes are delivered in about four to six weeks, and cost around one-third of what you would pay for a similar shoe from a Western heritage brand. Its competitors in the made-to-order category globally include Swedish company Myrqvist, TLB from Spain, and Allan Edmonds from America.

The 37-year-old, a graduate in recycling from the London Scool of Economics, has a clearly articulated position on the sustainability of leather. Over 90 percent of Bridlen’s raw materials is either recycled or repurposed.

"Leather making is basically a recycling industry. If you are not going to use skin to make leather out of it, or if you don’t have tanneries, then it simply goes into a landfill,” he says. “If we are talking about net use of resources required to create this leather, then you have a product that is more sustainable than the alternative, which is materials derived from vegetable extracts.”

Japan and Europe might be its biggest markets, but the response from within India in the last four odd years has been pleasantly surprising for Bridlen. The men who buy their shoes are usually customers of brands such as John Lobb and Crockett & Jones and their taste varies widely. Bangaloreans, especially those from the IT industry, and a majority of their patrons in Chennai exhibit a market preference for unlined loafers. “Delhi is mostly classic blacks, oxfords and the like, maybe because we have a lot of lawyer clients. Mumbai’s bankers and financiers are a touch more flamboyant – suits with chalk stripes and burgundy shoes.”

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According to economic think tank Global Trade Research Initiative, India is the second-largest global footwear producer after China, and the world’s ninth-largest exporter. But with shoe manufacturing steadily moving out of India to Bangladesh and Myanmar, we are also losing the cost-arbitrage advantage, notes Affan, who would rather focus on honing the shoe-making knowledge and strengthening the craft base built over the last 60-odd years. “We have to keep moving higher up the value chain – and creating brands that we are proud of is among the best ways to signal our intentions and expertise.”

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