Paraboot: A Transoceanic Love Affair

words and photography by iqmall

Globalisation is nothing short of an extraordinary phenomenon. Unifying and at the same time, diversifying the fashion landscape at an alarming rate. Paraboot is an exemplary instance of this. A French brand through and through, the shoemakers have 100 storied years of history to back their impeccable craftsmanship and leather products. Built for the alps that surround the brand’s hometown of Izeaux in the Southeast of France, the rubber-soled hand-knit leather shoes have found popularity on the other side of the globe. Japan to be exact.

With the help from our friends at Colony Clothing, we had to opportunity to speak to Mr. Herve Saporis, the Commercial Director of Paraboot during his latest trip to Singapore where we discussed the constraints of hand-crafted goods in the technological age, the brand’s adopted home in Tokyo and its unique staying power.

Why are you here in Singapore and in particular, at Colony Clothing today? 

I come quite often to Singapore. And I try to come at least once a year or every two years. Recently, we (Paraboot) decided to do a collaboration with Colony Clothing to develop the Singaporean market. And we’ve planned this trip for a while and this is one part of the agenda of my time here. I’m also here for the new collection, new season of fall Fall/Winter 2020.

First of all, when I joined Paraboot 20 years ago, we were already present in the market. With Takashimaya. And they were selling two brands. One English brand, more formal and dressy and the other was Paraboot.

The market has changed significantly, it’s more mature now. Especially for Paraboot, who holds a large palette of products, from the very casual and the resort-time items, to the most elegant ones. And in this large palette, there’s categories of products that can be used both ways, either very casual or formal, depending on the way you wear them. I think that recently due to the market change and with the help of people like Colony Clothing, they’re helping the people to understand how to wear the styles. From knitwear and also to shoes, making the right combinations between both.

How did Paraboot find its way into Japanese closets?

Mr. Yokuse was looking through Vogue and saw a pair of Chambords, a classic style in Paraboot. Back then, he was still a sales staff but he showed the shoe to his boss and said, “This is it!”, tapping intently on the picture. “This is the shoe for the Japanese market”. And that was 27 years ago. He convinced his boss to bring in the shoes and his hunch ultimately paid off. It became a huge success. Mr. Yokuse set up his own business and formally introduced the brand into the Japanese market.

Maybe by chance or his talent, hard work and the team behind him, he succeeded in translating the ethos of Paraboot to the Japanese. That this French product, made in France, with the best leather, would be convenient for the climate of Japan and Tokyo in particular. Where sometimes, it’s very cold but also warm at times. And wet. Because of the rubber soles of our footwear, combined with the comfort and quality of the shoes, it’s been adopted by the population of Japan.

The weather and way of life here (in Singapore) is quite similar to that of Japan in summer, so there’s absolutely no reason that the success in Japan cannot be replicated here. It’s a whole other ball game in Japan, with 27 years of experience there. We did some mistakes in the past and we probably still do some today, but we’re very happy with the situation in Japan. Because it’s an intrinsic success and we see people wearing Paraboot, more and more every day.

Has there been any major changes in the way you’ve operated in the 100 years that Paraboot has been around? 

The main problem we are facing today is not to sell but to produce. The shoe production, especially with hand-knit shoes, is a hard job. It is noisy, it is painful, especially to the shoulders. With a lot of vibration towards the shoulders and long hours of standing, it takes a toll on the bodies. In the past, we had people working for over 40 years in the factory. But for some of the young generation…for many of them but not all, come and go. Some last a few months while others a few years. It’s the hard work that dissuades them from committing for longer.

We built a new factory after closing down one of the older ones 3 years ago. It’s modern and more efficient in terms of productivity, it’s more comfortable for the workers. The fact of the matter is that it’s not easy for us to move factories. Even though we didn’t move very far, keeping it in between our two other current factories, creating a triangle of sorts, it’s difficult.

I also remember reading about the shortage of materials? 

That’s the second one (problem). It’s true. The use of leather on the planet is growing exponentially. There are more developing countries using more leather for shoes and other leather products.

At the same time, the good leather quality is decreasing because of two reasons: the meat demand is very high and to produce meat at a low price, many are turning to genetic coding. This results in the cows gaining weight very quickly and you can tell when you are cooking it from the skin as the skin looks bad.

Alongside this, other luxury brands are asking more and more for leather bags and other small leather items. Everything together contributes to less and less good quality leather to work with. The leather tanneries in France went bankrupt or has been bought out by luxury groups such as Hermes, Chanel and they try to secure their leather delivery however they can.

Even that, when they start to work they never know the final results before the finishing of the last step of the production. Just like a cook with his cake. Sometimes, they are very disappointed because good quality leather is very limited. With this shortage, this is the second problem faced by Paraboot.

I’ve been asked, countless times, from the media and anyone looking for a scoop, “Which tannery are you working with?” For 20 years, I have been fighting and choosing not communicate with them. Our closest competitors, the English brands, have already been working with the same raw materials. It’s not a secret. But for some older factories in the world, I do not want them to find out about the leather we buy. This (situation) is tight. Like if you want to go to the good restaurant, the chef does not want to give you the recipe.

So, I understand that recently you’ve done more work into being more collaborations that are more appealing to the younger generation. Is that something you are continuously trying to do or is keeping to the heritage something that is important to you as well?

First of all, my neighbour Mr Yokose has been doing this in Japan for 15 years or maybe, even 20 years. We did some collaborations even before we started the collaboration with Hermes, we did one with Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and with Études a couple of times.

So, this is nothing new for us. With the way trends are, Paraboot has become popular because of these collaborations from the past as people start looking through the archives and more brands are asking for collaboration with Paraboot in the present day.

We cannot answer everything, we try to find the most interesting one in terms of products and how they do marketing to help the young generation discover the brand. In a way, it’s a strategy but it is not new. We are in the crossroads where the young generation discovers our brand on the Internet.

In France, we have the whole generation wearing Paraboot for years and they have their own reasons for purchasing such as how comfortable it is, long-lasting, knowing where the origin is from and many more reasons. The younger generation in their 20s and 30s are discovering the shoes and they go home with their shoes one day and their parents in their 50s saying that ‘I wore them back then.’

It is funny to see that every generation we see has worn Paraboot. The younger generation in other developing countries is starting to know more about Paraboot via social network. It helps a lot as they are very fast with keeping up with brands.

What do you think is the appeal to the shoes that have helped build connections around the world? 

Unique style and unique touch. If you look at the shoes in the store, our shoes don’t look like other brands. Any products you take from the collection in Paraboot, they look different from the other brands. For many reasons, how lasting they are, there’s a French touch that some may or may not like, the French way to produce shoes, the rubber soles and we’re the only one in the world to produce our own soles.

Do you know the origin of the name Paraboot? Para comes from the harbour in Brazil where we import our rubber. Till today, I do not know any other companies that produce their own rubber soles. So, we have two factories: one produces soles only for Paraboot amongst other rubber products. We do our own leather shoes and soles and we have been producing our own leather soles for more than 100 years. The leather we use is also different, the way of stitching (Norwegian and Goodyear) construction.

It is difficult to summarise Paraboot in one style like the Chambord or the Michael. We do have some iconic styles. When you see a particular style from us, you would know that it is from Paraboot. We recognise the Paraboot touch.

Is there any way to preserve the shoe in a climate in Singapore?

Here in Colony Clothing, Paraboot intends to develop the shoe care aspect of the business. People can come back here to repair their own shoes or learn how to take care of their shoes. We can advise them how to prolong the lifetime of the shoe. Especially in this climate, my one piece of advice is: do not wear the same shoe two days in a row. Change your pair every day to give time for other pairs to dry and settle.

Paraboot doesn’t use glue between the lining and the leather. This also helps to prevent the humidity from damaging the shoes. I would say that shoes are like teeth. If you take care of your shoes every day, if you do not wait for too long to repair, they last very long. If you wait too much, sometimes it is too late and it is a waste.

I understand that Paraboot shoes last quite some time.

Depends on how often you wear them. I have pairs that are 10 years old or even 15 years old. We do get pairs that are 25 years old and these pairs need a change of soles. We see a lot of pairs that are in a good state due to how the owners treat it. It is amazing. Once again, we can re-sole many of our pairs. Take care of your shoes, use good wax.

What could you say what you have in store for the next 10 years? 

We are going to introduce a ladies’ collection in Singapore as we have identified that Singaporean ladies would like to wear Paraboot. We are trying to increase the visibility of Paraboot in Singapore. We are partnering with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Manilla, Korea, Indonesia very soon and we will see if we can open a shop in Singapore in the years to come. I try to make a fair business with our partners in Southeast Asia so people can travel and find some Paraboot shoes. The people living in Singapore can access to a bigger collection of men and ladies’ shoes is also another goal we might want to achieve. It is a step by step growth and I hope it is successful.