A Step Into Royalty
Footwear label CZAR, is the brainchild of banker turned designer, Sundeep Sen. Bridging the gap between fashion and comfort, CZAR shoes are the outgrowth of world travel, intense study, and an uncompromising passion for quality. He believes that shoes speak volumes about the wearer, and they tell a story, one pair at a time.
The Pemberley: Tell me about yourself.
Sundeep Sen: I was born and raised in Bahrain, and I come from a family of bankers. My business background inspired me to create a product that is qualitative, valuable, and distinctive. Somehow, I ended up in shoes.
TP: Banking and design utilize completely different sides of the brain. How did you get there?
SS: I studied in London for almost 5 years, interned at Barclays in London and then got a great corporate job in banking. But I had a nagging feeling that I wanted to do something else. I had a lot of female friends in fashion school and I was always curious about brands. Being in a shopping destination like London, I learnt a lot, and developed a knack for it. A close friend of mine who was involved with shoe manufacturing in Italy, invited me on a trip with him, and I had the opportunity to meet the artisan workers in Naples and Florence. It was an eye-opening experience.
TP: How did you get started?
SS: I first thought I’d get a franchise of a shoe brand, but I met with a well-known designer who got me thinking about doing something myself. I traveled with my friends to Spain, and purchased a lot of shoes in Seville, Madrid and Barcelona. After another trip to Italy, I decided to begin to learn about shoemaking— I got many books and started learning about materials. I began traveling within India to visit tanneries and factories where many European brands manufacture. With time, I developed confidence, and started by making shoes for myself, my older brother and a couple of my friends. Soon after, I was getting phone calls about my product. When I told the bank that I was leaving my job to work in shoes, they told me that I was crazy and that the time wasn’t right. One of the main things I learned in college, was to start a business during a challenging time. Because there’s always a wave, if you get through the challenging period, then you'll be successful during the upward swing. Unfortunately, many people jump into a business when something is doing well.
I left banking primarily for the sake of the customers— for them to understand that I was committed to them. Any business is about the people- the people you work with, and the people you cater to.
TP: How has your background helped you in your line of work?
S: I traveled a lot through Europe and the US as a teenager, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world to learn about shoes. This exposure is something that has helped me with 50% of the business— in terms of understanding people and cultures. I've grown up in a multicultural environment which helps me connect to many different people. My experiences have been way greater than any university or any schooling.
TP: How has it been to operate in Dubai?
SS: It's a very challenging region because it's not Milan, Paris, London, New York or LA. Weather plays a big part as well, which means that I can't make the coolest boots. The large part of the Arab population will wear the traditional attire with their sandals. I have many local customers, who buy shoes from me only for traveling, which is a big issue. Since I launched in 2016, there has also been a huge sneaker craze.
TP: How has that impacted what you do?
SS: Unfortunately, because of social media marketing and celebrity marketing, people think it's cool to wear sneakers with anything. I have many clients who are bankers, investment bankers who need good classic shoes because they're not able to wear sneakers to work— but many of my customers still ask why I don’t make sneakers. I focus on the comfort side of shoes, but a man is judged by his shoes. I've seen many influencers arriving to business and fashion events in white sneakers and blazers- some of it looks cool in pictures or music videos, but I don’t think it’s always appropriate.
TP: Because it changes how you perceive yourself and how other people perceive you…
SS: Exactly. I don’t agree with over-the-top social media marketing because I think that plays a huge role in influencing people to wear products that don't suit them, simply because they saw it on Instagram or Facebook. I would love to make designer sneakers, but I don’t think it makes business sense at this point and I also know that many customers wouldn't buy it, because they only wear sneakers for a jog or at the gym. There’s a huge designer sneaker culture, and I myself own designer sneakers, but I only wear them when I travel. If you're in a corporate job such as banking, investments, etc. you can't really wear a blue suit with sneakers, even though it looks cool on an Instagram picture with a hundred thousand likes. That's something I unfortunately need to contend with.
TP: Do you feel that you have an advantage in selling shoes over other apparel?
SS: Yes! A lot of trends come and go, but a black pair of shoes or a brown pair of shoes, have been around for hundreds of years and will be around for decades to come. Heels for women, will never go out of style. With clothing, the trends are constantly changing, but for men, shoes (and watches) are products that have not changed immensely— if anything, many trends from the 1940s and 50s have come back. For someone like me who had very limited experience and exposure in the field of fashion, I feel lucky to be in this industry. I don’t consider myself in the field of fashion; I like to say I’m in the leather or shoe industry.
TP: What is unique about your shoe line?
SS: I try to keep my line as close to classics as possible, but I also work around innovative ideas. With that said, every single shoe that I have today has a story behind it. I have about 40 styles, and about 34 of them are very distinctive to anything in the malls in Dubai. I'm not here to try and make a brand— I don't make thousands of pairs or stock in different places. My work is almost like tailoring a suit— I can do something unique for you, and I can play around with colors and materials. Even though I import many of my materials from Italy and Portugal, my in-house manufacturing is based in India. I use full-grain leather and offer personalized initials which is hand-embroidered on Italian velvet, and customized piping is available in a range of colors. I make sure that no leather touches the upper feet, so that the inside has built-in suede and gel soles. The main detail that is unique to my shoes, is that the upper back is completely sponged, and I offer extra sponge which prevents the crease on top to a certain degree.
For the soles, I stay around the maroon tones for a woody feel, because other colors stand out too much. I know there’s a craze with the color of the soles of a particular brand, but it doesn’t last after a few wears. I focus my energy on the inside of the shoe which is three layers: suede, leather, and suede again.
TP: What is your price range?
SS: In dollars it would be in the range of $250 to $300, and I also make shoes with gold-plated buttons, which are in the range of $500. For my business to be very successful, I need a crazy amount of volume, but I'm very adamant about sticking to this price point. I offer a factory priced product that is still very personalized.
TP: Do you make women's shoes?
SS: Yes, I have six styles for women. I create block heels that are completely handmade— the blocks are carved out by hand and filled with sponge, making them extremely comfortable and lightweight. I work with Italian velvets, embellishments, hand-embroidery and I do all of that within the range of $350. I’ve gone very slow with the women’s line because I want them to be comfortable— and at the same time— women tend to be more brand-conscious than men, and are often willing to give up the comfort as long as the design is good. I try to focus on the menswear because I feel that men are undersupplied in the industry, specifically with shoes.
TP: Who is your typical client?
SS: My clientele ranges between the ages of 15-80. Many of my friends and colleagues recognize that I have a comfortable product, and they don’t want to waste time shopping around. I do medicated soles as well for those who need, and I've never had a return for comfort. A substantial number of my customers are in their sixties, yet I feel that many brands and designers cater to a very small segment and don't even take this age range into account. But in actuality, they are the ones who have worked all their lives, and have the money to invest in a good pair of shoes. Design may be something that may be attractive to a few, but comfort is something that is attractive to all.
TP: Do you have a target for marketing purposes?
SS: For social media marketing, I do have a target, because there is a certain age group on social media, especially Instagram. But as a business, I generally try and cater to everyone. I’ve sold shoes to people who earn $4,000 a month, and to people who earn $600,000 a month.
TP: Do you offer customized sizing?
SS: Yes. If you want shoes that are customized to your size, you would set up an appointment with me. I measure the size of your feet, check which sole fits, and then shape the inside of the shoe according to the measurements of your feet. If the mold is slightly bigger, that space would be filled in with extra sponge. I don’t work with lasts because this is very expensive and makes the customer feel tied to the brand.
TP: How did you come up with your brand name?
SS: When I was starting out, I had the idea of a gold plated or diamond studded crown and I wanted to have a small, crisp name that was regal and royal. I felt like Czar was used to define reputable designers, brands and industry leaders. In modern English today, Czar has often been an adjective to define a very successful person in the industry.
TP: Which brands inspire you?
SS: There are a few shoe brands that I follow very closely, and some factories that I’ve visited myself that I’m in awe of and carry a lot of heritage. They are John Lobb in the UK, Bontoni in Italy and my absolute favorite is Santoni in Italy. Their shoes are so distinctive— they don't need the logo, the name, or a big buckle to tell you the brand. Berluti also inspires me in terms of design, and Christian Louboutin motivates me to create something unique.
TP: What do you think of the fashion scene for men in Dubai?
SS: I think that it’s very undersupplied and not taken seriously. Men’s fashion has taken a huge turn in the past decade, where men today need a lot more in terms of accessories, pocket squares, ties, scarves etc. Because sales are often 90% womenswear, many brands try to eliminate more of the menswear to focus on womenswear. This creates an obvious challenge.
TP: What is a typical day like for you?
SS: As soon as I wake up, I spend about an hour or so reading a newspaper and internet. Then I call my workers to discuss things related to the day. Sometimes I have meetings, or I come to the shop, even just to sit and have a coffee. I send a lot of emails to stylists, and make sure that I’m connected to shoes, even on a day that I'm not working. I have many meetings on the weekends too, so I try to keep a day free midweek where I have no commitments and I can go to the gym.
TP: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
SS: When I get feedback about the shoes, this is by far my favorite part. I was at a friend's wedding last year and I saw a guy wearing my shoes— it’s like a stamp of approval— there's nothing greater than that. When I get a thank you message or direct feedback from a customer, it’s very motivating.