By Umer Nangiana
— Rana Cheikha, shoe artist
Her passion for art and design is evident in a great eye for detail. And combining all these gifts with her knack for creativity, she crafts shoes. From design to construction, Rana Cheikha’s shoes are a work of sheer artistry.
Creating these enduring wearable pieces of art, the 30-year-old Lebanese expatriate currently dividing time between Doha and Beirut recently launched her shoe label, Rana Cheikha. When she was in town most recently, she presented a trunk show of her latest collection at one of the galleries in Katara Art Centre, to overwhelming response from her target audience.
Having learnt the craft from some of the best in the business, the Italians and the Portuguese, Cheikha is creating her signature style, an inspiration from her own life and background. In the first and distant look, her shoes appear plain simple.
But they are not. Pick one up, observe closely and the finesse is evident.
“It is all about technique, the way the shoe is made. Then, it is about details. Everything is done by hand, even the weaving and the stitching. And it is 100 percent leather. So once you look at the details, you realise there is a lot more to it than what you initially see,” Cheikha tells Community in a chat at the launch of her trunk show.
She has studied graphic design from her native Beirut in Lebanon and footwear design from Italy. She has learnt the art by working with the artisan families in the hills of Tuscany in Italy, and Norte in Portugal. Now, she designs her shoes and then sends them to a factory in Portugal for production. The process is lengthy and detailed.
“I design everything before I make my samples and our factory is in Portugal. I keep correcting the samples until I am happy with it and then we go into production,” says Cheikha.
It takes her about four months to complete one pair of shoe, depending on the intricacy of the design. As it goes, she designs a pair of shoes, sends the sample to factory, they make it and send it back, following which she makes corrections and sends it back to them.
The factory sends it to her one more time for final proofing before the sample shoes go into production. For her recent collection, she sent 12 designs and, in the end, produced seven. From the rest, she might keep some for the next season — yet she cancelled the ones she did not like.
Cheikha, whose parents have been based in Doha for a very long time, launched her brand about two months ago but she has been working on it for three years; doing research, setting up the company, looking for a factory and where to source the materials.
She went on to take a three-month technical shoe-making course in Italy after obtaining a graphic design degree.
“I used to sit in a workshop and make shoes, so I was a cobbler (smiles). And I really loved it. It is a whole world out there. You start looking at materials and what you have to produce and then you start stitching and creating something from scratch, it is very interesting,” says the designer.
After the course, she decided to stay on to do a master’s programme. It was more focused on design and creating a collection in parallel with making shoes and learning about the technical aspects.
Cheikha’s shoes are not mass market products. She intends to target a niche market as she wants to maintain the style and the artisanal craft. And for that reason her numbers and the production is small.
Also, she wanted to first introduce it to the region, and “challenge the norm here, the big brand names.” The younger generation, she feels, is more open to change. “Once I have established a name and they start to understand it, I will gradually grow it,” says Cheikha.
Besides style and design, durability she says, is the strongest point of her shoes. “It (shoe) ages really well. Everything in the raw materials is very high-end. After four or five years of wearing the shoe, it would look a bit different but it wears really nicely,” she explains.
And this lies in the material (leather) with which it is made and the way (design) it is made.
“It is a bit classic and contemporary. So it is classic but not too classic, so it is not on trend, it travels with time,” says the designer.
She chose Portugal for the production of her shoes because their “craft is excellent.” It is on par with Italian levels but they (Portuguese) are friendlier, says Cheikha. They are willing to work with smaller independent designers and make smaller quantities.
“Italians are very well-known and they already have their clientele so they are not interested in new businesses. The quality (of craft) in Portugal is excellent and I could also source materials from the region, like from Italy; and then work them in Portugal,” she elaborates.
Cheikha says she was happy with how people have reacted positively to her designs. She says she is looking for people who want a unique product, which is not very flashy, and they understand the durability and what they are buying.
“They are buying a crafted piece of wearable art which they can keep for long. Finding such people would be challenging but it is the part of the game. Otherwise, I would be like all other designers and I would not stand out,” she adds, with a smile.
Cheikha does not plan to immediately open her own outlet in Doha; however, she is looking for some boutique outlets that would sell her products. Starting from Doha, she plans to expand it to Beirut and ultimately to the region.
Besides shoes, her trunk show featured the sketches she made when she was in the process of finding her brand. The preliminary research for the brand, Cheikha says, was to create a mood and a feeling, an identity of the brand.
Some of the sketches are made from the stills of the performances by performance artists such as the internationally acclaimed Serbian Marina Abramovi?, dealing with subjects like migration and homeland.
“I looked at different materials. It ended up with looking at mapping, migration and immigration. It is very much about my family as well on how we were in Beirut and spread out across the world now. That was the influence for my brand,” says Cheikha.
It was putting everything that she learnt together on paper and creating a mood and an identity for her brand. On the other end of the gallery, she placed the shoes that she had created with her hands alongside during the initial research. And this is how she commercialised the collection, she says.
Cheikha did all this for creating a true brand because she believes “you do not design shoes by looking at shoes; you look at things that inspire you.”
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