Is Minsk the new Milan?
Among the forgotten truths of the old Soviet economy is the sought-after craftsmanship of Belarusian shoes. Under communism, Minsk was the Milan of proletarian footwear. This isn't because Belarus made especially good shoes, but because you couldn't really buy shoes in the Soviet Union, so it was natural to praise any Soviet Republic that not only manufactured them, but did so with flair.
The Chinese have since stolen much of Belarus' thunder, doing the job the Chinese way: cheaper (as in slave-ier), better (as in according-to-Nike's-specs) and faster (though beating Belarus production rates didn't take a Hermes). But plenty of Russians continue to believe that Belarus remains the discount home of quality footwear. Amid a sea of cheap Asian goods, more than a few hole-in-the-wall stores maintain a thriving trade in "Quality Belarusian Shoes," a selling point proudly displayed outside of shoewear shop windows.
If you want to cool your feet with Belarussian class this summer, then you can't do much better than Marko, one of the last premier producers of the "Cheese Vent."
In 1990, Marko pumped out more than 10 per cent of all Soviet shoes. They haven't been able to keep that market share in the CIS, but demand for their products today is on the rise. According to a Marko spokesman, the firm's Russian business has more than quadrupled in the last decade. In 1995, their Belarusian factories produced a measly 500,000 pairs. Today, Marko cranks out two million pairs of shoes a year, and employs over 2,500 people.
But don't mistake Marko for some sort of Putin-Payless ShoeSource. With Cheese Vents priced from $50 to a $100, Marko shoes are the sovok's Bruno Magli. In the words of Marko's general director, Nikolai Vasilevich Martynov, "Shoes make the man - but footwear makes a gentleman."
That's what Marko does. It places high sovok fashion within reach of the Russian middle class.
The eXile took a trip to Marko's flagship shoe boutique, adjacent to the baby blue Belarusian embassy on Maroseika, to ask their sales girls for summer shoe fashion advice. Where can we wear it? What does it say about us? And how much does it cost?
Model #: 2440/2449B
Fashion advice: "This model is more casual and is good for all ages. Perfect for the dacha or weekends. Not good for the office because you can see the socks. It comes in a children's model also."
Model #: 2448/2448B
Fashion advice: "A bigger hit with older men. This is a more formal version of 2440. Is suitable for office wear, if the dress code is not too strict."
Model #: 2432
Fashion advice: "Very popular model. Trendy, fashionable. More suited for special occasions or making a good impression. You can't see the socks from above, but the big vents on the sides provide cool, refreshing air."
Model #: 2453
Fashion advice: "Good for office or at discos. Has a classical trendy look. The black model should only be worn with matching black socks."
Model #: 2435
Fashion advice: "Less flashy than 2432. Because of big vents up top, should be worn only with white socks."
Model #: 2445
Fashion advice: "Variation on 2440. More popular with students, young professionals. They like its more modern shape. Too casual for office wear."
EVERY MARKO SHOE COMES WITH A LIMITED ONE MONTH WARRANTY. NO SHIT.