A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, preferably in a fabulous pair of shoes. Datuk Lewre (pronounced Loo-ray) Lew takes this adage to heart, perhaps more literally than most.
The founder of Lewre Bespoke, an international high-end bespoke shoemaker, Lew tells Enterprise that the brand has been featured in all the fashion meccas of the world. “I was very fortunate to have made my debut at London Fashion Week in 1998. Since then, the brand has been to every major fashion show you can think of. Quite simply, I envisioned Lewre as an international brand from day one and that is exactly how I have been running it.”
But artistry did not come naturally to him. Indeed, although his designs were eventually good enough for Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, his formative years were anything but glamorous.
Lew is the 10th of 14 children. During his childhood and teens, he and his family lived in the rubber estates of Tapah, Perak. Times were tough and everyone in the family had to pull their weight.
“My day started at about 3.30am, when I would follow my father out to the rubber estate to collect the sap that had accumulated the night before. After a few hours of doing that, I would make my way home to prepare for school. On other days, I would follow my mother to the tin mine and help her before going to school.”
Lew’s young hands quickly developed the callouses synonymous with hard labour, but he was already developing an eye for beauty. He would rush through his early morning chores and run back home, anxious to catch the break of dawn over the sprawling rubber estate.
“It was my favourite part of the day, walking through the estate and seeing those first luminous rays of the sun creeping through the trees. Somehow, they filled me with such energy and hope for the future,” says Lew.
After completing his studies, Lew decided that he wanted to serve his country. He attended a day-long selection process to join the police force and made the grade, going as far as collecting his acceptance documents and having his credentials filed at his assigned police station.
But his mother had other ideas. When he told her what he was about to do, she broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably. “You have to remember that this was the early 1970s and there were still a lot of national tensions as a result of the Communist elements in the country. As eager as I was, mom simply would not hear of it.”
So, he joined a Mercedes-Benz factory and spent two months unpacking nuts and bolts of various sizes and sorting them into pigeonholes. He was not cut out for such a mind-numbing job and left for another factory job. He would work at various factories for the next five years, before making a fateful switch to sales.
“I joined Yeo Hiap Seng as a salesman. Although the work was difficult, I was good at it. I was a fighter and would not give up on canvassing and going store to store to make my sales targets. Eventually though, other job offers came and I took those up,” says Lew.
“After some more years of this, I received a call from my former manager at Yeo Hiap Seng. As it turned out, he had started a shoe manufacturing business in Johor and wanted me to join his sales and marketing team.”
It took two months of convincing, but Lew eventually made the trip down south to meet his old boss. He was given a quick tour of the factory floor, where he saw the various processes and production lines.
“At the end, we stopped by the design office, where I met the design team. They took me through their various prototypes and designs. And just like that, something clicked deep inside of me. I suddenly felt that I had wasted the last 10 years of my life not being involved in the shoe business,” says Lew.
The company made simple, unassuming canvas shoes with vulcanised rubber soles, not unlike the globally famous Converse brand of footwear. The shoes Lew was selling were cheap and unassuming. After all, his target market was schoolchildren and their parents. It was by no means high fashion, but to him it may as well have been Louboutin.
“Back then, we did not have the Converse brand here. We were selling our shoes under the brand name Ozly and the shoes were going for as low as RM6.90. Over the next few years, however, the design of the shoes evolved to look more sporty and trendy,” he says.
The company would eventually export its products to the US, Australian and European markets. “I was now dealing with plenty of buyers from the US, Australia, Italy and so on. This sales experience would be invaluable to me later on in life. But even then, I would spend time at the design office every chance I had. I was mesmerised by the design process and I took the opportunity to observe and learn as much as I could, even though my full-time job was being a salesman,” says Lew.
He was fast becoming a recognisable figure in Malaysia’s admittedly small shoe manufacturing industry. It was only a matter of time before he struck out on his own. Together with some retailer friends of his, he managed to pool together RM100,000 in start-up capital and form a trading company called Roondy Enterprise.
“We were just a trading company at this point, not a manufacturer. The business started in 1987 and the early years were challenging. In addition to being a co-founder, I was also the deliveryman. But I soon realised that the late 1980s were going to be very challenging for the local economy,” says Lew.
“Just a year later, in 1988, I told my partners that we should begin exporting. Quite frankly, they thought I was crazy. But Malaysia was in the midst of an economic downturn and I did not want us to rely on just one market for sales.
“We began exporting to Singapore. Encouraged by the experience, we expanded to Australia a year later and soon after that, we even managed to penetrate the Netherlands.”
In the early 1990s, the minister of international trade and industry was none other than the outspoken Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz. A key driver of the country’s internationalisation agenda thoughout that decade and into the early noughties, Malaysia’s own “Iron Lady” had issued a clarion call to the private sector, urging local companies to go abroad.
Lew seized on the opportunity. “I figured that as we were already international, surely we would have an advantage. So, I knocked on the door of the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade),” he says.
“Sure enough, in 1991, I was the youngest of the 13 other corporate delegates representing the country at the then-largest shoe fair in the world in Dusseldorf, Germany. To be honest, the first few years were a failure. I did not make any sales. It was very disheartening. But I made it a point to go to Dusseldorf every year, even after Matrade stopped sponsoring a delegation.”
A chance encounter
In 1994, Lew finally made a breakthrough. He secured two orders — from Lebanon and Japan. And then a year later, at the shoe fair, he was introduced to Datuk Jimmy Choo. It was around this time that the world famous Choo would launch his Jimmy Choo London stores.
“I was just so inspired by him and his designs. He had created such a successful brand. I decided that this was what I wanted for my company,” says Lew.
“After all, by this time, I already had more than 10 years of experience in shoe sales. I was an original equipment manufacturer. We produced shoes for so many other brands around the world. It was finally time for us to become an original brand manufacturer. I was very fortunate to have Choo’s support for the next few years.”
But every great brand needs a name. And for a brand that wanted to compete with the likes of Louis Vutton and Gucci, it was even more critical to get the name right. Lew found inspiration from his formative years, when his entire life revolved around a rubber estate in Tapah.
“I recalled the joy and optimism I felt walking back home early in the morning, just as the sun was rising over the rubber estate. So, I decided on the name ‘Lewre’ — to signify the luminous rays of sunshine.
“Finally, in 1997, I launched Lewre Shoes in Malaysia, and Choo was so supportive that he travelled back to the country just to be there at the launch. Rafidah was also kind enough to attend and help me launch the brand.”
Thanks to the networks he had cultivated in Dusseldorf and at other international trade fairs, Lew gradually made his way into some of the world’s biggest fashion shows. “Thanks to Choo, I made my debut at London Fashion Week. After that, I successfully brought the brand to other big events in New York, Milan and other fashion capitals of the world.”