The Nyonyas really know how to dress to the nines back in the day thanks to the recognisable kebaya and sarung combo. But look further down to their feet and you will see it adorned with colourful and intricately beaded footwear, a trade that is unfortunately dying. Here we meet 2 ladies in Melaka that are keeping this art alive.

When one thinks of the Nyonya look, the kebaya top with its floral embroidery and figure-hugging cut come to mind. It is paired with a batik print sarung or a long skirt to complete the look. But one has to look closer to see that these Nyonya take their style all the way to the feet in the form of handstitched beaded shoes.

This art of making them is a dying one but I found a little shop tucked in Jonker Street, Melaka where two sisters are keeping this craft and fashion trend alive.

Joyce and Jennifer Ngiow look every part a classy Nyonya from their well-coiffed bobs down to their beaded slippers. These owners of J. Manik, a quaint shop selling beaded shoes made by Joyce and accompanying kebayas really know how to model their Nyonya style and heritage without looking out of place in this modern time.

The connection between Nyonyas and beaded shoes is due to the fact that Nyonyas are amazing with needlework and back in the day, it was a requirement to master it. Jennifer explains that the Nyonyas love getting dolled up for social gatherings or ‘kenduri’ in Malay where they would proudly display their garments that they crafted themselves. Plus, showing up in a pair of beaded shoes elevates your fashion status.

The birth of J. Manik

The love for beaded shoes and the art of making it came from the sisters’ mother who frequently wore it. They were taught this detailed art of handcrafting shoes from their aunt. Opening a business came about as a way to highlight something close to their hearts and to do so with their big family of five siblings. Now they are 17 years strong with an impressive clientele of local and international shoe lovers.

The hand that beads them

“Joyce and I are known to be the fussiest woman in town because when we talk about handwork, it has to be detailed and the workmanship has to be good,” admits Jennifer on the store’s shoes. The soles of the shoes are changeable and it can be done without disrupting or damaging the beaded parts. So, if you started off with a 3-inch heel and over the years prefer to wear flats, the ladies at J. Manik are more than happy to do the alterations. That is why the craftsmanship during the inception of the shoe has to be immaculate so the beads do not go astray in the event you want a sole change.

A pair of beaded shoes can cost you anywhere from RM280 to RM2000 depending on the shape and bead type. Why pay such a hefty price tag for a slip on? Well, I found that a simple pair of closed toe beaded shoe takes up to 1 and half months to complete and uses an upwards of 18,000 pieces of beads.

In order for the beads to last long and the colour to stay vibrant, the ladies of J. Manik source their beads from abroad mainly Japan. The Japanese glass beads used, retain their vividness longer and come in a variety of colours to better mix and match with their fancy designs.

For finer beads to one-up your beaded shoe game, there are the beads imported from the Czech Republic. The beads are dainty therefore taking up to 3 months and use a whopping 54,000 beads to complete a pair. Joyce even requires a magnifying glass to meticulously sew the tiny beads into place.

Design wise, they started with traditional patterns. Many of their customers bring their own antique beaded shoes and Joyce will draft them to be beaded with the Japanese glass beads. But they have evolved to include patterns of fishes, peacocks and flowers.

“We do cater to match our customer’s kebaya outfits and evening dresses. Nowadays our shoes can even be matched with jeans and casual clothes,” explained Joyce who does all the beading for the shoes in the store.

Bespoke experience

That is an aspect of J. Manik that I find intriguing, is that the ladies will take the time to match the shoes to your outfit or style.

Jennifer mentioned of a client who they visited at her abode, where she took out her kebaya collection of different colours and patterns and requested the ladies to create a beaded shoe to match each outfit.

‘You need to have the flair,” said Jennifer when it comes to choosing a beaded pattern and matching it with an outfit. These ladies definitely have that and take the effort to spread the knowledge when a customer walks in or make an appointment. Joyce who manages the store even likes to dress up for her customers.

Not just about colour and pattern, the beaded shoes from J. Manik are also made in a plethora of shapes. Both Joyce and Jennifer sported the traditional flat closed toe shape but the store’s shelves are lined with shoes designed with single, double and mule strap options. The height of the shoe can go up to 3 and a half inches but the flat ones look extra chic, brought to trend thanks to footwear like the slip-on loafers by Gucci.

A beaded legacy

To explain why owning a pair of beaded shoes is a worthy investment, Jennifer explains that,“ Beaded shoes are something every female needs to own because it is a dying trade. After this, you don’t know whether they’ll be another generation who will continue sewing it.” So it is not only unique in its design where one and two are not the same but the value stems from the fact that not many people master this trade of beadwork in footwear.

Think about it, anyone can own a Hermes handbag if you have the money because there are thousands of people and factories that can produce them. But the Nyonya art of beaded shoes is a different story. Could you put a price on that?

J. Manik | 23, Jalan Hang Lekir, 75200 Melaka +606-282 7570

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