A sun-dappled pathway from Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice leads to the newest Sabah House. They’ve filled the small white structure with vibrant, natural leather shoes stacked from floor to ceiling. The atmosphere feels so aptly “California” that one might be surprised to know they have just recently set up this shop, though the story of Sabah goes back to 2013. Founder Mickey Ashmore was living in Turkey. His fascination with Turkish footwear led him to Gaziantep and a collaboration with the craftsmen of one of the oldest family workshops. Together here, they created a pair of hand-stitched shoes, a modern version of a more traditional style. Ashmore wore that first shoe back in the United States and began fielding requests from friends who wanted a pair. Small numbers of orders led to his first pop-up shop in his home.
When Ashmore found the workshop in Turkey they had five employees. With the success of Sabah and orders coming in from around the world, the growing workshop currently employs 25 individuals with more positions opening up. What started with a few black, red and green pairs of shoes has led to developing dozens of colors and now a collaboration with Brit Kleinman of AVO. Beyond the locations in New York and Dallas, Sabah also has had extended pop-ups at DC’s Union Market, in Heath Ceramics in SF, and in Nantucket. Their shoes have made their way around the world—worn at the beach, to work, and even in weddings.
We visited the new Venice location and spoke with Ashmore, though he was in Paris, hosting a pop-up in the first at the Palais-Royal.
Why did you decide to open a Sabah House in Los Angeles?
We have a really strong and loyal customer base in California, in San Francisco and LA. We have been working with René Holguin of RTH for more than three years. We sell Sabahs in his shop and have been connected in his world since the beginning. He certainly had a big influence on Sabah’s success. We did a one-month temporary residence Sabah House in Venice in 2015 on Abbot Kinney in a private home on the second floor. We had a really good time. When our friends at The Piece Collective called about this space, it looked like a cool opportunity. So we did it. It’s a good market for us. In LA you can wear Sabahs year ’round.
With RTH being such a strong presence in the design community, how do you feel Sabah relates to that handmade aesthetic?
First and foremost I look up to René. I look at him as like a mentor. We both run our brand independently. We both sell direct. I did not sell online for the first three years. It was very personal. We got to know our customers. I think René was attracted to the way we did business. He obviously has a lot of passion. His product is artisanal. Everything he makes is a little bit different and constantly changing. While Sabahs are one style of shoes, we are always changing colors, making new things, and having fun. Every pair is a little bit different by the nature of how it is made. Rene loved the aesthetic and I love his aesthetic. We enjoy each other’s vibe.
Have you sewn a pair of Sabahs yourself?
I have never tried to stitch a shoe myself. It is very difficult to do. The families we work with have been doing this stitching for generations. That being said I know every single worker very well. I have spent a lot of time in our workshop. We have built the workshop hand-in-hand with the owners since the beginning of Sabah. We have been involved in every step of the process to understand and celebrate the craft. The Prime Minister of Turkey has visited the workshop and stitched a pair of Sabahs.
From the first pair of Sabahs until now, how much has the workshop grown?
When we started there were only five workers and now there are 25. We created a program to seek out new craftsmen, train them, and employ them to make Sabahs. We are not a social enterprise, but happy healthy well-paid people do better work. That is the nature of how we do things. We photograph all of our workers, tell their stories, and are public about who we work with. They are really excited to see this shoe go all over the world. Every craftsman signs the shoe that they stitch.
Growing the workshop to 25 jobs is no small thing.
We are actually in the process of expanding the workshop and bringing on more people. We are in a constant state of needing and wanting more shoes. They are hard to make. We take it slow and grow little by little. Slow and steady. Currently we also employ three refuges form Syria. Gaziantep is about 60 miles from the border. From Aleppo. It is one of the largest locations of Syrian refugees in the world.
What has the response been in Gaziantep?
Gaziantep is a big city, about a million people. It is the fourth biggest city in Turkey. There is a lot happening. For the people in the crafts industry there they see the growth and recognize the success. We have seen new workshops popping up to make similar shoes, which is cool. That is the nature of it. This was once a very vibrant craft in Gaziantep and there were lots of workshops, but when I started there were just a couple left. The workshop that makes Sabahs is very well regarded in Turkey.
In addition to weddings, where are some of the most memorable places you have seen your customers wear their Sabahs?
We have a guy who is in the Navy. He flies F16 jets off aircraft carriers. He sent me a video of himself taking off from an aircraft carrier and he looks down with his phone are there are a pair of Sabahs sitting in his lap next to his controllers.
Who is the loyal Sabah customer?
Today was a great example. This guy named Christophe walked into the shop in Paris with his wife, Claudia. I had never met him before, but he has followed us on Instagram for four years. He was one of our first 50 customers. Today, he walked in wearing his first pair. He now owns three and got two more. His wife bought some and his kids. It was really cool to meet and hug someone who bought shoes four years ago and still wears them. It was the first time I ever shipped a shoe to Paris. It may sounds cheesy, but it kind of feels like family finally reuniting. It was a beautiful thing. People feel some kind of grounding and attachment to them, which is nice.
The next Sabah pop-up shop will be in the Hamptons. Ashmore hopes to begin plans for London next year. Sabahs are available in their stories and through their Sabah Portal online from $190.
Images courtesy of Sabah, by Jordana Longo