Black Wing Shoes: Flying on the Wings of Bespoke, Riding the Winds of Change
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By: Ejay Domingo
Buddy Tan is a man who believes in the great potential of the Marikina shoe industry, but he also knows that great changes must first take place.
Born and raised in Marikina, Buddy grew up exposed to the family business of supplying shoe materials, so at a young age he was already beginning to learn the trends in the business. At around 2004, he started out working with sandals, not shoes.
“My idea of a good pair of footwear is sandals, crocs, basta anything comfortable,” he said in an interview inside his office and workshop in Brgy. Sto. Nino, Marikina City.
It was in 2012 when he opened Black Wing Shoes for business. He began with just three shoemakers, and hardly any commercial activities. Buddy wanted to take the Marikina handcrafted model and merge it with the shoemaking processes abroad. He called it the experimental stage, that is, learning about the ins and outs of making shoes from scratch.
At this early stage, the company struggled to break even, managing to get only 5-10 clients a month, even though they needed to make at least 30 pairs of shoes a month to recover the costs of operating the business.
If the Shoe Fits
Instead of going into mass production and supplying shoes to department stores and other retailers as most of the Marikina shoemakers did and still does today, Black Wing focused on made-to-order, custom-styled shoes.
But doing so was not easy. Buddy and his team encountered difficulties getting the right “fit” for their clients even if Black Wing had to get the shoe size, style, and other preferences of its clients before making the shoes. They had a high rejection rate at the time, with up to 30 percent of their shoes being sent back because they didn’t fit the customers’ feet very well.
Buddy was undaunted. His team continued to learn from their mistakes, improve on them and they persisted, even if it meant losing more money.
The real first test for their shoes came in 2013, at his own wedding. At that time, he managed and survived the day, from the ceremony to the reception, wearing a pair of Black Wing leather shoes without his feet hurting. After that, he knew that they had made a quality product with the right fit.
“That’s when I said na yun nga, if I could [use it], then we could actually market it out na,” he said. “I don’t believe in marketing something that I can’t use.”
Black Wing specializes in men’s shoes, all custom-made products both for formal or casual wear. Clients are measured and fitted on site as much as possible, in order to tailor their shoes with the best fit. In the past months, they even began releasing a new line of boy’s shoes, with slip-on leather shoes for kids.
Timing is Everything, But Not the Only Thing
Timing was one factor Buddy mentioned when asked about the secret of the success of his business. Their services came at a time when there was only one other company making custom-made shoes in Marikina and the prices offered by said shoe manufacturer were at the high side. But that’s not the only thing.
Persistence was another reason why Black Wing made it in the competitive industry.
“We kept on getting orders because practice makes perfect,” Buddy mentioned. “Imagine mo every time hindi mag-fit nang maayos [yung sapatos], yung mukha ng kliente nakasimangot.” Through repeated trial and error, as well as immediate feedback from the customers themselves, the sapateros learned to to truly hone their craft.
Through a combination of these factors, they were up to 30 pairs of shoes a month by 2015, and by 2016 they had reached their production cap of 60 pairs a month. By this time, thanks to his persistence, Black Wing started making some money.
Even with his own business currently flying high, Buddy still has some concerns about the industry.
“Personal success doesn’t equate to industry success,” he said. He wasn’t satisfied with just his own business improving; he hoped that the shoe industry, as a whole, even all his competitors, would continue to grow, to innovate, and to succeed.
“Now the competition, while syempre, to be honest, ayaw ko, we need it, eh. We need it to grow. We need it to push the industry further,” said the 36-year-old businessman who juggles his time between managing his shoe business and helping the Marikina Shoe Industry Development Office (MASIDO) come up with measures to bolster the Marikina shoe industry and restore its old glory when it was known as the Little Italy in Asia because of its quality leather footwear that can rival the best in the world.
Aside from helping the Marikina shoe industry return to its golden age, Buddy is also busy mapping out a strategy for his own Black Wing brand to conquer the international market such as the United States and Singapore.
Indeed, Black Wing's business continues to thrive even without conventional advertising, and it relies primarily through organic, word of mouth advertising. The biggest form of marketing they need could be found in the customers themselves.
“Our biggest difference with the other brands,” Buddy said, “is that I never treated it as a product brand, service brand lang talaga kami.”
For more information about Black Wing Shoes, please check out its Facebook page:
(Photo credits: Alfred Javier of Masido and Black Wing Shoes)
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