Mahabis creator, Ankur Shah reached out to me in Autumn of last year (2013) to explain a project he had been working on, a quest of sorts, to re-invent slippers. I was immediately curious, and after a quick flight and a slice of pizza on his London rooftop, we got down to business, exchanging ideas and possible directions. I think it’s fair to say the meeting worked out pretty well, even culminating in an impromptu visit to a local shoe store to create our first mock-prototype removable outsole.
Since then the design process has been super interesting, involving everything from 3D printing with flexible filament, trips all across Europe and generally disrupting the shoe development model. We’ve taken a road that has been relatively untraveled, specifically in footwear, and we’ve arrived with a totally uniquely designed and manufactured 3-part modular product that is 100% produced in Europe.
With such an interesting story, we thought it only fitting to share it here on CK. Check out our quick interview with Ankur, where he explains why he wanted to re-invent slippers, what the biggest design challenges were, and where he see’s the brand going in the future, below.
“This isn’t your average slipper, and our customer isn’t an average person; this is about differentiation on all levels.” – Ankur Shah
Sometimes some of the most mundane products are the ones that affect our comfort the most, but we take them for granted. I thought it was amazing that in one hand you could hold a smartphone packed with design and technology and yet my feet were freezing cold and uncomfortable and in a product that hadn’t changed for centuries!
I’d gone through so many different slippers and none of them really did anything for me. I spent so much on footwear that I wore for 2 or 3 hours a day, but for the rest of the day I was reduced to something sub-par. So I searched and searched for a better slipper. It turned out I wasn’t the only one. I discovered that demand for slippers is over 2x higher than it is for flip-flops, and that there simply isn’t a brand that captures the essence of everything a slipper should represent; relaxed, comfortable and protective. So I set out to make the ultimate slipper.
I’ve grown up in a number of different cultures and traveled to some very random places, so my thinking and approach to life has always been highly globalized . Product design for me is an extension of that expression. Mahabis is derived from cultures as diverse as Scandinavia, Morocco and India (and a few more to boot!).
We adore Scandinavian minimalism, the idea that reduction is better than over complication, we’ve tried to infuse our product with that thinking. The Moroccan babouche is an age old slipper with a crazy folding back and is still worn all over Morocco today. Indians have worn chapals and relaxed sandals since the dawn of time (or so it feels!). All of these feed into the way mahabis have been constructed.
That said we were equally inspired by how dire current slippers are designed, when you compare them to the detailed obsession with sneaker design for example or the way a women’s designer shoes are made the contrast couldn’t be more stark, and there really is no reason for it.
We want to bring all those different views together into a single product.
Well, not being a footwear designer, the whole thing was quite tricky! But supported by people like Mr. Bailey meant I could apply my knowledge of other fields to footwear design to tackle design challenges as they came up. We are doing something quite new in a genre that has seen virtually no innovation in centuries, so that brings its own challenges.
From a design perspective our detachable outsole is revolutionary, but raised a number of challenging issues in terms of production, but we’ve overcome them but in a manner that has allowed us to continue to innovate.
We’ve used some pretty crazy technologies to get to our final product, but equally we onshore our production back into Europe which radically changed the way we were able to iterate our product. At times there were up to 10 people working on the product in 3 different countries! It really was new way of working.
When we started I had an idea of what I wanted the product to look like. I think we’ve achieved that. But it wasn’t easy. This is a highly minimal product, it looks different, it plays different. But it owes a nod to many products down the ages. It’s not really a traditional slipper, its not really a traditional shoe, it’s something different.
We spent days and weeks focusing on some of the angles. The side profile angle was incredibly important to us, it is unique and gives mahabis their identity. The way the side drop contrasts with the folding back accentuates both and determines the product as a relaxed and edgy slipper. This isn’t your average slipper, and our customer isn’t an average person; this is about differentiation on all levels.
The folding heel itself has also been shaped, you can see the cultural influences easily and it has gone through many iterations. We’re very proud of our silhouette and is a real expression of the character of the product.
The last company I owned was a technology company. In software everything is modular; that’s to say it is in separate parts so different people and technologies can be brought to bear on each part, so each part can excel and be the best it can be. It enables innovation to take place much faster as you don’t have to interrupt one part to develop another. Working with Mr. Bailey we brought this production doctrine to footwear.
Our design and production separated the slipper into 3 distant components: the upper, the insole/collapsible back, and the sole. This is a first for shoe design as far as we can tell. It allowed us incredible flexibility. It meant we can also split the way they were produced and where they were produced. It complicates our supply chain, but equally adds some incredible advantages. Look out for new customization on every part of the slipper!
The first part of the project was reasonably traditional. But part way through the project we realized we didn’t really have the exact distinctiveness we desired.That’s when we reached out to Mr. Bailey for some brainstorming and assistance. That process was fascinating but hard, genuine product design soul-searching.The outcome was that we wanted to design something utterly new. The option of going back and forth with the far-east simple wasn’t an option, the time and effort expended would have lengthen the project to such an extent as to make it commercially not viable. So we searched around for the best way to develop the product, which required daily iteration and we settled on the wonderful world of 3d printing.
Got ourselves a 3d printer and the latest rubber filaments. We even spoke to the manufacturers about what was possible. At times it felt like we were on the edge of that world (and that we might fall off!). Arriving to a mess of rubber filament at three in the morning has never been fun for anyone, but it sped up our design process by months and allowed us to try some really crazy ideas.
This meant designing something remotely. Sending files. Printing in London. Then discussing via video conference. It was a pretty radical way of working, but it meant we were able to go from CAD to prototype to mould manufacturing in record time and it’s a methodology that is going to stay with us as we trying disrupt the traditional method of shoe development. This feels more like a technology design process than a traditional footwear design project.
“3d printing really has not only leveled the playing field, but enabled us to do things that otherwise would have been impossible.” – Ankur Shah
3d printing really has not only leveled the playing field, but enabled us to do things that otherwise would have been impossible.
There were a number of challenges with developing (rather than manufacturing) a product in the far east. Whilst there is no doubt real expertise and cost savings to be done working in the far-east, the time delay and quirks (around things like holidays) can really impact a project such as ours. So quite early on we decided to bring everything back to Europe. It was quite radical and unusual for a startup to do this, but the world’s changed and actually given rising labour costs in places like China, the EU became increasingly viable.
It also enabled us to find some unusual expertise. We now create our uppers in Eastern Europe in a region of Europe where there is a rap heritage in slipper production. We create our soles in Italy, just outside Milan, in a region famed for its footwear heritage (and its rice!). This has meant we are now working with factories that have and still work for leading luxury and sports brands and have an expertise second to none. It also means we can be at our factories in 2 hours. Again, unheard of and incredibly helpful for us.
I can’t tell you how excited we are to bring to market a product made in Europe.
For us mahabis stands for ‘perfection in the everyday’. This encapsulates our quest. And we will continue to strive to bring products that support you in your everyday adventures. We haven’t departed from our original goal, which was to fuse the best of heritage and technology to bring new products to market that have been created to support people in their daily adventures.
We’ve got some really exciting developments and collaborations in the pipeline. The mahabis classic range will expand, with more soles and more uppers. But also look out for the summer range. In addition, we are continuing to explore products that need innovation, that are taken for granted, but can be equally infused with this sense of heritage and technology.
We’re continue to accelerate at pace, but our first goal is to make mahabis the ubiquitous slipper; the brand that you associate with the comfort and protection of home, but the edge and excitement of adventure.
We hope you can join us on that ride!
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