N.B. shoemaker tries to get China-inspired shoes off on right foot

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N.B. shoemaker tries to get China-inspired shoes off on right foot

With a Persian carpet beneath his feet and a cup of hot water in his hands, Paul Kasdan sits in his north end house with a rainbow-coloured pile of shoes before him.

The thin, white-haired shoemaker has been busy building a brand from his bright purple Saint John home.

He may live on Adelaide Street now, but this Saint Johner has gone to the ends of the Earth to make his dream a reality.

"People who know me are really happy I'm doing something that corresponds with my interests," he said. 

Design longevity built in

The shoe Kasdan envisioned is simple: an eco-friendly, flexible and free of animal byproducts. The goal isn't to compete with Nike but to fill a niche market.

Kasdan's shoe is inspired by two shoes traditionally worn in China.

One, worn by martial artists and named Feiyue, means "fly over." The other, Jiefang xie, has been worn by Chinese farmers since the 1920s and was the official shoe of the People's Liberation Army starting in the 1950s.

Kasdan said the design came about when China needed to find a way to provide footwear for its massive population.

The Jiefang remained relatively untouched after its inception, proving to Kasdan the designers got something right.

"It's a design that's not going to go away tomorrow."

Inspired by the simplicity of it, Kasdan set out to make his shoe.

Finding the right factory

Researching these two products while studying Mandarin, the New Brunswicker visited his language partner in the belly of China last November.

He knew he needed a factory that made both Chinese shoes and he was surprised to find two such factories nearby.

After travelling to both, he settled on one, in Chen Jia Gou, a Henan province town also known for its contributions to tai chi.

Westerners have a skewed vision of factory life in China, Kasdan said.  

"Now, if you're looking for awful factories, I guarantee they exist, but what I'm looking for is something really, really authentic."

"China's a huge place," he said. "Everything exists there and people are people."

Still he visited to ensure he was comfortable with it.

Entering the 60-some worker plant, he felt overwhelmed by the sincerity. The plant had a quality of life he saw as lost in Canada: a small factory producing local products.

"I mean, I'd be happy to work there," he said. "It's a community of people. I could ask them anything. It's a beautiful life."

Kasdan regrets that he couldn't find the manufacturing capability locally to produce his shoe, but he hopes that someday there will be more Canadian content in the product.

"That would be my endgame," he said. "To actually start exporting local (fabric) to China. There's a market for shoes in China too."

After sending plans to his new friends and making tweaks accordingly, he's happy with the prototypes he received.

Kasdan's shoe, which is updated with a modern look, has no stitches, glue, is biodegradable and is baked together. He said this allows maximum flexibility. 

Fundraising goals

Kasdan is raising money to kick the shoe production into high gear. The basic goal is $28,000.

As he reaches more milestones, more colours will be released, he said.  

Right now, approximately 100 people are testing purple prototypes across North America.

Kasdan said he gave the shoes to those he thought would enjoy them and live an active lifestyle.

"I've been doing tai chi my entire life," he said. "I've never found a shoe that close to ground. It's like being barefoot."