Travel Loot

The Turkish Slipper Reinvented

by Mickey Ashmore
Sabahs

Sabahs in action. All photos courtesy of Sabah.

March 2023 update: We first published this interview with Sabah founder Mickey Ashmore in 2017. In the years since, Sabah has grown from one boutique to seven — standalones throughout the USA, in London, in hotels — and added a workshop in El Paso, Texas. Global expansion notwithstanding, 95 percent of Sabah shoes are still made in Turkiye, and specifically in Gaziantep, near the epicenter of the devastating earthquake that recently struck southeastern Turkiye. In response, Sabah is funneling donations and giving 20 percent of global sales to relief projects that will directly help the 50 Turkish and Syrian craftspeople who make their shoes, as well as recovery and rebuilding efforts throughout the region.

We scoured the world to uncover the most innovative and special holiday gifts for the travelers in your life. We came across more than a few gems, but one brand in particular, Sabah, stuck out. Fathom editor Berit Baugher made her way to the Sabah House in New York City for a Q&A with founder and modern-day traveling shoe salesman Mickey Ashmore.

What are Sabahs?

Sabahs are magically comfortable and well-made leather slip-on shoes, which are produced in limited quantities in Turkey and sold exclusively from the Sabah House in Manhattan.

Each pair is handmade with high quality leather by cobblers in southeast Turkey. The cobblers are trained in a disappearing skill of hand-stitched shoe construction, unique to Sabah, which has been cultivated over generations in the ancient bazaars of Turkey.

By employing this special technique, the cobblers create footwear that is remarkably comfortable and simply well made. Sabahs are constructed from hand-selected materials and specially tanned leathers designed to travel and age gracefully. They are made to last.

Sabahs in Biarritz Blue
Sabahs in Biarritz Blue.

How did the company come about?

Sabah was inspired by my time spent traveling and living abroad.

I lived in Istanbul as an expat from 2010 to 2012. From the Turkish grandmother of a summer love, I was gifted a pair of leather slippers that would quite literally change my life. These shoes lead me to create Sabah.

After placing my feet in the slippers for the first time, I almost never took them off. They were a traditional Turkish slipper — aesthetically made for a genie, with magical powers of comfort and durability to match.

I wore them everyday and everywhere I traveled: the beaches of France; out dancing in Beirut; work trips to Munich, Ireland, and Portugal; and hiking through Morocco. I even polished and paired them with a tuxedo for a fancy Turkish wedding aboard the famed Savarona steamship. As one of the few non-Turks onboard — and the only one wearing traditional Turkish slippers — my footwear was a hit. Despite the fact that the shoe style had fallen out of favor with the Turks, I, the Texan living in Istanbul, had become its biggest fan.

A year later with that same pair, I was back in NYC. My friends and even strangers on the street were always asking me about them and commenting on how beautifully worn-in they had become. Unable to find anything similar on the market, I sought out the original craftsman in Turkey through my friend's grandmother. I needed a new pair. What started as the search for shoes became the creation of a brand. Over the course of the next year, many trips to the ancient bazaar, and many mistakes (I did not know a thing about shoemaking), I launched Sabah in June 2013.

By utilizing traditional construction techniques sand skilled craftsmen I had come to know quite well, I created a more modern design and better fit using higher quality leathers and a replaceable natural rubber outsole. We make every pair by hand with the original artisans and have hired and trained more as we expand the Sabah atelier in an effort to grow the craft and, in turn, our business.

Sabah Hand Stitching
Every pair of Sabahs is stitched by hand.

What did you do before launching Sabah?

I worked in finance and strategy for Microsoft. I took every opportunity to travel, including with my job. So I'd say before I started Sabah I was a traveler … and now I am a traveling shoe salesman.

Always, with my travels, the people I meet along the way are more significant to me than the places I see or the sites I visit. Likewise, I've always enjoyed hosting and entertaining — bringing people together over good music, good food, or whatever makes sense. After spending a month in Kazakhstan for work, I returned with 10 liters of Kazakh vodka, as well as Kazakh attire, and hosted a Kazakh vodka party at my apartment. It seemed appropriate.

My personal interests — travel and hospitality — have now become my business. They have inspired an older approach: no e-commerce, no wholesale. Sabahs must be purchased through a real interaction, not just a transaction. As such, our customers become our friends and even friends with each other. Just like traveling, for me, the rewards of Sabah are the people I've met along the way. (Editor's note: He's since added ecommerce on their website, but we love the applaud the spirit and the desire for human interaction.)

Did you have any personal connections to Istanbul before starting Sabah?

I traveled to Istanbul once, alone, for five days during college. Without knowing exactly why, I loved my time there and always wanted to live there someday. And then I did. I still get a giddy feeling every time I cross the Galata Bridge from Sultanahmet into Beyo─člu. Istanbul is majestic.

What challenges come up when managing a company overseas?

My biggest challenges have always been communication and aligning incentives. I speak Turkish, but communicating with people from another culture is also about mentality. I've had to learn (and am still very much learning) what is important to the individuals we work with in Turkey. How do we align our interests and goals to be successful together? It's not simply about money.

I try to avoid the concept of dealmaking in terms of winning and losing, instead working so we all get what we want. The hardest part for me is trying to figure out exactly what the other side wants.

Sabah Voutsa Shoes
Limited edition collaboration with wallpaper designer Voutsa.

Tell us about a lost in translation moment.

When I moved to Turkey, I was not immediately granted a work visa, so I spent the first 30 days as a free man. I hopped on a plane and immediately flew to the Mediterranean coast where I rented a car and proceeded to drive back to Istanbul, alone. One day, I stopped at Kaputas Beach outside Kas to take a photo of a beautiful view. A man in sailing attire muttered a few words to me in Turkish. I nodded my head and said, "tamam"& (Turkish for "okay"), and turned to take my photo. At that time I did not know a word of Turkish. When I returned to my car 30 seconds later, the sailor was in the passenger seat of my Renault. He wanted a ride. Mehmet and I spent the next three hours together listening to Turkish pop while driving the coast at sunset. We had a nice time.

How often do you travel to Istanbul?

Nearly every six weeks for ten days. A good amount of those days are spent with our craftsmen in the southeast where we produce Sabahs.

Tell us a favorite moment from one a recent trip.

I was with our craftsmen in the atelier where we make Sabahs. We usually spend about 30 percent of the workday discussing food and then eating food. The town where we make Sabahs is known to be quite gourmet. Orhan, the owner of the atelier, decided we would have a special lunch. He called all of his favorite vendors around town: the butcher, the vegetable vendor, the baker, the ayran distributor … you name it. Forty minutes later, a tray of piping hot lamb and eggplant kebabs arrived with a stack of steaming pita bread and a few glasses of ice-cold ayran. In a cramped room among dangling slippers, piles of leather, and tools, we dug in. It was the best meal I've ever eaten in Turkey.

Sabah Sundays
The Sabah House.

What are Sabah Sundays?

I started the business by selling Sabahs from my home on Sundays. I had a full-time job, and Sundays were the only day when I consistently had free time. It started with a few friends trying on shoes over bottles of wine, then the next weekend friends of friends came, and we drank a few more bottles of wine. The next thing I knew, people were just showing up, and we'd end the night dancing. One of my original customers, Blakely, who is also a good friend, exclaimed, "It's Sabah Sunday!" And so it was born. Now, over a year later, Sabah Sundays continue to be a mainstay of our brand and occurs on a monthly basis. They can be quite an extravaganza … not at all about selling Sabahs, but really about bringing people together and having a fun time.

Sabah Traveler
The Sabah Traveler.

What's next for The Sabah Dealer?

We just launched a leather bag — similar to Sabahs — made of high quality materials and constructed to last. We thought about travel in every aspect of the design and came up with a five-day traveler that will truly stand the test of time. One pair of Sabahs and one Sabah Traveler bag, and you are ready to go. It's being produced in America rather than Turkey. We found an exceptional group of skilled makers in Connecticut, just an hour and a half away from the Sabah House.

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