Finding your sole-mate

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Espadrilles are unique kinds of shoes originally made and worn in France. The shoes have cotton fabrics or a canvas, making them comfortable to wear especially during long walks.

Sebastien Gertgen, a native of France, grew up wearing Espadrilles. He said he was most fond of the shoes during summer time, when the sun was hot and he wanted nothing but a good, comfy footwear.

When he arrived in Cambodia five years ago, he was surprised to see no traces of France’s famed shoes, despite the fact that many French expatriates and tourists come to kingdom. It is when he decided to bring Espadrilles to his new home and give Khmers the comfort of wearing a good kind of shoe.

“I saw the opportunity to build a business on footwear here in Cambodia. The country had the materials I need – jute and colourful cottons. I also saw it an advantage that many women here are working in factories. It was a good start to bring Espadrilles here,” Mr Gertgen said.

He started with just a few staff and pure passion to produce his own Espadrilles for the Cambodian market. Mr Gertgen opened Amboh Espadrille in 2015. His team first produced about 500 pairs of shoes using Cambodia’s very own Krama.

Mr Gertgen said using a traditional material is a good way of making his products have a true Cambodian identity. He added that buying Krama for his products was also a huge help for the Krama makers in the rural areas.

Amboh Espadrille opened with barely anything but high hopes that it will be well-accepted by the locals. And Mr Gertgen surely was determined enough to make his dreams work.

For design conceptualisations and production, Mr Gertgen always discusses with his team. The colours, fabrics, styles are always laid out on the table and the whole team decides which ones would click. Mr Gertgen also asks his Facebook friends and followers for their suggestions – giving him more ideas on what his target market wants for their shoes.

“It is important to know what your customers like. I personally didn’t like black colour before. But after asking people on Facebook, I had to change my mind. The black Espadrilles are one of the most sought-after colours now. Customers can also come to the shop and pick the colours they prefer and we design the shoes for them in our workshop. That’s how we make our shoes,” shared Mr Gergen.

At the left side of the store, Amboh Espadrille also showcases group of people creatively working on the products. Mr Gertgen said having both the workshop and the store in one place is a good business strategy.

“Having the workshop here is really important to me. It goes beyond the act of making the shoes. These people used to work in factories with minimum salaries. With my brand, I want to offer them a good work place, good compensations and provide them with management skills. I value ethics in my business,” he said.

“Because my products are hand-made, there is an added value to each shoe. It is more expensive compared to other shoes in the market. But that is because my products are unique. And my staff created them with love and fulfillment.”

But while Mr Gertgen has seen the growth of his shop, he revealed that he also went through challenges in creating a harmonious workplace.

“It is super difficult to work with people who do not have background in shoe-making or in building a brand. They used to fight due to petty problems. I urged them to work happily together as it is the only key for us to produce quality shoes. Now, we are all learning to exist side by side, and do the works together.”

Mr Gertgen said his staff have become his family in Phnom Penh.

“They are just like kids sometimes. Aside from working, I try to understand the problem they face in their own families. I realised that they don’t have financial plans for their future and their children. I am now starting to encourage them to save money and be financially stable. They’re working on getting better at it.”

Mr Gertgen said he hopes to see his shop grow more in order to cater more customers and more workers. But more than that, he is positive that through Amboh Espadrille, he will be inspiring more people to appreciate handicrafts that are uniquely Cambodian

To check out their products, visit Amboh Espadrille on Facebook.

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