Two sisters look to the past and the future for their unique brand of footwear, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
GROWING up, Yokie Theam was dressed by her parents in sturdy, boot-like children’s shoes. As she reached adolescence, she began wearing pumps or court shoes, a more feminine design, but not exactly flashy or fanciful.
The 30-year-old was born to a shoemaking family, and those types of footwear were produced by her father’s factory in Menglembu, Perak. Her grandfather was also a shoemaker, in China, but became a supplier for shoe components when he migrated here.
Her older sister Yoke Sin Theam, 41, remembers spending her school holidays at the factory’s office.
“You do your homework, you look up and you see your dad doing the design, cutting out the shoe pattern and running the factory. Mum also helped; she did the design as well so it was a family business. Back in the day, everyone did everything so you could master the entire process,” says Yoke Sin.
It was an interesting environment to grow up in, but neither sister had planned on upholding the family business. Yoke Sin studied graphic design and worked in London for more than a decade; meanwhile Yokie spent a few years in the corporate world.
“You feel comfortable in those family surroundings but seeing all the work, you also grew up thinking you did not want to do the same,” says Yoke Sin.
PICKING UP THE MANTLE
But in 2015, the sisters came out with a range of sandals under the label Yoke & Theam. With thick rubber soles and unique prints on the straps, the collection was a sold-out hit. It was now clear that their future lay with the family trade.
These days, Yokie is based in Kuala Lumpur and focuses on Yoke & Theam. Meanwhile, Yoke Sin juggles her responsibility as co-founder and her work at the family factory, where she oversees production not just for her label but also other brands.
The shoe industry in Malaysia typically operates on the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) model. Factories receive orders from shoe labels and the finished product is packaged with the particular company’s branding.
The local shoe manufacturing sector has been hit hard by competition from China, Indonesia and Vietnam where costs are lower. But, for now, there are still orders to keep Yoke Sin and the family busy.
Her parents, now in their mid-60s, are still involved in the factory’s day-to-day operations, while another sister, who studied shoe design in London, works there too.
“Don’t tell my parents to retire, they’ll get angry!” says Yoke Sin.
“We have a third sister who’s in banking so she’s not involved in the business. But she loves shoes. You can’t help but have a passion for them when you have been surrounded by shoes your whole life.”
The aesthetics for Yoke & Theam are unlike any shoe label in the country and its sandals are easily recognisable by their chunky soles. Most shoes have a layer of rubber soles which are then glued to a PVC or polyurethane midsole, but the Theams make their entire sole out of pure rubber.
This makes the shoes more durable and non-slippery. Meanwhile, the foot bed has a layer of sponge for comfort and some straps are fitted with Velcro so they can be adjusted for width. Other straps are made of a scuba fabric, which is soft and can expand to the wearer’s feet.
“The silhouettes for our sandals are quite simple but we like to mix materials,” says Yokie. “When the materials change, they will change the look of the shoe even though the pattern is the same. For our first collection we used a lot of mesh. A sandal that uses mesh and black leather looks very different even though it is essentially the same design.”
Lately, Yoke & Theam has been experimenting with microfibre leather. Yokie explains that it is the highest standard of synthetic leather with the added advantage of being sustainable, while “not killing any animals”.
For creative purposes, the sisters are not cutting leather out completely although they are slowly phasing it out. But using other materials has enabled them to expand their creative choices in other ways.
“By not limiting ourselves to leather, we are finding a lot more colours and materials that we can play with. Shoe textiles come in various textures where they not only look but also feel different. Leather is quite limited in that sense,” says Yokie.
WORK WITH OTHERS
The first pair of shoes that the sisters made with microfibre leather is a high-heeled mule with laces that can be wrapped around the foot. It’s an athleisure influence that was done with the use of mesh in Yoke & Theam’s first collection akin to nets in tennis or football.
“Each shoe comes with two sets of shoe laces so you can change your look, but you can also wear it without the lace,” says Yokie. “We adapted this design for our collaboration with Alia B. for Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week last year, so the laces are made from the fabric in her collection.”
Yoke & Theam is working on another collection with Alia B. for this year’s Hari Raya. It’s an interesting collaboration, given that Alia B. – the diffusion line for Alia Bastamam – is known for its feminine designs, quite the opposite of Yoke & Theam’s look.
“She came to us because we are more sporty and she doesn’t want a very girly look so it’s very exciting. Like all our design, every shoe starts from a sketch, but we also make sure that it’s the right blend of her image and ours,” says Yokie.
It can take up to two months from sketch to finished shoe. Sketching requires design brainstorming between the sisters, to see if it fits the brand image. They discuss colours next, and source for material.
Shoe sampling usually takes a bit of time too. “We need to decide how to manufacture it,” says Yoke Sin. “We also test to see if it’s durable and comfortable, so there are a lot of processes before a shoe is released.”
The price for a pair of Yoke & Theam ranges between RM200 to 300. They aren’t cheap, Yokie admits, but they can’t go lower, given the high quality components that go into it. The sisters can sell at RM50 but it won’t have the same material, and so it won’t be the same shoe.
Yokie says it’s a good time to be a designer in Malaysia, as consumers are more accepting of homegrown brands. Her father’s shoe factory has been around for 30 years; hopefully it will continue for another 30.