It is estimated that the average woman will buy more than 460 pairs of shoes in her lifetime and own 21 pairs at any given moment, of which nine will never be worn. Tastes may vary widely, but most women will be familiar with the physical and emotional rollercoaster that is shoe-shopping – traipsing from shop to shop, seeking our own personal Cinderella slipper, crushing heels and toes into options that are too tight/too high/not-high-enough. With the advent of online shopping, although we are now spared the legwork, we still have to worry about whether our new purchase will fit once it arrives.
All too often, women struggle to find the exact shoe they have in mind. One UAE resident, Saudin Noddings, frustrated by her fruitless searches and wasted money, was inspired to take matters into her own hands. The entrepreneur set out to create a platform that would allow women to design their perfect shoes – and then have them made to order.
Noddings tells me: "Ten years ago, when I got married, I bought my dress online, but it took me eight weeks to find the shoes to match my dress. I dragged my then fiance around all the malls because when you want something very specific, it is so difficult to find."
Four years and one very steep learning curve later, Shoenvious was born. The new site allows women to, literally, design the shoe of their dreams. A self-confessed shoe addict (“It’s my passion,” she confides), Noddings used her own consumer knowledge to create the company she had been looking for – one that listens to what the customers actually want and need.
Effectively working backwards from the standpoint of the customer, Shoenvious aims to be as easy and straightforward as possible. Simply go online, select your desired combination of shoe shape and style, add the heel height you want, select your favourite colours and your custom-made pair will arrive at your door about eight weeks later.
Learning about the shoe making industry
Sitting in the Shoenvious office in Dubai, surrounded by racks of shoes and rails of leather samples, discussing this new and highly disruptive approach, it is difficult to believe that Noddings was a complete novice when she first set out.
“I didn’t know how difficult making shoes was when I started,” she says, laughing. “Perhaps it was better, because I just walked in and asked, with no idea how difficult what I was asking for was. Trying to learn and understand the work behind producing shoes and finding people to show me the correct way to do things was a long process.”
Noddings embarked on a crash course in a complex and competitive industry, researching and learning as much as she could. “It took two years to look at how the shoe industry works and shoe production works, but we are also a technology business, as we have brought shoe designing online,” she says. “This is a really new concept, so finding partners to execute what we were trying to do took another two years, to get the website up and how we wanted it.”
Notoriously difficult to construct, shoes are like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, comprising of up to 50 separate elements that must all fit perfectly. One slight miscalculation means the whole lot can be consigned to the dustbin, and work must begin again from scratch.
Although there are many factories that produce shoes, most operate on a profit margin of less than five per cent, meaning that to make money, they must produce thousands of identical shoes. Although this business model is perfect for high-street stores and sports brands, which both deal in high turnover, for Shoenvious and its radical approach of individual pieces made to order, this was unworkable.
“No big factory wanted to work with us. They just weren’t interested,” Noddings explains. “It was so difficult when I was looking for people to work with. Trying to explain that I wanted one shoe made at a time, to order, and done quickly and at a very good quality.”
Customising your own shoe
Eventually, Noddings found a small Brazilian-run factory in China. “It is a really nice handmade shoe atelier, and he has been doing shoes for years,” says the entrepreneur.Only available online, Shoenvious offers 15 basic shoe templates that can be customised using four heel heights, 27 colours and seven finishes. Ankle straps can be added or removed as desired, as can bows, buckles and piping. Materials include leather, suede, patent leather and even satin, and customers have absolute control over the hue of every element.
Want a heel in hot pink patent leather and a toe in leopard-print skin? This can be achieved in just a few clicks on the website. New styles and materials will be added each quarter.
“Every part of the shoe can be changed. We even give you five options for the lining – normally it’s just black or beige.” As we look over the wall of samples, Noddings is clearly proud of the final results. She tells me: “We spend a lot of time on research and development of the shoes, and making sure they are comfortable, and that the pressure points of the feet are evenly distributed. We are always looking at how we can improve that.”
With so many variables, customers have hundreds of thousands of combinations at their fingertips and are able to create shoes that are effectively one-offs. However, despite the high level of customisation, prices start at just Dh1,500.
Engraving personal messages
With no bricks-and-mortar stores or middlemen to pay for, Shoenvious is about using a direct-to-consumer model that reduces costs, and passes those savings on to the customer. “We deliver worldwide, for free. When you go to a store, you don’t pay for your bag, so we make sure we are not charging the customer for bringing the item from our warehouse to their doorstep. Also, we guarantee the size of the shoe. If you order a 7 and it doesn’t fit, we will remake that shoe for you at no extra charge and even cover the shipping. We want to make the whole experience as seamless as possible,” she says.
Those looking for the ultimate bespoke touch can even – for a little extra – have a personal message engraved onto the sole or the inside of the shoe. To demonstrate, Noddings holds up a strappy sandal sample, with a wedding proposal, “Kate, marry me?”, inscribed in gold lettering.
"We can write whatever you want," she says. Another option is a gift card that can be either sent physically or emailed. "Everyone is looking for a gift idea, and this looks like you really thought about it."
A keen online shopper herself, this dynamic young businesswoman has been quick to capitalise on what she sees as the shortcomings of other online portals. “The way I see it; we have two products. We have the shoes, which need to be done really nicely, because that is what the customer is paying for, and then there is the experience, of going onto our site and designing your perfect shoe.
“We need to ensure it is user-friendly, is what she expects, with the styles and materials she is looking for. I am a person who shops online, so I fully understand the mindset. I know that shoppers ask: ‘Why can’t the brand just invest a bit more, and give a better experience?’
“We tried to look at all the negatives, and find a solution. We let women design their own shoe, but on a deeper level it’s about not compromising,” says Noddings. “Why should she have to settle for the wrong size, or the wrong colour, or the wrong style because that’s all that’s available in the shoe shop?