About an hour north of the Syrian border in Gaziantep, Turkey, one of the oldest cities in the Middle East, a unit of craftsmen (and two women, refugees from Aleppo) work leather and rubber and waxed cotton string into $195 slippers you’ll find in Jeff Bridges’ and Don Lemon’s closets. The footwear is a custom, higher quality adaptation of the shoes that have been crafted in Gaziantep for centuries, shoes Mickey Ashmore received as a gift from his Turkish ex-girlfriend’s grandmother when he was working in Istanbul for Microsoft in 2011.
“I loved them,” Ashmore says. After moving to New York for a hedge fund job in 2013, “I would wear them with my tuxedo and out and running around the office. I got connected to the family that made them to ask for another pair, but I suggested a few changes.” No curled genie toe. Better leather. Rubber on the sole, “because the traditional leather sole is slippery and got destroyed in New York.” The workshop sent Ashmore a new pair made to his specs, and he was elated. “A few months later, I ordered 100 more,” and the Sabah brand was born.
Sabah—the word means morning in Turkish—just turned five-years-old. Maybe you’ve seen the supple slip-ins on Instagram, in shades like butterscotch, Labor Day white, and magenta. Sabahs are the shoes for which every naked ankle longs. They’re supportive, mold-to-your-foot comfortable and, like Ashmore mentions, versatile. Wear them to weddings. Wear them to Target. Compliments will, literally, fall at your feet.
On the unusual track Ashmore took in growing his accidental footwear company, he mixes the hospitality of his Dallas upbringing with business instincts honed at Wharton. “I was living in the East Village in a little townhouse and one night I invited over everyone I ever met in New York and lined up shoes all over the house.” He sold 50 pairs. “Every weekend that summer, I would open the doors of the house and host Sabah Saturdays and Sabah Sundays. It was all word-of-mouth; there was no website. By the end of the summer, I made more money than I made at my finance job.”
For Ashmore, this was it. “I’ve always been an entrepreneur, but I was waiting for my idea.” He quit his job and went all-in with Sabah, flying to Gaziantep to meet the family that had been making his shoes. “I walked in with a spreadsheet and a PowerPoint and told them I wanted to buy a new building here to make Sabahs. At first we were struggling to make 200 pairs a month. Now, we make five to ten times that amount depending on the month,” all sold direct to consumers.
In the beginning, Ashmore sold all the shoes himself in New York and at pop-up parties at houses he’d Airbnb around the country. “I literally met and shook the hands of the first 10,000 Sabah customers,” establishing a loyal base that gives Sabah valuable repeat business. The company has grown to include women’s and kids’ lines, backless ‘Babahs’ and three Sabah ‘Houses,’ residential-style boutiques in New York City, Dallas, Texas, and Venice, California. They’ve doubled business and then some between 2016 to 2017 and will likely double again this year. Europe is calling. They still don’t wholesale.
Last month, Sabah moved into a brand new four-story building in downtown Gaziantep with space for 30 makers. When asked if he has any concerns about investing in a region affected by geopolitical unrest, Ashmore admits, “I probably should, and earlier on in the business I was a lot more worried and looking at alternative production options.” During last year’s tit-for-tat visa imbroglio, he had to cancel a planned trip to Turkey, “but now I’m optimistic and have a lot of faith. I feel pretty confident. Gaziantep is the largest refugee center in the world right now, and our involvement, it’s beautiful and meaningful for me.”
Sabahs start at $195 for men and women, $65 for kids.