By Shannon Najmabadi
Image credit: Gregory Jordan.
The humble hemp shoe, a staple of farmers in Gansu province, has found a foothold in the fashion world, reports Xinhua.
Hemp footwear has a place in Chinese history: the Red Army wore hemp shoes during the revolutionary era and Chinese mythology traces it back to the ancient king Fuxi, who pioneered its use in ropes and shoes.
Now, hemp is widely grown in the northwest regions of China, where locals use hemp fibers to make rope or turn hemp strands into woven sandals.
Wang Yingwu, a workshop manager in Gansu, started a hemp shoe business in the 1990s. Naming his brand ‘Damoxing’, or “walking in the desert”, Wang’s sales were confined to nearby counties until a US businessman spotted his shoes at a local fair.
In collaboration with the businessman, Wang sold over 10,000 pairs of his shoes to the US in 1996, effectively kickstarting his overseas sales.
Wang said his shoes have the advantages of being light, airy and [have] the capability to kill germs due to the hemp’s alkaline nature.
Though the hemp shoes have practical advantages, Wang says he strives to combine traditional craftsmanship with modern design. To help in that endeavor, Wang has hired three designers from Italy, France and Japan to work for him.
Since the 1996 deal, Wang’s shoes have been particularly popular in Italy, the UK, France and Japan. Of the 2 million pairs of hemp shoes Wang’s factory produced in 2012, over 90 percent were sold in overseas markets.
The factory pulled in over three million US dollars in foreign trade last year. However, Wang says he would like to promote his shoes domestically as the strengthening Chinese yuan is slashing profits on the shoes, which are priced in US dollars. In an effort to stoke domestic demand, Wang has been spending an increasing amount of time running an online store, for which he takes photos of his shoes and posts them online.
“We used to focus on overseas markets. But now we want to pay equal attention to domestic demand, although advertising at home may cost big money that small companies like us don’t have,” Wang said.
The factory employs over 200 local farmers, each earning 1,000 yuan ($159) per month. The average farmer’s annual net income in dirt-poor Gansu was estimated to be less than 5,000 yuan in 2012.