Worn since the beginning of time [Global Times]
(Global Times Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nei Lian Sheng shoes.Photo: Courtesy of Nei Lian Sheng
Nei Lian Sheng shoes.Photo: Courtesy of Nei Lian Sheng
A model shows off one of the shoemaker's new designs. Photo: Courtesy of Nei Lian Sheng
It's taken 160 years for a traditional Chinese cloth-shoemaker to get with the times - well, sort of. That's not to say that shoe brand Nei Lian Sheng has abandoned its customary black cloth model - with "a thousand layers" and a comfortable rubber-soled bottom. In a bid to bridge the cultural gap between generations of shoe shoppers, it has started to update its look for a younger generation of fashion-conscientious shoppers, who are looking for a little more bounce in their step.A brand new 2014 spring/summer line, a new collection of shoes for the hip urban male or female trendsetter, featuring pairs of multicolored designs with Chinese elements, including Peking Opera designs and dragon drawings, was introduced last month when the tried and tested shoe brand known to every true Beijinger celebrated its 160th anniversary. "Nei Lian Sheng is a quality brand with deep Chinese roots," said the shoemaker's marketing director Cheng Xu. "But now's the time to use a little more creativity in modernizing our design to grow the household name into an international brand."If the modern shoe fits Efforts to modernization have been underway for some time at the shop founded in 1853 by Tianjin businessman Zhao Ting. As a young man, he came to Beijing, where he worked as an apprentice, learning the craft of shoe-making. A fan of his work, General Ding, a high-ranking official who worked inside the Forbidden City at the time, decided to invest in a shop for Zhao, which opened nearby the prestigious palace.After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the store relocated nearby on Dashila Street, where its flagship store remains today. Most recently renovated ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the traditional-looking five-floored shop is the most impressive of its 10 shops in Beijing, with sophisticated glass displays. But for all the changes seen at Nei Lian Sheng, the artistry involved in making the shoe has remained over the years, says He Kaiying, known for his mastery of the ancient shoemaking technique, who is the fourth generation owner of the shop. Having worked at the store since working as an apprentice in 1980, the 57-year-old shoe craftsman has even made footwear for high-level government leaders and celebrities, including Zhuo Lin, the wife of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, and Hollywood star Jacky Chan. The secret behind the "thousand layer technique" used to make the shoes that let the wearer feel as though they are walking on a cloud is one that took He more than a year to master before he could produce a pair of quality shoes. "There are more than 30 intricate procedures involved in the process and more than 100 steps are taken to make each pair of shoes, and for a skilled craftsman, this takes a week - the same as 100 years ago because the technique used requires tremendous skill and dedication," he said.Time-honored brand Unlike in the olden days when donning a pair of Nei Lian Sheng's was considered a symbol of status, the shoes today are revered more as a testament of time-honored quality tradition. At the store's exhibition hall on the third floor, where designs from back in the day are featured, including the cloth high-boots popular back in the day among Beijing military officials, such as those worn by Zai Feng, Prince Chun of the First Rank (1883 - 1951) during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911).Also a pioneer for China's customer royalty program, the brand is said to be the first to launch such a service, recording high-ranking officials' shoe sizes and foot-support needs. Though the original book was lost in wartime, the records now kept in a replica contain the shoe sizes of prominent leaders after 1949, including those of Chairman Mao Zedong."The record reflects the century-old meticulous service of the brand and is the origin of the customer database as we know it in modern commercial history," said marketing director Cheng, pointing to a copy at the store's exhibition hall. Shoes featured in the new line are expected to be priced slightly higher than the more traditional black cloth model that costs around 300 yuan ($65) a pair when they are made available to customers next year. But one of the new shoes' designers, Chen Zheng, who returned to China seven years ago after studying fashion in Paris, is confident that shoppers won't be disappointed then. The 29-year-old chose to test her talent at Nei Lian Sheng, where her mother worked as a shop assistant when she was little. "I remember running around the store while my mother would be behind the counter, helping customers," she told the Global Times. "What inspired my designs most in the end was the brand's lengthy history and culture; I tried to combine this with the most fashion-forward of ideas to show the world the best of the cherished brand that truly belongs to China."And as younger trendsetters look to buy her designs when they're released into the market, it seems that Chen's mother won't be the only fan around. Fashion guru Steve Nettleton, a 30-year-old Austrian living in Beijing, was immediately taken by the designs when he saw them. "I wear Nei Lian Sheng's traditional black cloth shoes a lot since they're so comfy, but it'll be nice to jazz up my outfit every now and then with a more bold-looking pair," he told the Global Times. "I've got my eye on the ones with the cool dragon designs."
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