When Delhi-based journalist Shirin Mann Sangha was getting married in 2014, she wanted to pair her ensembles with juttis. “I wanted a gold jutti with zardozi and ghungroos on it (for the wedding), and a fuchsia pink for my reception. I thought it would be easier to find," says the self-confessed shoe hoarder. All she got were mundane pairs.

After several false starts, she found a karigar (craftsman) to make her designs—it took over two months. Mann Sangha’s quest led her to start Needledust in July 2014. “I worried that people might hate it—juttis aren’t supposed to look like this," she says. “I made 100 pairs and launched online—about seven-eight days later, I got an email from the website (Exclusively.in) saying we had sold out."

Needledust launched in July 2014
Needledust launched in July 2014

Today, Needledust has two stores in Delhi as well as an online store that ships across India and internationally, and their seasonal collections include an ongoing collaboration with couturiers Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. Fans include actors Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, who wore a pair to Cannes in 2018, and Sophie Turner, who wore a ghungroo design during the wedding celebrations of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas. “The ghungroojuttis are still our best-sellers," Mann Sangha says, showing me a pair in her office, where employees are busy dispatching orders and putting the final touches on a new collection.

Needledust is one of the many homegrown initiatives that updates the traditional craft of making juttis for contemporary consumers. In a country where most mass-produced footwear is manufactured in China, while luxury consumers swear by Italian shoemaking, juttis have emerged as an example of a made-in-India accessory that may be rooted in a historical craft but can also extend to a fashion statement that goes beyond traditional occasions.

Crafted from leather and adorned with dabka-zari embroidery, juttis—also known as mojaris—are believed to have been patronized in medieval India by Mughal rulers as well as the aristocratic classes across north India. In Punjab, juttis are part of the cultural landscape, worn at weddings and festive occasions and referenced in folk songs and stories. However, the rise of factory-made designs, traditional patterns and colour combinations had limited their popularity.

FabIndia’s peacock motif ‘jutti’
FabIndia’s peacock motif ‘jutti’

For new designer labels, combining the artisanal shoemaking techniques with new motifs is a means of updating the design for a bigger market. “When we started, most of the designs available in stores in Punjab were very traditional," says Akanksha Chhabra, co-founder of the jutti brand Pastels and Pop. Chhabra started selling her designs via a Facebook page in 2015—today, the brand counts actors Soha Ali Khan, Taapsee Pannu and Sara Ali Khan among its clientele and also retails out of a brick-and-mortar store in Bengaluru.

Another uber-popular brand, Fizzy Goblet, founded by Laksheeta Govil in Delhi in 2014, is best known for its vivid prints and chic jutti sneakers. The brand has also collaborated with designer Payal Singhal and opened its first store in Mumbai earlier this year. Gurugram-headquartered House of Vian offers an assortment of designs, from pearl-studded floral pairs to pop-art juttis featuring Technicolor Audrey Hepburn prints. Coral Haze, Shilpsutra and JuttiChoo are other brands with embellished juttis while The Haelli, a brand founded by Neha Sahu, specializes in hand-painted designs.

Extending the uses of the jutti is key to sustaining the handicraft—the possibility of wearing a printed design with jeans and shirt or a more ornate sequinned pair with a sleek dress. Mann Sangha creates her juttis keeping this versatility in mind. “My idea is to uplift an Indian handicraft but also launch it in the international market as a ballerina with a new silhouette." Her juttis are topped with 3D sequins, beads, tassels, coins, and embroidery, and Mann Sangha has introduced structural changes in the design to make it more comfortable—from a daintier panja (front of the shoe) which doesn’t chafe the toe bone, to the back of the shoe being cut lower to avoid shoe bites and sole erosion. “I always do padded soles and use thick memory foam that doesn’t go flat," she adds.

Pastels and Pop’s ‘Checkmate juttis’
Pastels and Pop’s ‘Checkmate juttis’

Their popularity has also led brands like Jaypore and Fabindia to include juttis in their inventory. “Juttis were introduced a decade ago in a small way in Fabindia—over the last three-four years, the assortment and range has grown substantially across juttis for men and women," Divya Jyoti Bhatia, category head—jewellery, bags, footwear, Fabindia, writes on email. “We sell around 40,000 pieces per year, in all metro cities across India and tier 2 and 3 cities across north India." Though north Indian states may be the traditional centres for these shoes, with most jutti brands headquartered in and around Delhi, their popularity is now more widespread, with brands like Pastels and Pop based in Bengaluru.

“South Indian women don’t wear a lot of salwar-kameez, but we see a lot of women here wearing juttis with saris or other outfits," says Chhabra, who runs the embroidery and design units for the brands in Bengaluru though the juttis are manufactured in Punjab.

In comparison, men’s juttis remain a niche segment. While the traditional pairs marked by their curved tip, known as nokh, are still limited to festive occasions, brands are now aiming to update these shoes for contemporary use too. Imlee, a Jaipur-based footwear brand, offers suede juttis for formal occasions and casual pairs in plaid, indigo and geometric patterns. Needledust plans to introduce designs for men, while Pastels and Pops showcases #juttisformen on Instagram. Their embellished designs are often worn with juttis for women—apt for coordinated wedding ensembles—but the more minimalist designs in Ikat prints and dark monotones stand on their own. If women’s juttis are a take on ballerinas, these make a fine case for Indian loafers.

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