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Esska: Meet Souraya Karami, the Lebanese woman behind the shoe brand taking London by storm Open in fullscreen

Elias Jahshan

Esska: Meet Souraya Karami, the Lebanese woman behind the shoe brand taking London by storm

All items are designed by Karami herself, who hails from Tripoli, Lebanon [@esskashoes Instagram]

Date of publication: 6 December, 2019

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The New Arab Meets: Souraya Karami, the founder of Esska, a designer footwear brand located in the London neighbourhood of Chiswick.
For Souraya Karami, opening the doors to Esska's first showroom earlier this year in London's posh Chiswick neighbourhood was more than just a standard milestone: it also represented a culmination of hard work and the start of a whole new chapter for her designer footwear business.

"Esska is a small brand – I am behind the brand, the brand is me and opening the shop has always, always been my dream," she reflected.

"I think about it more as my studio, as my workspace where I'm creating, designing, working on my accounting or admin, and my shoes are on display and anyone can come in and try them on.

"I don't feel the stress of just having to be open from 10 to 6 and having to sell many pairs. It gave me a bit less of this pressure from having a retail shop because I sell mainly online."

Founded in 2006, Esska is essentially the phonetic spelling of Karami's initials S and K when pronounced in French. Her brand specialises in comfortable women's footwear – particularly boots – alongside children's and men's shoes. All items are designed by Karami herself, who hails from Tripoli, Lebanon, in London before being brought to life in a Portuguese factory.

There, craftsmen create Esska's key elements: breathable leather uppers and linings, padded insoles and a non-slip flexible rubber outsole.

While it has a direct-to-consumer online store, Esska is also an established wholesale brand with 70 stockists worldwide. Not to mention more than 10,000 followers on Instagram. A rather impressive track record for someone who fell into footwear design by accident – almost.

Founded in 2006, Esska specialises in comfortable women's footwear 
When I came to London to do the course, I wasn't sure that this is going to be like the right move

"It wasn't like there was ever kind of a clear path, it wasn't a 'when I was a little girl always dreamt of designing shoes' – I'd like to tell that story, but no," Karami said.

Indeed, with a background in architecture, Karami hated the job she had in that sector when she was living in Beirut. She left for a brief marketing stint with Nike, subsequently giving her her first taste of fashion, but she still yearned for a change in both her career and location – and this was particularly heightened after she went through a divorce.

"I thought of going to do furniture design or product design. I wanted to study again. I was going through a lot and wanted to leave Lebanon and start fresh," Karami recalled.

"I remember having a chat with a friend of mine and I said, 'oh, maybe I'll go and learn bag design', I've always had a sewing machine at home – at school craft fairs I used to make little bags and sell them.

"And then this friend said, 'have you ever looked at shoe design?' I was sure there was no course that actually teaches shoe design, but she said there are classes in Italy one in London. I did my research and ended up studying shoe design at the London College of Fashion."

By this point Karami was in her early 30s – and she knew she had reached the right time of not just wanting a change, but also feeling ready to take risks and experiment with something new.

"When I came to London to do the course, I wasn't sure that this is going to be like the right move, not knowing where it was going to take me," she said.

"But then I knew straight away that this was what I wanted, I knew when I was doing the course that I was going to start my own brand and I knew what the brand was going to be as well."

Now married and a dual British-Lebanese citizen, Karami has successfully grown her business while juggling motherhood. She has lofty ambitions to eventually open more Esska stores – hinting at either New York and even Beirut – while also expanding her team. But for now, she was taking it one day at a time, especially since her kids are still young.

However, Karami concedes that doing business in Lebanon is fraught with difficulty and high costs. She recalled seeking factories there before she even founded Esska, and once the business was more established, she tried to seek retail stockists – but all attempts were met with unnecessary and endless obstacles thanks to Lebanon's outdated and somewhat corrupt bureaucratic system.

"I remember it was just so, so complicated because the fees you have to pay, they basically don't make it easy for people to start their own businesses," Karami explained.

"It was not only expensive to get leathers and pay duty and VAT, everything took time and if you ship or import anything you have to pay a hideous amount just to clear the goods on time.

"I understand every country's got duty and VAT… but [in Lebanon] it's way too much and we know that it's going to the pockets of people who are bleeding the country dry. It's not fair."

Despite her country's faults, Karami still misses home dearly – especially now, with Lebanon in the midst of a revolution. If anything, it's given her a sense of hope of what it could mean for members of the global Lebanese diaspora looking to return and set up businesses.

"I mean, no one knows what's going to happen – but you feel there is a tiny glimpse of life and I would just love to be able to travel there more often and actually have a proper business there," she said.

"But you need to feel that the taxes and the government and everything are inviting and willing to have us."

And like many in the diaspora, Karami also expressed a mix of regret and yearning for not being able to march and protest with her family and friends on the ground.

"If I if I didn't have young kids, I totally would have been there," she said.

"I just feel I'm missing out on being part of the change. Everyone, for the first time ever, they're all believing in each other.

"All my friends there are talking about this feeling, you know, like they're living through something they've never lived through before. I just want to feel it as well.

"It's hard to feel it from far away. You can watch all the videos and everything, and I went to demonstrations here in London – but it's not the same. Absolutely not the same."


Follow Esska on Instagram via @esskashoes or visit www.esskashoes.com

Elias Jahshan is an editor and freelance writer based in London. He is a contributor to Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race & Identity, out now through Picador.

Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan


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