An interview with our founder Mr. Dominic Price
Coco Takumi, Dec 2017. A short talk with The Founder about shoes and Saigon.
Dominic Price gives us some insight into his lifelong passion for shoes and Saigon
When did you first come up with the idea to start your shoe brand?
As a young man in the early 1980s, whilst living in London, I would sketch designs of men’s shoes that I wanted to make. I took my sketch book to the London Olympia shoe fare in 1984 and initially approached a company called Avalon and asked whether they would be prepared to make sales of my shoes which they agreed to do.
Having got some interest from them I then approached the famous Trickers and spoke to one of their designers, telling him that Avalon had expressed an interest in my designs. I showed them three designs.
My first design was a tassel loafer. The distinguishing feature was a lantern style tassel, meaning that the lantern style leather tassel decoration was closed at the end rather than splayed as most tassels tend to be. The distinguishing feature of my lantern style tassel was that the “light” in the lantern was provided by a brass piece that I had made by a jeweller, and although rather heavy, it caught the light and the eye in a most pleasing way. I also changed the decorative leather lacing around the mouth of the shoe to ensure that it had its original purpose, to tighten the mouth of the shoe.
Aside from the tassel loafer I also designed a simpler loafer that I called The Boxer, so called because it had a box stitch on either side of the vamp.
My third shoe design was a single buckle monk shoe which came with or without brogue detailing.
Trickers soon after, invited me to their factory in Northampton, the home of British shoe making. I would often work at weekends perfecting my designs, preparatory to my first production order of 48 pairs due for Christmas 1985.
I had little money and therefore relied on pre-selling to a number of people I knew in London who I hoped would be ambassadors for my fledgling shoe brand.
In the event I received word from the factory that my order would be delayed until the following year. I suppose as they had orders from bigger customers, but in any event my customers who I had hoped to be my brand ambassadors were sorely let down.
One thing led to another and I began a career in banking, but I never let go of my dream and I promised myself that I would carry on with the shoes later once I could afford to.
A curious addendum to the first part of my shoe story is that some three years later I was shopping in Chelsea when I saw some shoes in a shop made by a famous old English brand that incorporated design details amazingly similar to those that I had worked on years before. Slightly disappointing but at the same time flattering.
It was not until over twenty years later, when I returned to Vietnam, the land of my birth, that my shoe making career picked up again. I saw a newspaper article about an elderly Vietnamese shoe maker who made shoes for kings and invalids alike. I sought out this wonderful artisan Mr. Ngoc in his workshop in Saigon and I found my dreams once again coming to life.
What preparation did you make to get your brand out into the world? Studying, visiting different locations and research?
Honestly, very little research specifically to get our brand out. Our brand was simply founded solely on my passion to make great shoes.
During my life, I have been fortunate enough to be a prolific buyer of ready to wear, made to order and bespoke shoes. I have effectively made extensive research in England, France and Italy where I was an acute observer of the best men’s’ shoes. In my early days, I could afford Gucci loafers and later in life Berluti; my favoured brand until I began again making my own designs in Vietnam in 2008.
I always believed that within the conservatism of classic European menswear there was room for some tweaks that could differentiate my shoes from those available elsewhere.
It wasn’t until I met the delightful Mr. Ngoc that I began to see how this might be realised.
Mr. Ngoc, Vietnamese by birth, learnt shoe making in Paris and at one time was the shoe maker for the court of King Norodom Sihanouk in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
The fact that Mr. Ngoc also made shoes for invalids resonated with me as my mother had been an invalid with polio from the age of four. It was with her that I had had my earliest experience of hand-made shoes in India as she had to have her shoes made for her to accommodate her physical disabilities. She walked on crutches her entire life.
With Mr. Ngoc I had an instant rapport, despite the fact that he spoke no English and I spoke little French and no Vietnamese. I asked him to make some of my old designs, including my personal favourite, the iconic lantern tassel loafer, only this time I decide that the light in the lantern should be a real pearl as Saigon, the city of my birth, was the pearl of the Orient and the lantern was so evocative of old Vietnam.
I went on to design a number of Vietnam inspired styles including the emblematic star loafer incorporating a Vietnam star made from mother of pearl. My brogues also featured the Vietnam star on the toe caps.
Your inspiration comes from a few different sources, is there any source that really stands out, and what about it specifically inspires you?
My early inspiration came from classic European shoe styles. The inspiration for the turquoise lining of all our shoes came from the fact that turquoise was the favourite colour of my mother, who was also an artist. I always loved tassels and believe the lantern tassel I created to be one of the most beautiful tassels ever made.
When asked by the Robb Report to propose a shoe for their luxury gift feature some years ago I simply created my lantern tassel loafers with real Vietnamese pearls. The pearls themselves were valued at several thousands of dollars.
Quentin Crisp is also an inspiration for me. He was a famous old English eccentric and the subject of Sting’s classic song “An Englishman in New York”.
Mr. Ngoc by now an old friend, continues to inspire me to this day. He still makes shoes in the same workshop in Saigon every day.
Overall though I am inspired to create a reputation for my shoes that would make them known in all the world and coveted by shoe collectors, I would like my shoes to epitomise the personal style of their wearers.
Thinking again about Quentin Crisp, the epitome of style could be related as “being yourself but on purpose”. This is something that I have always held to be true and wearing Dominique Saint Paul shoes one can achieve this. Being yourself, but on purpose, inspires me and drives me forward each day.
Saigon and generally Vietnam inspires me. For example, I had created the brand name Dominique Saint Paul many years before the name became a brand. Dominique because it is a unisex name; I wanted to eventually make both men’s and women’s shoes, and Saint Paul in homage to the Clinique Saint Paul Saigon the hospital where I was born in 1960.
The Dominique Saint Paul logo I designed on the back of a coaster at lunch with my wife in Bali. I wanted to incorporate the D of Dominique and the S and P of Saint Paul and I wanted a mark that worked either way up so that when stepping into a Dominique Saint Paul shoe or approaching it from the toe you would still see the same shape hence the ambigram that is the logo of Dominique Saint Paul.
Taking the brand and the logo I began assembling a team to bring the brand to life.
Many years ago, I had seen a few brands in Italy and France working with hand colouring on leather and I felt this ought to be an intrinsic part of our work enabling us to be a brand whose ability to deliver on the promise of “being yourself but on purpose” could be achieved through personal choice of colour and patina.
For the hand colouring we needed a real artisan and in Luan we found the perfect artist. He is Vietnamese and to this day looks after a team of in house trained patina artists who perform unique feats of hand colouring on leather. Alex is another important part of our team. He is from France and look after the leather goods making, having trained at the most famous craft school in France and made leather goods for Hermes, amongst others. With Luan the artist, Alex the artisan, an inspirational English friend, called Jonathan whose input and understanding of the shoe business has been invaluable we have an ideal team.
You take traditional construction and add a modern touch with really unique colouring and finishes, do your artisans design as they colour, or is there a pattern already designed to apply to the shoe?
The answer is both. Luan will still often create new hand colouring styles, colours and ways of applying the dye colours. Over the many years that we have been established some colours and patinas have become house favourites and those are still reproduced to this day, although as leather is a natural product, and the hand colouring patination is a job of painstaking hand work, no two pairs of shoes are ever alike. In fact, each pair of shoes is a one of a kind work of art.
When you are not working, what re-energizes you outside of the office?
Travel, looking for inspiration in far flung places. Enjoyment of different styles in different countries.
Do you have a secret skill or trait not a lot of people are aware of?
A desire to create exquisite items that enhance the wearers' enjoyment of life. I also design jewellery that is subtle, understated but exquisite.
What’s the main driving force that gets you up every morning?
The belief that Dominique Saint Paul will one day be a global brand that is coveted widely by people who want to reflect their own personality rather than wear a brand that is significant more for its expense than its character.
What does personal style mean to you?
Personal style for me is “being yourself but on purpose” which means not trying to be something one isn’t, being confident enough in one’s own conviction to be what you really are and wear what you really love regardless of others’ opinions.
Our inspiration is to make a pair of shoes that epitomises the individuality of the wearer. This takes our designs to a higher level through choice of colour and combinations of leather reflecting the unique personality of the wearer and allows them to wear something that is classic but at the same time highly personal.