Why you should care
Because yemenis are cool again.
Seyda Carter is the only female shoemaker that she knows of in Turkey. And she learned out of stubbornness. “They thought that I was crazy,” she recalled of the male shoemakers. “They said, ‘This is a man’s work; you can’t do this.’” Poking the needle into the leather over and over left her hands bloody, but the men took her seriously only when the tailor’s daughter started critiquing their stitching. She stuck with it, and put her skills to work in a new craft: her own line of traditional Turkish leather shoes.
The shoes, known as yemenis, have been made by men for 700 years. They’re praised by Turks for keeping feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and for resisting the dreaded stink of sweat. Seyda’s grandparents wore them, but until a few years ago, no one in Istanbul would have been caught dead wearing shoes they associated with their grandparents’ villages. There’s even a Turkish song with the line “Don’t put on airs, your grandmother wore yemenis.” But now yemenis from her brand, Rafiks, along with versions from other shoemakers, are surfacing in hipster neighborhoods from Istanbul to the U.S. as people regain an interest in the handmade past.
I’d been on the hunt for a pair of shoes like these long before moving to Turkey. So I was excited to spot the brightly colored toes peeking out of the Carters’ shop in Istanbul. When I stepped into a pair of two-tone Rafiks, it felt good to have something substantial on my feet that was heavier than canvas — and my feet really didn’t sweat.
Now the shoes are sold for $185 in every color of the hipster rainbow, from bright shades to jewel tones.
Seyda’s first passion was handmade furniture, but after receiving compliments on their yemenis while visiting family in the U.S., she and her husband, Alex, added shoemaking to the mix. But to reach a more international audience, a redesign was in order. So the pair traveled across Turkey to the city of Gaziantep to find craftsmen to update the shoe — which notably is older than most countries — for the modern era. But their requests for a smaller toe box and a change in color from the traditional beige or red and black were met with skepticism. The craftsmen especially didn’t understand the point of the X on the heel — the signature of the brand — and one shoemaker even told them it was an insult to be asked to stitch one.
“If we were normal people, we would have given up a long time ago, because it was really stressful,” says Alex. It’s a challenge running a homemade business, finding reliable craftsmen for a fading craft. Seyda learned how to make the shoes to become part of the tradition — but it was also because she was often teaching machine-trained craftsmen to sew by hand. Even once their suppliers were making the redesigned shoes, it was clear they didn’t think they would succeed. When the Carters’ first order of a hundred pairs of Rafiks came in, the shoemakers were shocked.
Now the shoes are sold for $185 in every color of the hipster rainbow, from bright shades to jewel tones. Some 500 pairs are shipped yearly across Europe and the U.S. Rafiks are not the biggest-selling yemeni company — that would be Sabah — but the Carters recently updated their stocks to include boots, which they say are unique to their brand. The Carters are opening a storefront for Rafiks and their other goods on San Francisco’s Clement Street in September.
Seyda says she’d rather remove men from the equation entirely (perhaps tongue-in-cheek; perhaps not). She and her husband joke that what they really want is to meet their craftsmen’s wives and work with them on the shoes instead. After all, she concludes, “If I learned how to make them, all women can make them. Easy.”
Additional video by Samer Abbas.