High-end shoe designer Rafi Balouzian of Burbank’s Cydwoq believes it's silly to suffer for beauty.
By Brenda Rees 02/01/2011
Some designers seek to enhance the curve of a slender waist or the beckoning hollow between a woman’s shoulders. Rafi Balouzian prefers to celebrate one of mankind’s more useful anatomical parts — the foot.
As owner and designer of the high-end leather-goods line Cydwoq (pronounced “sidewalk”), Balouzian has been considering the curve of the ankle, the architecture of the heel and the geometry of the arch since 1996, when he first opened his shoe factory in a small Burbank facility near Bob Hope Airport. Now housed in a 14,000-square-foot building in a bustling Burbank industrial area, Cydwoq has grown into an internationally known maker of distinctive handmade shoes, handbags and belts.
It’s mainly the shoes, blending handmade appeal, green values, vintage style and edgy design, that have placed Cydwoq squarely on fashionistas’ radar. “They are very earthy but sophisticated at the same time,” says Barbara Phillips, owner of Venice and Culver City specialty clothing stores Minnie T’s, and she should know. “I have so many pairs and they are so comfortable,” she says. “I stand on cement for nine hours a day and my feet love them.” Phillips is in good company — she has a long list of folks who want to know when new models hit the store. “I call them up and some come that day to buy the latest.”
Cydwoqs’ comfort is a signature of the line. An avid walker, Balouzian typically logs as much as 50 blocks a day, so he wanted to design shoes for women and men that would make his favorite pastime a pleasure. He decided such a shoe would be more like walking barefoot, without an artificially flat sole, manufactured cushions or high heels. The style would embrace a playful use of color, shape and form. Trained in architecture, he based his model on his own empirical study — hours spent simply watching people walk and scrutinizing the mechanics of how they lift their feet and place them down. He discovered a circular motion and experimented with designs and materials before he hit on the right combination worthy of the Cydwoq name. “Our shoe soles are more like nature,” he says, describing their rounded wave-like bottoms that flex and eventually mold to the wearer’s foot. “These shoes are an extension of your feet; the leather we use makes it seem like they are a part of your own skin. I know customers who don’t wear socks in our boots because they like how the leather feels against their own skin.”
When the subject is feet, Balouzian speaks with an almost evangelical passion, jumping up to punctuate his points. His strategy of embracing high style rather than trendiness has enabled him to grow his line because he needn’t retire designs after a flash-in-the-pan season. There are currently about 400 different styles to choose from, such as the multi-toned d’Orsay Beach flat; the closed-toe, kitten-heeled sandal/pump hybrid, Climax; and the Victorian snub-toed short boot, Jump. Every year, he introduces 70 new models (35 in the spring, 35 in the fall). In addition to finding the shoes in small clothing and boutique stores around the world — Japan, France and Spain are big importers — clients can communicate directly with the factory online and custom create their own footwear, selecting from a vast selection of organic vegetable-tanned leathers. The green company also uses water-based glues.
“Back when we started, I only wanted a healthy environment for our workers,” Balouzian says. “I never saw it as jumping on a bandwagon.” While handmade shoes can be pricey (usually starting at about $600), Cydwoq’s typically range from $240 to about $550. Handbags cost from $225 to $500; belts, $85 to $152.
Balouzian grew up in the shoe business as a young Armenian in Beirut, Lebanon. He remembers hanging out at his father’s shoe factory, where he became known as someone who could fix any broken machine. “I have that kind of brain — half-design, half-mechanical,” he says with a smile. He also recalls traveling to Italy and France with his father to attend leather and shoe exhibitions where he forged early memories of materials and techniques he would tap later in life.
The Lebanese Civil War prompted Balouzian to emigrate to the U.S. in 1978. He settled in Los Angeles, where he studied production and operations management and started three clothing stores. Tired of the seven-day-a-week grind, he went back to school and studied interior architecture and environmental design. After launching a Melrose shop for a British fashion designer, he suggested adding shoes to the clothing line and was pleased to see his initial five designs sold briskly. That, he says, gave him the confidence to chart his own path.
With the help of his wife, Zela, a certified public accountant, Balouzian decided to open his own factory. On a trip to Italy to purchase shoemaking machinery, he was surprised by an encounter with shoe suppliers who remembered him and his father. “It seemed like a bit of a sign of good fortune,” he says. “Can you believe it? After all these years.”
Cydwoq’s first customers came mainly from abroad — Japan, Germany, France and Switzerland. “American companies were too skeptical of the shoes; about 75 percent of our product went overseas,” he says. But, as the brand’s reputation grew, so did American sales numbers. Today, about 70 percent of Cydwoq’s business is on home turf, mainly in San Francisco, New York and Chicago — cities, notes Balouzian, where walking is hard to avoid..
For the designer, nothing is better than making walking as pleasurable for his stylish customers as it is for him. And that means two months of the year stand out on his calendar — January and July. That’s when he sits down at his design table and creates new styles to bring to shows locally and abroad. “It’s the most intense time for me, but I love it,” he says. “I can be creative and expressive and the time flies by.”
Cydwoq is located at 2102 Kenmere Ave., Burbank.. Store hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call (818) 848-8307 or visit cydwoq.com. Cydwoq shoes are also available at Rue de Mimo, 1514 Mission St., South Pasadena, (626) 441-2690.