Nikolay Grishko runs the company he founded by in the late 1980s after accompanying his professional dancer-wife Tamara during a French tour: Russian dancers were bringing ballet shoes from theatre workshops at home to sell to European dancers.
Grishko resolved to exploit this market by organising the Russian workshops to make ballet shoes for export, and in doing so gave employment to many craftsmen during the difficult economic transition of the 1990s. But what finally convinced Grishko to start his own business was when a Soviet trade organization responsible for sales to the United States approached him with a request to find pointe shoes for an American dancer. The request sent him searching. But finding the shoes was not easy. By 1988, the theatre workshops had already begun to fall apart and could hardly supply themselves, let alone external consumers.
More than 20 years later, he represents one of the very few success stories, after vodka and caviar, for Russian-made high-quality consumer products with a global reputation.
The company he founded that bears his name, has exports so large they are challenging international competitors that boast decades of experience in the industry. The global association of Russia with great ballet — as exemplified by the excitement over last Friday’s reopening of the Bolshoi Theatre — is also an asset for marketing Russian-made ballet shoes.
Shoemaker Capezio, based in the United States and created by an Italian master, had celebrated its 100th anniversary when Grishko was just filling out registration papers for his company. Now the venerable firm is feeling the pressure on its own turf from the Russian enterprise.
Have you ever seen a Russian company that pushed an Italian one out of the market for shoes?”
says Grishko rhetorically.
Grishko exports shoes to more than 60 countries. The United States is its first and largest client with sales of up to 100,000 pointe shoes per year. Over 300 U.S. stores carry Grishko products, which include other dance footwear and active clothing in addition to the ballet shoes. Grishko factories make 40,000 pointe shoes per month, but even that is not enough to satisfy demand.
Convincing the market that these new Russian shoes were worth having wasn’t as easy as one might think. Grishko described the shoes that were made in the theatre workshops during Soviet times as ugly and uncomfortable. Nobody in the West wanted them because they didn’t meet their standards, Grishko said. Western ballerinas had to learn traditional as well as contemporary dance, but in the Soviet Union contemporary dance was practically non-existent, as were the skills to make pointe shoes for it.
So changing the design and technology used in the manufacture won over new clients. Grishko proudly stamped “Made in Russia” labels on the soles of his shoes, and found another obstacle.
Russians are looked upon with disgust on the world market. When customers see the label ‘Made in Russia’ it creates distrust. We constantly have to fight this. We are breaking the stereotype about Russian producers and Russian distributors. We can show that the Russian producer always keeps his word and honours the conditions of the contract.”
Brand recognition abroad was another hurdle. Ballerinas typically use one brand of pointe shoe throughout their careers. Convincing them to switch to Russian brands took more than 10 years.
If someone is in Grishko, she will be in Grishko all her life. The brand might change, but very slowly because it’s like your second feet.”
said Sophie Simpson, pointe shoe fitter with Freed of London. Freed, for instance, is still the most popular brand for British dancers and is the official shoemaker for many British dance companies. But things are changing now that Western dancers are more familiar with Russian labels.
Roman Kukushkin, director of Russian Class (distributed un Russian Pointe in the US), Grishko’s strongest Russian competitor, got his first taste of ballet when he was 4 years old, back stage at the Bolshoi Theatre. His mother was working in a theatre workshop and he later joined the staff himself as a shoemaker. Whenever he got a free moment from work, Kukushkin went to the rehearsals to watch the ballerinas dance.
“I loved to just be in classes. There would be a small recorder playing or someone accompanying. They would be all sweaty in their torn, dirty shirts, tattered shoes.
They are doing some move and you start to understand how much strength that takes,” Kukushkin said.
Kukushkin still manages Russian Class, which he established in 1991, in line with the techniques he learned while working at the Bolshoi Theater. Keeping with tradition, Russian Class and Grishko maintain a staff of expert shoemakers who handcraft the pointe shoes. Most of their competitors, however, have outsourced production to Asian countries where the shoes are put together by machines. Hand-crafting preserves the psychological connection between the dancer and her shoemaker. Each Grishko shoe is marked with the shoemaker’s number, which can become a lucky charm for the ballerina.
Ballerinas feel the hands of different masters. It’s fantastic.”
But a threat is looming, and one which most traditional manufactures don’t want to combat by imitation: plastic-lined pointe shoes. The American Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, for example, are made with plastic.
Grishko and Kukushkin warn that these shoes are harmful to the dancers’ feet. causing infections and cracks in the bones of the foot. Kukushkin says,
Footwear must live. It must breathe. If only so that the foot of the dancer stays healthy.”
Gaynor Minden uses high quality elastomerics for its unbreakable shanks and boxes, not the antiquated paste and cardboard construction that makes other pointe shoes quickly deteriorate while tormenting the feet. The flexibility and support that you feel in the new shoe will remain the same throughout its long life. Gaynor Mindens have tremendous durability without being hard or clunky. The shoes last 3 to 6 times as long as most other brands.
Certainly the temptation to change to longer lasting shoes is a great one. And their blurb isn’t just showy publicity; many dancers agree with them. Alina Cojocaru, Veronika Part, Gillian Murphy and many others are all fans.
The companies are not averse to all new technologies however. Grishko even uses nanotechnology to make its pointe shoes. The insides of shoe model Miracle are treated with microscopic bits of silver, which help to kill microbes. Grishko also works with Moscow-based Andreyev Acoustics Institute, which previously worked to reduce noise emissions from Soviet submarines and is now helping to create pointe shoes that hit the floor quietly.
From the top: Grishko, Russian Class, Gaynor Minden