Sibylle Arnold-Shish, founder of The Cobbler. Image Credit: Alex Atack/Gulf News

When singer Lionel Richie returned to Dubai a week ago, he went shoe shopping at The Dubai Mall. And of all the brands that were lined-up for him to pick and choose, he singled out a shiny pair of Corthay shoes, the Parisian label known for its bespoke services.

Richie, 63, is hardly the epitome of style, but that anecdote is a nice little nod for the brand, which opened its UAE branch in October last year, and what it offers, says CEO Xavier De Royere.

“And it wasn’t a gift, he paid his hard-earned cash for it,” he adds with a smile.

In a city obsessed with brands and labels, companies like Corthay, whose founder Pierre Corthay still serves as creative head, are finding a niche with fans who want to go back to the basics.

“There is an appetite for products like ours by people who understand quality, who want personalisation and who want something that’s unique, whether it’s in colour or designs,” De Royere says. “Brands have the same products all over the world, but these are for people interested in something that is individual.”

That demand is exactly what prompted former marketing executive Sibylle Arnold-Shish to turn entrepreneur by launching The Cobbler, an upscale, full-service shoe repair concept in Dubai 2011.

“When my husband and I moved to Dubai from London in 2008, he complained that he couldn’t find a single place for basic shoe care. Being a banker, it was something that was very important for him, so he started pushing me to start something,” Arnold-Shish recalls.

Starting off with a shoe shining service at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), the French mother-of-two says she was soon inundated by customers requesting repair services.

After a few months of research, and “lots and lots of hard work”, The Cobbler opened at the DIFC. Having had no experience in leather business, Arnold-Shish employed the help of Compagnons du Devoir, a French professional apprenticeship, which specialises in training craftsmen. All cobblers at her outlet need to be recognised by the programme.

“The idea was to have an expert who you can trust with your most value pair of shoes,” says the entrepreneur.

And the reception has been outstanding, she says.

“We had a customer bring in 10 pairs of shoes she thought she would never wear again. But we’ve had everyone from bankers to bikers who come to buy laces for their boots and knits for their jackets.”

Arnold-Shish has since opened another outlet at level Shoe District at The Dubai Mall, where Corthay’s outlet is also located.

Both The Cobbler and Corthay also offer a range of ready-to-wear collections. While a pair of Corthay ready-to-wear shoes will set you back about Dh5,000, at The Cobbler, it will start at Dh1,399. Both offer a personalisation option. Bespoke shoes are priced according to design and work required and can take up to 20 weeks.

The market for products that speak individuality is growing, say the executives.

“We find that around the world people are learning fast. They walk into the store, they pick up the shoes and they know it’s quality,” says De Royere, whose company also has stores in Europe, Asia and north America.

“We have a French customer who comes every year. He is a school bus driver who lives in the Alps and comes once a year to our showroom in Paris. It’s his journey once a year and a possibly a huge expense for him. But he saves up for that pair.

“At the end of the day, it’s about wanting something that doesn’t make them conform. It’s about freedom of expression.”

Corthay recently launched a special camel leather line, with raw materials sourced from a tannery near Abu Dhabi.

The Cobbler’s Arnold-Shish says it’s about being different and that it means something.

“Once you’ve bought your 10th pair of branded shoes, you aspire to something better, something personal that no one else does.”

Staying small and being consistent will continue to set Corthay apart, De Royere says.

“We are never going to compete with a Louis Vuitton, Chanel or Gucci. You have to be true to the way you market yourself. And if you have elements of consistency, I think the message ends up being heard and understood.”

Arnold-Shish also wants to go slow, although another outlet in Abu Dhabi is in the works.

“We really need this year to consolidate. We’ve grown gradually from our shoe-shining business and we want to ensure that standards remain,” she says.

“It’s all about craftsmanship and that know-how that is lacking with so many products on the market. The focus will continue to be taking people back to that spirit of appreciating something that takes time and is difficult to make.”

*Corthay is located at level Shoe District, The Dubai Mall (04-5016955). The Cobbler is located at the DIFC (04-3863490) and level Shoe District, The Dubai Mall (04-5016920).