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People

Man with high heels

NTU alumnus Mashizan Masjum went from producing documentaries to designing shoes for Hollywood celebrities under his eponymous label. Chrystal Chan finds out how he plunged into the business, stiletto heels and all

PHOTO: DANIEL HO

Mashizan Masjum is head over heels in love – with shoes. In the luxury shoe business for just under two years, his designs have been worn by stars like Solange Knowles and LaToya Jackson.

The 43-year-old NTU alumnus started his career in television journalism but took a dramatic turn after a shoe-making stint with the former head designer of Salvatore Ferragamo in Italy.

PHOTO: DANIEL HO

Graduating from the pioneer batch in communication studies in 1997, Mashizan has faced tough challenges, from walking on lava in Hawaii as a National Geographic producer to living in New York City on shoestring budgets. “At one point, I survived with just US$10 in my pocket,” he says.

Booting out the bad times, he has returned to his childhood fascination with fashion. As a boy, he would accompany his mother, Satimah Salleh, a songstress in the 1950s, on her shopping trips for fabrics and watch how she sewed sequins onto clothes.

Today, many of his shoes are exquisitely decked out with Swarovski crystals. Made in Italy, they are sold in four cities – New York, Milan, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. His collection of glittery metallic colours and geometric heels closed Singapore Fashion Week last October.

Be empowered with the knowledge that it is possible to achieve your wildest dreams. University is not the be-all and end-all.
- Mashizan

When asked if he considers himself successful, he says emphatically: “Success is not about the pit stop. Success, to me, is the journey. As long as you’re enjoying yourself and loving what you’re doing, that’s success.”

PHOTO: RHYS NGO

What’s your fondest memory of NTU?

I was the editor of The Nanyang Chronicle and on the debate team, but my favourite memory is being part of the school’s first anniversary celebration. My classmates and I held a fashion show on the steps of the Chinese Heritage Centre, which used to house our school. We planned and executed everything ourselves, including getting the prettiest girls in our cohort to be the models, dressed in Karl Lagerfeld no less. It was very grand, and quite fun.

Do you remember your professors?

Of course, and I still keep in touch with many of them, such as Prof Hao Xiaoming, Assoc Prof Lee Chun Wah and Prof Ang Peng Hwa, who taught me media law and ethics. I also know Dr Mark Cenite, even though he only joined the school after I left.

You took the bold step of heading to New York City without a job or visa. Why?

I’m the type who’s always game to try something new after six or seven years. I wanted to challenge myself. This was a pivotal moment in my life. By the end of the sixth year, I was working on documentaries for National Geographic Channel, such as DogTown and Border Wars, where we filmed along Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

And what’s the story about walking on lava?

We were in Hawaii to film a volcano for Inside the Volcano by The History Channel. We walked on a lava field and saw golden molten lava right beneath the cracked rocks. It was terrifying to hear crackling sounds as we walked. Luckily, nothing bad happened.

PHOTO: RHYS NGO

How did you develop your interest in shoes?

My mum was a big influence. She was a singer in her heyday and as a boy growing up, I was constantly surrounded by her love of all things beautiful and glamorous. She had many dazzling outfits, and I remember asking her to sew some black sequins on a tee I was planning to wear to a party. To me, women’s shoes are like works of art. I find them fascinating, especially how they vary in terms of the silhouette, material and ornamentation.

How do you see your label growing in the next five years?

My long-term vision is to develop it into a heritage brand, which will probably include things such as menswear and perhaps even a Mashizan Bambino range for kids. For the next few years, we are thinking of opening a flagship store in Los Angeles or London. We’ll have many more collections, not just shoes but also bridal and resort wear, and accessories like bags.

How hard was it to start your brand?

I didn’t have a background in business and little knowledge of how to manage finances and the company, so the initial years were a struggle. I’m grateful for friends who taught me some of these things.

Which celebrity would you most like to see wearing your shoes?

Blake Lively. I’m putting that out into the universe. Who knows? It might come true one day.

What kind of shoe can take an undergrad comfortably from running after a shuttle bus, to a formal class presentation and a cocktail event in the evening?

The student needs two pairs of shoes, one comfortable enough for running around the NTU campus, and another for more formal occasions such as presentations. You wouldn’t wear the clothes that you wear to the gym for a nice dinner with friends, right? And so it is with shoes. You don’t have to be wearing the same pair all day. Shoes too need to breathe, so let them rest.

Which pair of shoes are you proudest of? Was it designed with someone in mind?

La Sarima. I developed this suede number as a homage to my late sister, Massarimah, who passed on while I was studying in Florence. It is a tribute to her elegance, beauty and sophistication.

Any advice for your juniors?

Be empowered with the knowledge that it is possible to achieve your wildest dreams. University is not the be-all and end-all. Grades are not the most important thing. The core skills that you pick up in university matter. For example, being the communication club president and editor of The Nanyang Chronicle helped me learn how to manage a team and meet deadlines.