If you told me years ago that one day I would be infatuated with a Chinese man who goes by the name Flame Panda, I likely would’ve said you were severely misguided (and asked if the Panda was ok).
Yet here I am today, marveling at Peng/Flame Panda’s top-tier footwear from the other side of the world. Much like the master bootmaker’s eponymous black-and-white bear, the Asian bootmaking scene is also ablaze.
The combination of impressive quality control, welting often done by hand, top-tier materials in many cases, and limitless options for customization—often at prices around half of equivalent Western brands—makes for a footwear frenzy neither our bank accounts nor spouses could have been prepared for. So there’s nothing more to do than simply order some ready-made leather Cadillacs…right?
Well, maybe. Communicating with and ordering from these brands across the globe can sometimes be a bumpy road, presenting challenges and hiccups along the way. With that in mind, here are five general guidelines which will help you procure the booty without also getting stress-induced ulcers.
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1. Do Your Research
The ordering process with Indonesian and Chinese makers occasionally has the reputation of being a hassle: somewhere between confusing and tedious, depending who you ask. But it’s important to understand that any lack of seamlessness is borne of the very factors that make these boots so great.
Just imagine for a second that you were the master bootmaker/owner of an Indonesian brand, who trains and oversees a small workshop of craftspeople, makes some of the boots yourself, sources all the leather and components, definitely handles marketing, possibly handles photography, oversees quality control, and fields Instagram or WhatsApp DMs from dozens if not hundreds of customers per day, in a language you didn’t grow up speaking? Starting to get it now?
So here’s what you do: instead of immediately barraging the maker’s DM with questions the second your newfound excitement blasts off, do your research.
That research will streamline the communication process, meaning you don’t waste time asking unnecessary questions. Asking questions you could have easily answered on your own by poking around a bit will only prolong your order process, and might even make you seem high-maintenance as a customer.
Because of this, it’s best to answer simple questions yourself by studying readily accessible resources. Ask the footwear community on the Stitchdown Premium Discord, Instagram, the GYW subreddit, YouTube, and other forums. Study the crap out of the maker’s website (if they have one). DEFINITELY become a student of the maker’s Instagram profile, leaving no stone unturned. There are hidden informational gems in their posts, stories, and bios.
Familiarize yourself with what terminology they use (“woodsman heel” vs. “curved heel”), which leathers they source, what their schedule is comprised of (time zone difference, weekends, life events, holidays such as Chinese New Year or Ramadan), their sizing nomenclature (EU vs. US vs. UK), how they accept orders (lottery vs. ready made vs. MTO), which communication method works best for them, which payment methods they will request, last characteristics, patterns, hardware and sole options etc.
Not only will all of this work benefit your order process (and let’s be honest, it’s completely fun to do), but once you do contact the maker, they’ll immediately realize you are serious and responsible. You aren’t a needy customer consumeristically leeching their precious time. You’re an informed, friendly, and reciprocal person. And the time on both ends, including yours, will be cut way down! If you have to wait a couple days or even a week for a response, and you have 15 questions, that’s a long time. If you ask fewer…they’ll start making your boots much sooner.
In short: do the work. This is foundational to the rest of the order.
2. Know What You Want
A major hindrance to any order is the customer not knowing what they want. And to be clear, I get it: The customization options are overwhelming! It’s hard to visualize which thread will look good with which leather! You may not be sure what terms like “crust” or “aniline” or “combo-tanned” mean! Which is fine!
You may feel like you need to get talking to the maker immediately to reserve your place in line. But in reality, your order will actually be more expedient if you refrain from heavy communication until you know mostly what you want. Once again, this may call for loads of research; there is no cheating, no shortcut, no substitute for putting in the hours it takes to decide on build specs. However, I guarantee you, put in the hours of consideration and studying and decisions, and you will be happy you did.
Studying the maker’s IG page and/or website will make you aware of what they’re capable of, which should help you know what you might prefer in your special pair. Sending them pictures of their past projects or photoshopping an image to specify your customizations is always extremely helpful; a wise person once said that a picture is worth 1,580 words. Or something like that.
After all, as helpful as these makers are, as skilled as they are at offering stylistic input, ultimately it’s your job and not theirs to know what you will enjoy in your footwear. This is not to say that you shouldn’t ask questions! Questions are great! There’s no problem with asking for some clarifications here and there; they will likely be happy to oblige.
Just know that if you’re bogged down in the details, they will be even more so. The more uncertain questions you fire their way, the more likely it is that confusion seeps in, which may cause your order to come out incorrectly.
To summarize! If you know what you want before contacting the maker, the transaction will be smoother and they’ll be more eager to work with you to create something great.
3. Understand Your Own Feet
This is a tough one, and definitely requires conversation. Since the maker is unable to physically inspect and measure your feet, your goal is to grant them the next best thing.
Sizing comps from popular lasts are always helpful, but trusting only them might not do the trick. If you can offer them detailed information about your foot characteristics and dimensions, perhaps even asking their suggestion on lasts that might work well for you foot type, you will end up with a boot that fits as good as it looks.
Double-check your Brannock size; know the length, width, and arch length. Know your US size, your EU size, and your UK size. Measure both your feet: length, ball width, instep circumference and height, waist and ball circumference, ankle circumference. Send pictures of your feet from different angles so that they can see unique aspects: instep, arch height, bunions, footprint shape, toe spread, heel volume. Familiarize yourself with your measurements in both centimeters and inches beforehand so that you can easily communicate with any measuring system. Consider whether your feet need after-market inserts, orthotics, or thick socks which the maker should compensate for.
The more confident the maker is that they understand your feet, the more likely they will be able to get you not just a passable fit, but an excellent fit. And if you like what you receive, you probably won’t have to go through the whole thing on the next pair.
4. Communicate Simply
Keep in mind that, even though many of these makers are quite adept with the English language, there still exists a language and culture barrier. Avoid your own cultural terms and idioms if you think they may not translate across cultures well. Communicate concisely whenever possible—simply and clearly. Try to use terminology you’ve seen them use on their Instagram or website. For instance, you will notice from his Instagram that Peng (Flame Panda) often calls a logger/woodsman heel a “curved heel”. Even though he could probably figure out what you mean by “logger heel” or “woodsman heel”, it helps to just call it what he calls it if you can.
Lastly, emojis are your friend, as many of them transcend language—everyone understands a happy face or praying hands. The goal is not using minimal words as if we are robots or unintelligent (it is good and right to have a genuine conversation; I’ve had many with these makers and I absolutely love them); just don’t convolute the meaning of your message unnecessarily.
5. Be a Damn Human
This, in a lot of ways, really is the biggest one. The craftsmen who make your boots are people in the most meaningful way—you should 100% read Almost Vintage Style’s interview with Peng to really feel that. Be very kind, respectful, and pleasant. Asian cultures tend to be very reciprocal in nature relative to the typical Western demeanor. No matter what happens, even if by some accidental circumstance your order is wrong, remember that you are dealing with people, and people are intrinsically more valuable than objects (even Color 4 shell).
The wonderful people in the niche footwear community are deeply connected, no matter where they live on the globe. We’re all friends, or should be. If we can remember that and live by it, we will be able to work through anything. And you’ll probably be much happier with your boots.
David runs The Vintage Future, an enthusiast YouTube channel where he tries to offer a deeper-than-normal dive into heritage apparel with the mantra of “let your boots take you to a place more important than the boots themselves.”
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