Brian Tenorio on his Facebook, March 27, 2014 : I burned a shoe for an art exhibition last year. I enjoyed that.

by Brian Tenorio via Philippine Daily Inquirer | April 16, 2009

I WAS IN A CAB IN BERLIN once with the taxi driver trying to guess where I was from. After listening to him speculate if I was Japanese, Chinese or even Singaporean, I said I was from Manila. He then suddenly looked very interested and sighed, “Aaaah, the Abu Sayyaf!” And in the same breath he asked, “So how is the beautiful Imelda Marcos, (smiles) … And her shoes?”

We’ve seen recently how an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at the former US President. Now we don’t have his statement if he had really meant to throw his pair, or if he didn’t have anything else to hurl at the world’s most powerful leader. The cultural context of this gesture can’t be ignored though. Putting the sole of your shoe before someone is a major insult in the Arab world. Also, in some Asian cultures, shoes refer to the lowest and least significant part of the human body. One then should never give shoes as gifts.

However, the opposite is true in the Philippines, just see the balikbayans (or overseas Filipino workers returning home) bringing home shoes for their loved ones. The image of a balikbayan box being opened in a living room in Manila would always include a white pair of sneakers (fondly called “rubber shoes” in our country).

Can shoes be political? I think so.

Shoe Designer Brian Tenorio discusses men’s vs women’s fashion — if there is such a thing — with his “Hammerheads”,
men’s answer to women’s Duckbills. This is for debate, says the designer.

Yamamoto vs Prada

Inspired designer Yohji Yamamoto disagrees with my premise while adding valuable insight when he answered “Fashion Now’s” (2005, published by Taschen) inquiry if fashion can be political: “I don’t see it in fashion. But if fashion does have such ambition, I would describe it as ‘freedom.'”

Now you can take his quote and place it across contexts, but freedom can be from or of so many things. But when more relevant realities are discussed, “freedom” from economic hardship that is brought about by improving purchasing trends is a somewhat universally agreed-on objective.

In the same book, however, Miuccia Prada defends well-designed pieces, saying:  “but anything you do is political. The way you treat women, you have respect for them or not- this is a political choice. I don’t think that if you are interested in politics, you have to have bad clothing.”

So what’s the price tag of “looking it?” Conversely, when was the last time “Made in Italy” mattered and “Made in China” made a difference? When was the last time you bought a Philippine-made pair? Is GMA still wearing Philippine-made shoes besides the Milani pairs she used to wear? (Milani, although Italian-sounding, is a Filipino retail label.) Which of the 2010 presidential aspirants wear Philippine-made footwear

While the Chinese make the biggest number of shoes in the world and the Italians arguably the best lines, and the Japanese wear the most expensive styles, I think that Filipinos own another relevant superlative: we know our shoes, and among cultures, we love our shoes the most. That is our place in the global market and consciousness.

Sadly, though, I do not think we have used that to our advantage, as our footwear industry has been losing buyers, manufacturers and skilled shoemakers in the last few decades.

According to one of our best shoemaker veterans in Marikina, Mr Emong dela Paz, shanks for shoes used to be made of bamboo more than a century ago. Now they are made of tempered steel.

Dying shoe industry

According to the 2009 position paper of the Movement for Export Survival (MES) composed of industry associations (including the Philippine Footwear Federation Inc. or PFFI), of the $77-billion world demand for footwear, the Philippines produces for only 0.04 percent of that demand. Also, more than 20,000 Filipino employees work for that manufacturing sector. In the same report, it states that almost half of the members of the PFFI had closed their companies by 2007.

Regarding world demand for shoes, in her book, “Shoes: a Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers and More” (New York: Workman, 1996), Linda O’ Keefe “The charismatic qualities of shoes have more to do with possession than use.”

While this may be true for women, I feel that men, on the other hand, are more about use than consumption when it comes to footwear. Look at the Barack Obama picture of Callie Shell for Time, where the American president exposes the thinned-out soles of his pair- those are the shoes of a working man.

So the message is: In times like this, there is no shame in having worn-out soles.

The follow-up question then: Is Obama’s pair made in the US’ To Huffington Post blog reader Territc (an online nickname, we are sure), this may not matter as she thinks that those shoes have a story to tell. They have walked the road from the announcement to the election.

Shoe and memory

Shoes also help us remember. They tell a story and sometimes they represent their wearers. Shoes are synecdoches of sorts, and in the book “Footnotes on Shoes” (edited by Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, published by Rutgers University Press in 2001), a particular chapter title effectively captures the essence of this idea: “Empty Shoes.” Discussed in the chapter is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which has an artistic installation of old shoes gathered from Holocaust victims.

Shoes symbolize one’s condition. “If I were in his/her shoes” is a line about empathy, thinking and acting like you were in another person’s situation. It is an attempt to do things according to one’s beliefs and unique way of existence.

So how would it feel to be in the shoes of “Sex in the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw. She is arguably one of the most famous pop culture references for footwear. A female friend once noted how Carrie would wear a new pair in every scene. That would have been totally believable and familiar to any New Yorker except that, as a shoe designer myself, I don’t think it would be so glamorous to break in a new pair of heels every week walking around New York City.

Of form OR function — for shoes to be shoes, should they be wearable and/or walkable in? (In this photo, Draping the Lotus by Brian Tenorio 2014)

Shoes describe our condition, project our ideas and beliefs, help us remember, immortalize personalities, improve economies? All these while making us walk taller, lifting our behinds and filling our closets. I think that the main and more relevant realization should not be about fashion and looking good at all, but about this challenge: Shouldn’t we demand for beauty, equality, an improving economy, good governance and happiness in life?

Don’t we all want to have nicer shoes?


Marikina son Brian Tenorio is a Tehran-born Filipino-American shoe designer based in New York. His design, “The Eight Leather Monster II,” was recently on display at the “Politics and Media: Pratt Students Respond” exhibit at The Rubelle and Norman Schafler Gallery of Pratt Institute of New York.