“I never thought I’d be a shoe designer. I mean, who does that?” said Mashizan, who continued making shoes on the side. “But as I grew older, I thought about where my destiny and true passion lay. I had always been fascinated with shoes, so I explored that.”
When his “hobby” shoes started getting press coverage, he made the decision to quit his job in November 2015 and embraced his brand, named after himself – MASHIZAN.
A tough first step
He took off again, this time, to base himself in Florence, Italy where he had first learnt how to make shoes. This time, he had to find a factory which could produce his shoes, in small quantities, as MASHIZAN would be a boutique rather than a mass market brand.
“The most difficult thing in Florence as a new brand was getting access to top Italian factories,” he said. “Most of them wouldn’t give a new brand the time of day for a meeting, let alone production space in their busy calendar.”
Happily, one of his teachers was married to a woman (who had been in the shoe business for four decades) who opened doors for him. Today, MASHIZAN shoes are still hand-made in Florence.
Known for its luxe aesthetic and eye for detail, the shoes can cost $500 for a pair of flats.
MASHIZAN has grown to the point of having a cult following of women in Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, London, Monte Carlo, Paris, and Switzerland. His shoes are also worn by celebrities like singers Solange Knowles and Sara Bareilles, as well as actors Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), Taryn Manning (Orange is the New Black) and Tessa Thompson (Thor).
The business of design
Yet, he isn’t cruising. It’s still hard work, every day. In order for his brand to succeed, Mashizan has to wear his businessman hat more than his designer hat.
“I probably spend 20 to 25 percent of my time on designing,” he shares. “The rest is running the business. Finding funding, doing strategic planning to grow the brand, marketing.”
He has to think smart.
For a small brand without resources to run large marketing campaigns, he relies on exclusivity, word-of-mouth and trunk shows – small parties where potential buyers are invited to hang out and ooh-and-ah over his shoes.
Mashizan Masjum at his atelier in the heart of Paris, where he entertains clients for private presentations and fittings.
Most of his fans comprise women who are used to buying the likes of Ferragamos and Jimmy Choos, but who also embrace smaller niche brands of equivalent quality. He said, “There are benefits to keeping it small. I can fully engage with my buyers. I better understand them and get their feedback.”
For instance, he found out after talking to Parisian women that stilettos are largely impractical to walk on the cobbled streets of Paris. He designed block heels as a result.
His ability to tell stories help in the marketing and in defining the brand. Each pair of shoes tell a story. For instance, his upcoming collection, “Echoes of Kyoto Memories” , which re-purposes vintage Japanese obis and kimonos into luxurious footwear, is inspired by a documentary he filmed and directed in Japan that tackled issues of ageing society and the discord between tradition and modernity.
He relentlessly taps into his network of friends and contacts.
“In any new market the biggest challenge is how to get the first client,” said Mashizan, 46. “Nothing is served to us on a silver platter.”
To penetrate the Bangkok market, for instance, he found out that one of his fans in Singapore was a well-connected Thai-American with contacts in the Thai capital. He is willing to roll up his sleeves to get his brand out.
On trunk shows, which are bastions of glamour on the outside, he said, “What people don’t see is me carrying heavy suitcases of 30-40kg containing shoes in the sweltering heat, then wiping off all the sweat 10 minutes before to look elegant and sophisticated!”
But what is probably most important is the go-getter attitude which saw him through New York.
He said, “There are days when I feel like giving up. But I always pick myself up. I think my years of living in New York toughened me up, so I don’t take no for an answer. I always know that it’s all a cycle. What goes down must come up. This is my destiny.”