BURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon: Walking past the shoe stores lining the streets of Burj Hammoud, there is one thing that stands out amid the colorful window displays.
Written neatly in the soles are the words that are seen so rarely these days: “Made in Lebanon.” In an age when most goods around the world are mass produced in the Far East, and in a country where both handmade and industrial products have long given way to foreign imports, it can be a treat to see cobblers working on shoes from start to finish, some of which make their way to posh department stores abroad.
“It’s all handmade here. It’s an art,” veteran shoemaker Jack Mazmanian says as he gives an impromptu tour of his workshop on a side street of Burj Hammoud, where Lebanon’s largest community of Armenians reside.
Burj Hammoud is renowned for its handicrafts, street food and strict adherence to culture and tradition. Introducing his small but dedicated staff, Mazmanian demonstrates the four stages of the craft: cutting, stitching, closing and finishing. “Not everyone can do it. I’ve been at it since I was 13, and I’m still learning.”
Indeed, the close-knit area is filled with cobblers of all ages, learning from those with more experience and teaching others in turn. Shoemaking is one of the last handicrafts in Lebanon that is still thriving in Burj Hammoud and remote side streets and villages beyond, although not the way it once was. Every day they work away at their craft, with relatively little financial return, their biggest reward being the belief that they are making a superior product.
“Our work is better than what they do in Italy. It’s all handmade here,” Mazmanian says.
This quality has caught the attention of local shoe lovers who go directly to the source to get the handmade goods at wholesale prices – starting at around $50 for a basic pair of shoes. Lebanese expatriates who return for the summer also visit the area to stock up on a year’s supply of shoes, as do local designers who have developed long-term professional relationships with these craftsmen of their own products.
At the boutique of Johnny Farah, a leatherwear designer with a shop in Saifi Village, locally handmade shoes line the walls.
“One thing that surprised me when I first came [to Lebanon] and saw Saifi Village was seeing the shops that sold locally made products,” says Rebecca Carnell, marketing director for Johnny Farah. She moved to Lebanon from Australia, where she had worked for a designer that had goods made in China, a practice she notes is common worldwide, even for labels claiming to sell locally made products.
Now working for a designer who only works with local craftsmen and is passionate about keeping the leatherwork industry alive in Lebanon, she has come to see the difference in quality.
“You really don’t know where they’re coming from, and if you have a problem they can be difficult to fix or replace,” Carnell says. One great thing about people knowing the shoes are locally made: customer loyalty.
Lebanon’s independent shoe designers are also using the skills of the local cobblers to bring comfort and quality to their sleek styles. For newer operations, it helps that the shoemakers are willing to produce smaller quantities.
Catherine Nissen, a shoe designer who recently started her own business, says, “Burj Hammoud is the center of shoemaking in Lebanon. Everything you could possibly want is there. One advantage is the very small workshops they have here. You get to know them and you can build a good friendship. You can create more unique items if you have that friendship.”
She adds, “Once the relationship is established, it’s so much fun. I’m learning about shoemaking, and he’s learning about fashion. It’s good in both directions.”
However, the main disadvantage for her and others in the same field is the high cost of manufacturing, which affects their own bottom line. Cobblers for their part are affected by the high cost of generators, (used for six hours a day on average in Burj Hammoud) and raw materials, which are then passed onto the designers. If these shoes are shipped overseas, the prices more than double for the end buyer.
“It’s not a very attractive market,” says Amanda Navai, who got into shoe designing two years ago when she had extra leather from the handbags she was making. She sells her shoes to the New York upscale retailer Bloomingdales, where shipping and packaging costs significantly add to the price of her product.
For independent designers in Lebanon to make profits, Navai thinks the best way is to go online, thereby avoiding the costs of overseas shipping or opening up a local shop. That would allow them to lower their prices while also having a bigger profit margin.
Still, she worries about the shoemakers in Burj Hammoud who are losing business to mass production.
Moumen Taleb, a longtime shoemaker in Burj Hammoud, says his business has fallen on hard times, something he blames on Lebanon’s security situation, which has affected various sectors throughout the country; he saw his business begin its steady decline following the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. He also blames the government for not protecting craftsmen like himself.
“The government should do something to help.”
Down the street, his neighbor, Abu Rabia, who sells Chinese-made knockoffs of Western products, says he left the shoemaking business around five years ago because of slow business. Now, he says work is slowly picking up again because of the influx of Syrian refugees who are willing to have lower salaries than their Lebanese counterparts. But he’s still not enticed to go back.
“I love my work, but I’m not happy. Any craftsman who has to compete with mass production isn’t happy,” Taleb says.