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Working With Cobblers, How I’m Making Beautiful Shoes You Won’t Find In Any Mall

Posted by Apoorva Kamat in #MyStartupStory, Entrepreneurship
June 26, 2017
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As a Gandhi Fellow, I had the opportunity to work with tribal communities in Rajasthan. That, I believe, sparked my interest in the livelihoods of such communities that have a legacy of crafts and art forms that are slowly dying out. A close friend of mine had mentioned a particular shoemaker in her village who made beautiful shoes but barely earned enough to feed his family. While I never got the chance to visit him, the thought that there was an opportunity to leverage this craft and bring it to a global platform never left my mind.

Before Karmantik actually came into being, it was just a project I worked on as part of the Young India Fellowship. I was fortunate to have Sruthi Kande (Karmantik’s co-founder and business partner) as a team member and learn so much from her. We realised we were two very different personalities with a common love for crafts and a passion for bringing change in our surroundings. Post the Young India Fellowship, Sruthi and I decided to take up this project idea as a full-fledged business.

Karmantik founders with a model of the footwear they make
Left panel: Apoorva Kamat (L) and Sruthi Kande (R), founders of Karmantik. Right panel: A model wearing Karmantik’s handcrafted footwear.

The word Karmantik means ‘craftsman’ in Sanskrit and we work with a twofold objective. The primary one is to support the traditional Indian shoemakers by giving them a fair market price and introducing their authentic designs to the global market; the other one is to create a market for handcrafted shoes that are comfortable and at the same time, good-looking, vibrant, elegant and authentic. Our ultimate vision is to provide a sustainable livelihood opportunity for artisans and craftsmen.

Initially, we wanted to set up a community-owned centre in Rajasthan, which did not work out due to lack of funds and accessibility of raw material. We learnt to take smaller steps with short, progressive goals and started by speaking with a few cobblers in Delhi, understanding their needs, skills and learning. After many conversations, we decided to start working with existing home run units within Delhi that are tiny workshops of 5-10 cobblers.

Passion is not enough to run a business. Sruthi and I both do not come from a business or design background, but we knew how to work with people and learn from anyone and everyone. We had to teach ourselves every aspect of shoemaking and understand the limitations of our cobblers at work.

The biggest problem we have faced is that this sector is completely unorganised unless it is a large factory run by big international brands. It is extremely tough to find reliable, skilled craftsmen without any leads. Our approach to this unorganised sector was through contacts and lots of field research. We asked shopkeepers and retailers. Every person happens to know someone who in-turn will connect you to someone else. We met our cobblers too through such kind of an extended indirect network. Once you speak to the artisan and understand his work, it takes a minimum of two rounds of production and investment to help the artisan understand what our requirements are. Time, constant engagement and interaction are the only means to solve this problem.

Building trust is an important aspect of this business and concerns on safety are also tied into this. Our passion towards the idea drives us back to the streets in search of these artisans and our concerns on safety also reduce over time because of this. Furthermore, every interaction is an experience and we learn a lot from this. Many shoemaking companies also don’t want to work with cobblers that make handcrafted shoes due to irregularities in design, fit and sizes. We have been able to create patterns for shoe designs with the help of some talented designers that reduce these errors considerably.

An Indian artisan working to make shoes for Karmantik
“Our primary objective is to support traditional Indian shoemakers by giving them a fair market price and introducing their authentic designs to the global market.”

We overcame a lot of other challenges by just having several conversations with the cobblers and taking note of important things such as their insecurities and needs. We ask important questions like, “How do we avoid our previous mistakes?” or ” How can we make a better product?”. Involving the workers in important decisions has helped all of us to be on the same track and kept all gates of learning open. Our work with the cobbler not only involves introducing new designs or materials but also teaching them to pay attention to detail and customer experience.

For instance, handcrafted footwear such as kolhapuris and mojris are infamous for being slippery after initial use and for giving shoe bites. We have successfully eliminated these problems with the help of a footwear designer and created chic, comfortable everyday wear. What encourages customers to give us a chance is the handloom fabric that is the USP of all our designs. The fabric we use is directly sourced from artisans we meet at fairs and handloom groups.

For both Sruthi and me, ensuring that the cobblers creating the product receive fair price is an important goal. Unlike major large companies, we pay our craftsmen per piece instead of bulk. Paying the artisan as and when we receive the consignment instead of doing it in bulk is better for them because it helps them have a cash flow system in their work. Timely payments also encourage them to continue working. Many artisans in the shoemaking sector and otherwise have distanced themselves from the craft because of untimely payments.

Karmantik founder Apoorva Kamat with a cobbler she works with
Apoorva Kamat (L) with a local artisan she works with.

Social media platforms give us constant visuals on what our customers are like and how they prefer engaging. It helps us not only connect with our target audience but introduce us to other brands/ causes that are influencing their lives and how they consume.

We are presently on two platforms, Facebook and Instagram and that is the only way we are able to communicate with our patrons and customers. We tap into our friends’ networks by encouraging them to talk about our products and mission on their profiles and introduce Karmantik to their friends. A lot of our customers have only 2 or 3 degrees of separation from our friends and family.

The happiest sale day for us was when a grandmother, mother and her daughter shopped from our store. It felt great to reach out to any audience.

Our customers have always come back to us. When they try on our products, they are pleasantly surprised by the comfort. One lady told us, “The days when I have to stand all day or work 9-5, I only wear Karmantiks.” It was the best compliment! We enjoy bringing such comfort and traditional crafts into people’s everyday lives.

I think my biggest takeaway is to remain calm no matter how turbulent the situation may be. I am not always able to follow this, but I have learnt to have more peaceful conversations with others and myself.

Karmantik has definitely changed the way I look at my lifestyle, I have suddenly shifted towards more home run brands and Indian made goods.

In the coming few years, we want Karmantik to cater to many income brackets and involve cobblers from multiple states and bring diversity in the process of shoemaking. There is a lot that is unexplored.