Janie Robinson was having a depressing week recently. She could have gone to a bar and drank some beer. Instead, she went to the cobbler, where she ordered a different kind of pick-me-up—shocking pink slip-ons, made just for her.
“They’re pure luxury nonsense, they don’t go with anything,” she said with eminent satisfaction as she stood outside the shoe shop last week, where she had just paid $14 for the pair. “What could cheer me up more than bright pink shoes?”
In the West almost nobody, except perhaps the very rich, can still get their shoes custom-made. Increased industrial productivity—reflected in higher wages and the decreasing relative cost of goods like shoes—has made it so much cheaper to buy manufactured shoes that most cobblers closed up shop decades ago. So for foreigners like Robinson, a language teacher from England, getting shoes made is “the snobbish kind of luxury you just can’t afford in the UK.”
Robinson gets her shoes made at one of three little shops lined up along Street 143, bordering the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum. All three shops are actually owned by one family. Two of them make shoes primarily for men; those shoes are stamped with “Tuol Sleng” on the instep. The third makes shoes for women. Those shoes are stamped “Beautiful.”
“Before they were all called Tuol Sleng, but some customers didn’t like it, so I changed,” said Ay Sisopeah, 18, who manages the women’s store. “For men, it’s okay, but for ladies, they don’t like it.”
Customers at Ay Sisopeah’s store choose among over 100 pieces of fabric—leather, silk, or snakeskin—of all different colors. Then they browse among hundreds of shoe styles on display. They can choose one of those styles, bring in a picture of a shoe they like, or just make up their own style.
The customer’s foot is traced and measured in three different places. Then the specs are sent upstairs, where the shoes are made.
At Dy Chanthy’s shop, next door to Ay Sisophea, a team of six can make as many as 18 pairs of shoes a day. First, the leather upper portion of the shoe is stitched together using an old sewing machine that can by powered by electricity or by foot. “If you use your legs, it looks nicer,” said Moeung Samnang, who has been stitching the leather upper of shoes for 10 years now. “But it needs a lot of energy.”
Another worker fits the upper onto one of hundreds of plastic foot-shaped molds, each of which corresponds with a particular shoe size and style. The upper is nailed to the mold to ensure a perfect fit. The sole is cut to fit the bottom of the mold. The nails are pulled out, the mold is removed and the first sole is stitched onto the shoe; some shoes have two or three soles.
The first Tuol Sleng shoe store was established by Sy Phal and wife Kum Hien during the Lon Nol era. The stores have survived the arrival of cheaper shoes in the markets because of superior quality and fit, Dy Chanthy said.
Then there are the special requests. Cambodians often splurge on custom shoes for special occasions such as weddings, Dy Chanthy said. “When the groom is shorter than the bride, they come in here to make the shoes a bit taller.”