Sunil Shoes - A journey to craft a sole for every soul.
He calls himself the last of the Mohicians. Sunil Samaratunga has been crafting the perfect sole for every soul for 48 years and yet his passion remains undeterred. Kathya Fernando discovers the story behind his story.
1) Tell us the story behind and the discovering of your passion which led to the establishment of Sunil shoes.
I was just after school in the 60’s at the age of 21 when I started working in a shoe shop .I worked as an apprentice for 3-4 years at Lucian Mellawa’s City Foot Wear on Canal Road where they made bespoke handmade shoes .This is when I was lucky enough to discover my passion .Then in 1971 I rented out a garage on Galle road and started my own establishment .With the increasing customer base I was able to afford and rent a few racks in a textile store a few blocks down.
In return I would give them 15% of my income .This is when I met Kusum who was the cashier at the store, later became my life partner and helped me make our own empire.
2) From the selection of leather to the handcrafting of the shoe-how did you build a world class manufacturing system within Sri Lanka?
These standards were influenced by the kind of the background I had and the people whom I worked with. I had the pleasure of working with the real shoe makers in the industry who were Portuguese descendants. With the knowledge I received from them and what I learnt during my career I believe I have made good use of it in order to deliver proper shoe craft.
I work with sheep, cow and goat leather. It is one of the hardest materials to source in the quantity I require but I always make sure that only the best of the leather is chosen. The leathers are done by the tanners, taken over from there and we start from scratch. There is no machinery involved in any of the processes and so I I like to call this place as a workshop.
3)Why Sunil shoes and not straight from the shop? What are the things that is taken into consideration when custom designing the perfect shoe?
If you come to my place with a dream, then I should be able to put that to practice and give it to your hands. When custom designing I ask a lot of questions ranging from the colour to the design and the heel. My designs take into consideration not only what the customer wants but also things like their profile and body type. For instance, for a customer with very small feet I might design an elongated shoe to balance out the body profile. At the end of the day when you walk out from my store you will be carrying a satisfactory pair of shoes not only that but also taking a part away from us. This is what exactly handmade shoes are all about.
4) How has the demand for leather products changed over the years and are there any changes in the fashion trends in shoes?
Well there is nothing new for me. It is the same circle going round and round with a little bit of innovations here and there. I make about maximum 10 pairs a day. I have a very high demand where the demand is much more than the supply and so I have no problem with it.
Some people work in jute, canvas or synthetic material whereas I stick to real leather following it as a tradition to create a timeless piece of work.
5) Is the art of shoe making a dying art in Sri Lanka? What measures do you think should be taken to revive it back in Sri Lanka?
Yes, it is sad to say it is a dying art rather a moribund art. We are like last of the Mohicans. End of the line has come and there are no new people taking this over. It’s not hard to see why-with days needed to finish a handmade shoe and plenty of stages in the making ,affordability isn’t guaranteed .I think this should be added to the university art section like in Haywood .We need to get down some masters and teach them proper shoe making .Even if they can’t find an opportunity here they can always go out and do because in European countries you are recognized well for this art .
You are rewarded for the labour which you provide unlike here in Sri Lanka .In countries like England ,France ,Italy ,Hungary ,Rumania and the States they educate their people ensuring the continuation of the shoe making industry. Some people here falsely believe that something like this is below their level of dignity thus showing not much interest in it.
6) Started in the pre-internet times and now successfully operating in the digital era? How did you adapt? What trends did you include and what did you ignore?
I do have adjusted slightly with the digital era by means of my website and involvement in Instagram although not that significant. I don’t actually see a huge need to move further into the crowd because there is no competition at my level. Like I mentioned before the demand for the products simply keeps growing.
7)Where would you like to see Sunil shoes in the next few years and any plans on taking these quality products to the international market?
With regard to the international market I am talking about it with my daughter. She used to work in my shop as a kid and she still has the passion so is hoping to continue in my line. I am trying to complete my 50 years of shoe making where I’ve got only 2 years left for it and from there she will take it over.
Even my staff members have been with me for a long time and have grown together with me. Somehow or the other we will find a way to keep this going.