Launching a luxury shoes brand in Asia
Hive Life - 10 July 2018. Author Daniel L.
A return to his birthplace in Saigon led Dominic Price to fulfil a decades-long ambition of creating a truly unique luxury shoe brand in Asia.
There may be no end to the number of shoe brands out there, but Dominique Saint Paul is something else altogether. Boasting an impressive line-up of immaculate dress shoes that blend Vietnamese craft with European leather and traditional techniques, this brand is changing the landscape of bespoke shoemaking and giving luxury houses a run for their money.
Born in Vietnam, Dominic Price moved to India when he was three, eventually settling in London as a young adult, where he got his first taste of shoemaking in the mid-1980s. Passing by shoe shops that sold their goods at inflated prices, he decided to take matters into his own hands to make what he couldn’t afford. “In 1985, I created some shoe sketches and brought them to a shoe fair, negotiating with several brands before one agreed to make my first order of 48 pairs,” he recalls. Despite securing potential buyers, his plans fell through when production was delayed. Despondent and with no way to deliver, the frustrated creative put shoe design on the backseat and pursued a career in the financial sector instead.
Fast forward to 2008, and Dominic, now a successful banker who had returned to Vietnam and was running the operations of a leading international bank in Saigon, chanced upon a newspaper article about an elderly Vietnamese cobbler who handmade shoes for everyone from Kings to locals. Tracking the octogenarian down, it dawned upon him that, even though they shared no common language, their love for shoemaking transcended words and culture. Digging out his long-forgotten sketches, Dominic asked the craftsman if he could help.
It didn’t take long for the itch to own a shoe business to return. Armed with newfound confidence, and now in prime position to embark on his entrepreneurial journey, the then 52-year-old took a step back from his day job and started Dominique Saint Paul with two co-founders in 2012. “I planned to make women’s shoes as well, so ‘Dominique’, the unisex version of my name, seemed apt”, he explains. “The Clinique Saint Paul in Saigon was where I was born, so I added that in too, hence the brand was named ‘Dominique Saint Paul’.” As to why Vietnam was chosen as his base of operations, Dominic shares that sentimentality isn’t the sole reason. “I found Vietnam to be a crucible of artistic creativity and was blown away by the buzz of optimism,” he muses. “The Vietnamese have pride, confidence and strong self-identity which really inspired me and reignited my interest.”
Dominique Saint Paul now employs 19 people; 15 in its workshop in District 2, the area where the Hive Villa sits, and four in its beautiful brick and mortar store at 29 Dong Du in District 1. Construction of the shoes is, as Dominic puts it, “classically European”. Leathers are sourced primarily from Italy, though he also uses great leathers from all over the world. The shoes are hand-painted by co-founder Luan, a self-taught leather colourist who meticulously ensures that each pair bears a unique shade of colour and finish. They’re also Goodyear welted, meaning the outsole can be replaced with a new one, extending the lifespan of the shoes by years, if not decades. To ensure that customers with irregular feet sizes get the perfect fit, the brand’s made-to-order range covers a staggering 13 sizes in five widths. Waiting time varies from six to eight weeks, and business is certainly brisk. Word-of-mouth recommendations and a strong social media presence, courtesy of co-founder Jonathan, has led to an average of over 100 pairs sold per month to customers from America, France, Japan and Singapore, to name a few.
To set their shoes apart from the rest of the luxury market, Dominique Saint Paul incorporates several details that make them instantly recognisable. For starters, their linings come in turquoise, a nod to Dominic’s late mother’s favourite colour. In place of the normal tassel that accompanies loafers, Dominic created his own version that resembles a miniature lantern, an iconic symbol in Vietnam. “I included a pearl in the tassel to make it look like an actual lantern,” he says. “That’s evocative of Vietnam and unusual detailing.” Other neat touches include star-shaped cutouts in his brogues and mother of pearl inlays, and he has recently expanded the range to include belts, wallets and card holders.
With so much effort and attention put into the production of the shoes, it’s surprising that they’re priced close to off-the-shelf equivalents from designer labels; made-to-order pairs start at US$500, with the ready-to-wear range coming in at around half that price. “We want to enable people to be themselves on purpose, by creating a shoe that they would love to wear, that reflects their identity and personalising it so that they own something no one else has,” he says of Dominique Saint Paul’s ethos.
Chuckling at the fact that he’s no longer the young creative type who hustled at shoe fairs, Dominic points out that this second coming would not have come to fruition had he not revisited his roots. “Things happen when the time is right. I tried it in England, failed and waited for a second chance which returning to my birthplace provided. We are a European brand born in Vietnam, just as I was.”
Dominic’s next goal is to turn Dominique Saint Paul into an international brand in the next few years, with expansion plans in both Europe and Asia. As someone who took years to follow his passion, Dominic’s advice for millennials today is not to wait too long to do the same. “Having Luan’s creative genius and millennial approach has been the tonic the brand needed. He epitomises the creativity and confidence of 21st century Saigon. Together with Jonathan, a fellow Englishman with a similar love of shoes, who has been the backbone of Dominique Saint Paul’s social media presence, our brand is slowly catching on internationally.”