Traditional handmade slippers are relics of the past. For centuries they were the everyday shoes of people throughout Turkey, India and Morocco. But these old-world shoes eventually bowed to the vogue and sheer abundance of mass-produced sneakers. However, a particular Turkish slipper is making a comeback in a new silhouette and under a new name: Sabah. These slip-on shoes are still handmade in Turkey by Turkish cobblers, who use the same materials and construction method as their ancestors of old. “You won’t find another pair of shoes like these outside of Turkey”, promises Mickey Ashmore, founder of Sabah (also known as The Sabah Dealer). “Nobody does it like this.”
In between semesters at the University of Pennsylvania, Ashmore visited Istanbul and Beirut, where he was captivated by the region’s hospitality and old-world feel. After graduating he moved to Istanbul, immersed himself in the culture, met a girl and learned to speak Turkish. “The word for language in Turkish is dil [pronounced deel]”, Ashmore says, “and that’s also the word for tongue. There’s a Turkish phrase that says: ‘when the dil touches the dil you learn the dil.’ So when the tongue touches the tongue you learn the language”, he says, smirking, “so that was probably part of it.” The girl’s grandmother lived in the southeastern region of Turkey, where they still made traditional slippers. And she gave Ashmore his first pair.
“The process of taking a needle in and out of a shoe like that”, says Ashmore, “without any aid of machinery or pre-punched holes, is about as close as it gets to magic in shoemaking.”
Two years later, both Ashmore’s relationship and gig in Istanbul had ended, but his love for Turkish shoes endured. He wore them everywhere while working at a private equity fund in New York City; he wore them in the West Village, on the subway and even with tuxedos at weddings. Soon his friends started asking where they could get a pair. He didn’t know. “So I got in touch, through my friend and her family, with the original makers of the shoes, and asked them to make me another pair; but I had a few suggestions.”
Ashmore wanted a shoe that felt more contemporary than what he was wearing. He asked for the toe to be turned down, the back shortened, the woven pattern on the front eliminated, and for a slice of rubber to be added to the shoe’s traditional water buffalo leather sole. What the shoemaker created was a slipper not too dissimilar from the current iteration. Ashmore had about a hundred pairs made, named them Sabahs, and started selling them from underneath his office desk or at parties he hosted called Sabah Sundays. At this time in 2012, Sabah was still a side project, something for him to stay connected with Turkey. But his burgeoning clientele made that change.
In 2013, Ashmore quit his job to focus on Sabah full-time. He started flying to Turkey every few weeks, meeting with the cobblers and leather suppliers and bringing back a hundred pairs of Sabahs at a time. Today, Ashmore works exclusively with these Turkish shoemakers — meaning you can’t find Sabahs anywhere else.
As the popularity of traditional Turkish slippers faded, so did the necessity for their cobblers. But a positive ripple effect of Sabah is that they’re giving traditional Turkish shoemaking new life — even if it’s with a slightly different slipper. The number of Sabah cobblers is now in the double digits, but they’re not all the same. More experienced, veteran cobblers can handcraft upwards of 20 shoes in a day. Less experienced cobblers make half that. And most are teaching others the art of Turkish shoemaking so that they can become cobblers. The three cobblers below, all of whom Ashmore has grown close with, are part Sabah’s backbone.
Ali does all the top stitching on Sabahs. “I think everybody who has a pair of Sabahs has heard about Ali now”, says Ashmore. “We talk a lot about the craftsmen and about the process and Ali and his smiling face is a huge part of that.”
Having been in the shoe business for over 30 years, Huseyin is a veteran cobbler. “He does all the lasting and the tacking of the shoes, the preparation of getting the shoes from pieces of cut leather to something that’s ready to sew.”
Stitching a Sabah is an art form. One continuous string holds the whole shoe together. “He takes an awl, pokes a hole, and then he uses two needles to thread the entire sole”, says Ashmore. “Cem is a fifth-generation shoe stitcher. His last name is Dikici, which is the Turkish word for “stitcher”, or in this case “shoe stitcher”. He is a true artist of this craft. He is also taking on role of training younger guys.”
Each pair is handcrafted in an ancient bazaar in the southeast of Turkey. The town, Gaziantep, used to be a trading center and remains one of the oldest inhabited cities in the Middle East. “It’s this very old world place”, says Ashmore, “very tied to Aleppo and Damascus.” In this part of the world, craftsmen and their ancestors have been making traditional slippers for a thousand years, according to Ashmore. As Sabah has grown, Ashmore has also grown close with the cobblers that make his brand possible. On increasingly frequent visits, he dines with them, meets their families, and has even learned a thing or two about hand-making shoes.
The first lesson: you can only make so many shoes by hand per day. Sabahs are completely crafted by cobblers. They use one continuous wax-cotton string and hand thread it through the shoe’s leather from the inside out. “The process of taking a needle in and out of a shoe like that”, says Ashmore, “without any aid of machinery or pre-punched holes, is about as close as it gets to magic in shoemaking.” It’s a tedious process that’s much more difficult than making a typical pair of espadrilles, which are sewn on the outside or from the bottom up with a machine. When the cobblers are finished, they mark the inside of each Sabah with their hand-written initials. Ashmore has visited shoemakers in Maine, Leon, and Spain — all places where they sew and stitch shoes by hand — and none of them had seen anything like a Sabah before.
Sabahs are unique for other reasons as well. Ashmore says they should never smell, which is a testament to the quality of materials they use. Each Sabah is made entirely of high-quality, naturally processed cow leather, so they won’t mold. Although not waterproof, getting them wet doesn’t damage their integrity. Sabahs are versatile, everyday shoes that are meant to be worn. The word “Sabah” translates to “morning” in Turkish, the idea being that you put them on in the morning and never take them off. “You shouldn’t do a lot of thinking about the shoes”, says Ashmore. “You just put them on and go.”
Sabah doesn’t just bring Turkish craftsmanship to other parts of the world; it also provides people with an experience that feels genuinely old school.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of Sabah is their business model. Over 50 percent of their business comes from word of mouth or repeat business. “We like to sell direct to customers and built a relationship with people”, says Ashmore. This is why, for those interested in buying a pair, Ashmore encourages them to set up an appointment (via email or calling) to visit his Sabah House in the East Village. There, they can have a beer (or tea), get to know the story of Sabah and the people behind it, and try on a spectrum of shoes. In this way, Sabah doesn’t just bring Turkish craftsmanship to other parts of the world; it also provides people with an experience that feels genuinely old school. (For those not in NYC, check out Sabah’s ordering guide. A lot of their business is via email/phone, which puts customers directly in contact with Ashmore or Flibotte.)
Sabah started off making men’s shoes, but with the success of Sabah Sundays (dance parties thrown to celebrate Sabah), more and more women started to try on and buy the smaller men’s sizes. “That’s when we developed the women’s shoe”, says Ashmore, “which is the exact same silhouette, but it’s a thinner shoe with a pointier toe, and it has a little different vamp, so it’s an overall more feminine shoe.” Today, women make up around 80 percent of Sabah’s business.
Aside from getting to know Ashmore, or snagging a free beer, it’s important to physically try on several Sabahs since no two are exactly alike. They’re all handmade, with leathers from different parts of the cow, so some pairs fit differently than others. Another factor that affects sizing is the shoe’s finish: depending on the style of the Sabahs, they can be finished in nubuck, suede, straight leather, wax and more, or go unfinished. Ashmore stresses that unless you’re set on a specific color, take the shoes that fit snug without hurting, and pick those. After wearing them for a few days, a moist foot will naturally open up the leather, allowing the Sabahs to mold to your feet.
Sabah’s only other full-time employee, Gabriella Flibotte, came upon Sabah like most people: hearing about it through a friend. Flibotte bought one of the first 50 pairs of Sabahs ever made, fell in love with them and, since she was studying for her master’s in international business, asked if she could write her dissertation on Sabah. Ashmore agreed, and gave her a job, to boot.
As for lifespan, Sabahs — like all high-quality leather products — age beautifully. The only part you might need to replace are the natural rubber soles that are glued to the bottom of each Sabah. A Sabah’s original sole is made out of water buffalo leather, which won’t weaken over time; but its rubber-lined outsole, which was added to the bottom of the shoe to help with grip, will deteriorate and eventually need to be replaced. The good news is that pretty much any cobbler in the world can remove and replace the soles at a very inexpensive cost, allowing the shoes to live on.
Admittedly, the story of Sabah — the way Ashmore is building a business and meeting new friends, all over a pair of shoes — might sound too precious at times. But the truth is they are selling something that’s completely unique to today’s shoe market. The entrepreneur in Ashmore wants Sabah to grow, and it is. They are producing hundreds of Sabahs each month, constantly adding new colors and improving materials, and have now shipped to almost 40 countries around the world. But because each is meticulously made by hand, Sabahs are never going to be mass produced — which only adds to their allure. For those intrigued, but not quite sold on Sabah: shoot them an email, sit on their couch, maybe have a beer, and just try on a pair of shoes.