An Interview with Mohamed Affan, the owner of Bridlen

India is not normally mentioned when we are talking about classic dress shoes. The reason is manyfold such as the climate, the history and the economic condition. So it is amazing to see a great brand, Bridlen entering our radar.

The shoes look very quality and promising and the price is also very competitive as Bridlen targets global customers.

It is happy to talk with the founder of Bridlen, Mohamed Affan.

Could you tell us more about your self?

My name is Mohamed Affan K, I am 34 years old and the owner, shoemaker-in-chief at Bridlen.

I am the managing director of the shoe factory Affan Shoes in India where Bridlen is made and other OEM production for Japanese and European clients.

I’ve been a shoemaker for the past 6 years taking over from my father who was a veteran leatherman and shoemaker of over 30 years of experience.

Prior to becoming a shoemaker, I was in the recycling industry, specialising in metals and electronic waste in Europe and Africa and worked for the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, Switzerland.

As the weather in India is hot around the year, does Goodyear Welted shoes fit the climate here?

A Very good question! Firstly, our website right now caters for an international audience that’s why we have boots along side summer loafers. But this is something I have been thinking about myself and the answer is a bit complicated.

The first point here is that Goodyear welted shoes do not generate more or less heat than other constructions. Perhaps a fully synthetic shoe will feel hotter because the materials are not breathable. In our case, the shoes are made of natural materials that breath. The upper, lining, insole, outsole, are made of vegetable tanned leather or aniline chrome tanned leathers. We ensure not to use glue or adhesives between the upper and lining and very minimal on the outsoling process to ensure maximum breathability and to keep the original characteristics such as touch and feel of the leather, intact. Therefore I would say the materials matter more and to some extent how the shoe is made rather than the construction as far as weather specific footwear is concerned.

The second thing is most of the people who wear dress shoes in hotter countries like India or in the Middle East tend to be wearing them in offices for the most part of their day where the temperature is ambient through the year. When worn with the right type of socks, like thin cotton ones, a pair of goodyear welted shoes should not feel hot. If anything, the comfort after a long day of wearing GYW shoes will leave you feet feeling fresh and not as tired compared to wearing other less supportive constructions with poorer material choices.

Aesthetically, which country influences Bridlen most?

Typically the aesthetics are seen through the lens of the historic centres of shoe production. In that, Northampton for British inspired or Florence for Italian inspired or Mallorca for Spanish. In that traditional sense, I would say our lasts are British inspired. Less pointy, more rounded, and fuller.

Beyond the last and going into design and making I have been inspired by Japanese shoemakers for their clean lines and attention to detail. Be it the smallest what might be even seen as insignificant, I find that Japanese shoemakers attention to the materials used or the size of the fudge wheel, or fiddle back on the bottoming process, to keep the shoes clean on the inside as much as on the outside all resonate with me.

I am constantly trying to bring what I think are the best from different areas of excellence to Bridlen.

How many staff are in your team? Where did you find the talents who make quality shoes?

We are a small family business with everyone working hands-on in the factory and brand office. When we started to make goodyear welted shoes, we did not know much and had to learn by trial and error the first year.

We had a lot of help from our mentor and brand co-founder Mr. Watanabe who spent alternative months between Tokyo and Chennai teaching us the techniques and finer points of shoemaking. Slowly we built a team from scratch.

In India even though there is an established shoe industry, the talent pool available are more attuned to making bulk production shoes with speed being the main skill demanded of them. We had to make some staff unlearn this concept and instill the importance of quality over quantity. That it’s not so important how many shoes we make but how well we make them. After a couple of years of working with us, they understand this culture and from there on we multi-skill them. No one staff does only one operation of the shoemaking process. There are specialists who do some things better than others but we are always encouraging them to learn other skills to they can appreciate the work of their colleagues and when necessary do it themselves too.

I remember your website said you use Local leather for the upper and now it is French, why changed?

The Main Line uses French box calf from Annonay and British suede from CF Stead in the standard black and shades of brown and burgundy.

The founders Line uses limited run leathers from feature tanneries from around the world. Currently we are running the museum calf from Zonta, Italy, Wienhiemer, Germany for their black box calf, DuPuy France for the Tan box calf and soon the Russian calf from JFJ Baker will be launched in London but very few numbers are available. Colours in this line are closer to the staples with one of two special ones for the season.

In the casual classics, we are more playful with colours, textures and leather types. For this collection we use local micro tanneries to make our leathers. India has a rich tradition of leather tanneries going back decades. In some cases, the tanneries are a century old making leather for the British army that was stationed in India when it was a colony before 1947. Over time thought the advent of mass manufacturing meant they catered more to suit the market requirements but there exists some tanners and pockets of knowledge where they can make excellent high-quality leathers using interesting old techniques like pit tanning.

We ensure that the tanneries we work with are consistent in their environmental and social commitments and adhere to standards such as REACH or LWG where applicable.

Our Blake line which can be used as fitting pair for international customers also uses locally made leather.

Could you talk about your international customer base?

Japan has historically been our biggest market. Bridlen started there with  a decade ago. Its only the last 3-4 years ago we started  in English for the international audience.

Pre-pandemic we were planning to do a set of trunk shows in Europe to introduce the brand. We managed to only get to Amsterdam in March 2020 and then COVID hit the world. We are restarting our Europe Road show from London in May 2022.

Some reviews in the past year have brought international interest to the brand but it is the growth in India that has been pleasantly surprising and encouraging for me.

We would also like to look towards China as a potential market but honestly we don’t have much understanding of the market.

Do you think pandemic will change the dressing habit so dress shoes will decline for a long time?

I think it already has. It has accelerated the growth of casual dressing but I think in a very interesting way. For example, in the past, most gentlemen chose to buy read-to-wear casual clothes and occasionally tailored their formal shirts and trousers. There has been a moment of awakening during the pandemic where consumers have questioned their past choices and looked critically inwards to find that they haven’t always made sustainable or meaningful purchases.

In the post-pandemic world, there is better awareness for sustainability and consumers are making conscious decisions when it comes to their wardrobe choices. They are asking for their casual wear to be tailored, so it fits better, lasts longer and they can enjoy the benefits of bespoke tailoring on a daily basis. The same is true in the shoe world. Our causal classics was born during the pandemic looking at this trend of casualisation of footwear. Why not offer good construction, materials even when one chooses to dress casually?

Where does Bridlen position itself in the market, what does it offer exclusively to customers?

When it comes to quality footwear, the high end factory made brands (More than $500) use good materials and construction but very few people can afford this outside of the developed markets of Europe and USA. Even in Europe and the USA, people are looking for better value. We would like to offer the same quality of construction and materials to be available to a wider audience so more people can enjoy the benefits and joy of wearing good footwear.

Do you think as people becomes more and more rich, more Indian people will choose Goodyear welted shoes over cemented ones?

To a certain extent that will be true. As people become more affluent, they look to improve their wardrobe choices. But it could also be that they would like to be seen wearing certain brands irrespective of the way they are made or what is used to make them.

I am more excited about the advent of younger people making sustainability a core part of their decision making process and how the internet has made it easy for them to research about information on how things are made, who makes them and where they are made.

I was pleasantly surprise in the Amsterdam trunk show in May 2020 where many students were interested in Goodyear welted shoes saying they want to start building their wardrobe early in life so they don’t have to make too many shoe purchases. They would rather have it resoled when it wears out and consume lesser materials in their lifetime! This awareness is coming about in India, but also other markets where the younger generation is agnostic to brands and care more about sustainability and quality.

Please say something to Chinese shoe lovers.

I am pleasantly surprised with the recent launch of many Chinese brands of very high quality and craftsmanship. As a young brand ourselves, I have a lot of respect for what they are doing and hope together with us in India and some more brands in south East Asia who are doing excellent work, we can change the image globally that we can make good quality footwear in Asia too!