KUALA LUMPUR — She may not be as well known as Jimmy Choo but Karina Ng’s shoes
have been worn by the First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump and even the late American actress Farah Fawcett.
In fact her shoes are made right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur… in a “hidden” workshop just off Jalan Galloway.
It all began in 1991 when Karina joined her husband Michael Chen in his family’s shoe making business. “I love to design and draw,” she explained.
She came armed with a fine arts and graphics degree from the Malaysian Institute of Art and an overseas stint at Central Saint Martins in London.
Her husband had inherited the business in 1988 after his father’s death. At that time, they were making shoes for mass production and exporting to Italy and Hong Kong. Locally, they supplied to department stores like Mun Loong and the local brand Marie Claire.
In 1997, when the China market opened, the shoe industry in Malaysia faced a crisis. Unable to compete with China’s low production costs, the business went through an upheaval.
Karina suggested to her husband that it was time for a paradigm shift. “I told him….why don’t you offer custom-made shoes as it’s a trend?”
This was inspired by famed shoemakers such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo who happens to be a family friend.
What Karina noticed was people in Malaysia would dress up for weddings and special occasions but “they tend to have the same style, same pattern for their shoes, bag and dress.”
With this in mind, she felt there was a niche market to tap into by offering custom-made shoes.
She also explains that custom-made does not mean bespoke. “For instance, a customer comes to tell us that they love a pair of shoes that Meghan Markle wore but they’re too tall, so we’ll customise it to their size or height,” she explained. Custom-made shoes still follow the regular sizing for shoes.
Bespoke or made-to-measure is a different service completely. “I really measure and give you fitting sessions until it is made to fit you. People don’t understand that it costs a bomb for this.”
This will also entail making a “last” or shoe mould that is tailor made to the person’s foot.
The company run by Karina and her husband operates from two separate sites. The Jalan Sin Chew Kee place focuses on custom-made shoes. In Cheras, there’s a bigger facility operated by Karina’s husband that mass produces shoes for local brands.
In addition to her own brand, Ling-n (after her Chinese name) Couture, she also set up Jacquelee which is under her protege, Jackson Lee. Targeted for the online crowd, Jacquelee made its debut at KL Fashion Week back in 2016.
Jackson who is a qualified psychologist took an interest in shoe making when he used to help around with the business as his family is close to Karina’s.
He even set up their website as his hobby is computing and graphics. Nowadays, he runs the day-to-day operations as Karina is semi-retired.
For the annual Fashion Week, they will be approached by various designers like Zang Toi, Datuk Bernard Chandran and Khoon Hooi to design and make shoes for the catwalk. The brand is sought after for their design and manufacturing expertise in high heels.
“We are the only ones who can make a pair of six-inch stiletto heels that are very stable for the runaway. You can run in them, play football in them… it’s so stable. It’s not easy as you’re talking about the technical side.”
Assisting her on the manufacturing side are her brothers-in-law who grew up working in their late father’s shoe business. Karina emphasises that as they know how to design and make shoes from scratch, they can customise shoes too.
When it comes to design, Karina’s inspiration is from everywhere. “It can come from anything… like when you sit in a park or even visit a beach,” she explained. Personally, Karina loves her heels and she can parade around in five-inch ones.
For their customers, they will come out with various collections to suit different needs. This ranges from classic styles, bridal, party wear and even wilder items like thigh length boots, just like what Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman.
About 80 per cent of the time, they also follow colour trends as it’s what their customers look for to be in style at the moment.
The shoemaking process starts with drafting out what their customer wants after they sit down and discuss. Once the design is confirmed, they will source for the material. Usually, they can make a pair of custom shoes within seven days.
If you are interested to learn how to design and make shoes, you can also sign up for a shoe designing course conducted by Karina. She’ll conduct classes, if there are at least four participants.
Spanning about seven sessions, one per week, you will graduate from the course with a certificate and the ability to make and design a pair of wearable shoes.
A reward for all her hard work… is how her customers’ faces light up with joy when they get their shoes. “Sometimes you’re so happy for the client when they are grateful and appreciate your work.”
One time, she was commissioned to recreate the iconic lobster shoes worn by singer Lady Gaga. This was literally wearable art — sculpted and made to fit the person’s size 13 feet.
“The way the person jumped, laughed and smiled over the pair of shoes was just like a baby has been born,” she said.
Straightaway, the happy customer wanted to parade the seven-inch lobster shoes all over KLCC!
Another of her more memorable requests was one for sexy stilettos to be worn when having sex! Karina took the order with a totally straight face and immediately set to tackling the technical side of the design… maybe straps on the shoes to secure it? Luckily, her customer was happy with the service.
But she admits not every request can be met. She recalls how an engaged couple approached her to customise the bride’s shoes as she had one foot shorter than the other.
Even after she wore the custom-made shoes, the bride still limped. The groom was disappointed as he had expected it to be the miracle cure.
Nevertheless, he insisted that his bride wear the shoes to “eliminate” the limp even though she was struggling.
Luckily, the outcome is happier with most of her other customers. So if you are hankering for those fringed Oscar de la Renta gladiator sandals you saw on some of the Spring 2019 fashion spreads, this is your chance to get ahead of the trend here in KL.
ling-n Couture by Karina Ng/Jacquelee
17, Jalan Sin Chew Kee
Off Jalan Galloway
Website: http://www.ling-n.com and https://www.jacquelee.com