The shoes that ran a revolution

The Goldstar trainer became a symbol of the Maoists, who seemed to have taken a liking to the shoes due to their durability and affordability.
Published January 21, 2023

Around the world, people have used clothing as an identity marker to signal their adherence towards a particular ideology or movement. Be it the Palestinian keffiyeh or the veil in India, garments have become as much a part of a movement’s identity as slogans and hashtags today.

The pinch-front fedora hat was popular among gangsters in the US in the 1920s. It made them look chic and cool, yet dangerous. Similarly, the blue and white Goldstar trainers — which currently cost Nepalese RS890 or $6.75 — were the footwear of choice for the Maoist Guerrillas in Nepal between 1996 and 2006. The shoe was popular as it lasted despite the rough terrain inhabited by the Maoists.

Unlike the gangsters who made the fedora a symbol of power, the Goldstar trainer became a symbol of the Maoists during Nepal’s decade-long civil war. Many of the Maoist guerrillas, who were killed during the fighting and whose bodies were later photographed and published in newspapers, were seen wearing this brand. It almost made them brand ambassadors for the trainer company, whose selling point was that their product was ‘affordable, comfortable and durable’.

So how did a local brand end up becoming a symbol for a guerrilla war?

Humble origins

When Noor Pratap Rana set up his business — the Haathi brand — from his limited savings in 1970, he wanted to provide people with affordable footwear, that was both comfortable and long lasting. At the time, Haathi was producing slippers from a factory in Hetauda, a city in central Nepal.

Sixteen years later in 1986, the company produced its first shoes — the ‘Spark’ — with PVC soles. These, in contrast to the slippers, were mass produced by machines. By 1993, the Goldstar 032 was launched, and quickly became the company’s flagship shoe.

Over the years, Noor Pratap worked hard to make a brand that lived up to the promise and it paid off — Goldstar trainers became extremely popular among people on a budget such as labourers and students, not only in Nepal but also in neighbouring India.

Unfortunately, its popularity also became an issue for Goldstar and the company began getting negative publicity due to the Maoists’ ‘taste’ in footwear.

It was not only a tough time for the company but also a sad one, as all their good intentions and efforts were being affected because Maoist guerrillas were the unwanted ‘poster boys’ for the brand.

“There was a time when the security forces who profiled Maoists would arrest people wearing Goldstar as this was no doubt very popular among them. The army tried to stop the lifeline of the Maoists by blocking food supplies and footwear,” reminisced Amir Rana, son of the founder of Goldstar and now managing director of Universal Group, Goldstar’s parent company.

Amir said he felt sad that his father’s hard work to set up a business literally from scratch and then produce a great quality product had to face pushback simply because it became associated with the Maoists.

The future looked bleak.

The golden charm

However, Goldstar was down but not beaten. Amir and his wife, Vidushi Rana, fought back. Vidushi, who had been on a 10-year break to raise her children, rejoined the family business in 2018.

A smart businesswoman and strategist with a background in banking and marketing, Vidushi was just the right person to rebuild Goldstar’s image. If anyone could turn the company’s image around, it was her. And she hit the ground running.

While her husband focused on the production and administrative side of the business, Vidushi worked hard to blur the image of Maoists wearing Goldstar trainers from consumer memory. “A brand defines the person using it and vice versa. And if that person is a Maoist guerrilla, it is very hard to convince people otherwise. Images speak larger than anything,” Vidushi explained. “I contacted ministers and political leaders and worked hard to make them understand that our brand produced good quality shoes and we deserved to be seen as that and not as a Maoist symbol.”

Next, Vidushi aimed to tackle the difficult challenge of rebranding Goldstar’s image among the public. It was a tough job, but she was not one to be easily defeated. “The ability to get up after failing is a major strength of an entrepreneur,” said Vidushi, “but we worked hard and have come a long way.”

By the people, for the people

However, her troubles were far from over. She had to deal with competition from cheaper and low-quality counterfeit Goldstar trainers being imported illegally into the country. Trying to promote a good quality product was not going to be easy if cheap knockoffs were available in the market.

Once again, she rolled up her sleeves and began a campaign. She contacted authorities, asking them to regulate the influx of imports, or to at least tax them heavily. “It was not fair that low-quality cheap products were cheating customers and the government besides hurting the domestic industry,” she reasoned.

She successfully persuaded the government that it should support a local business that in turn strengthens the local industry and empowers local workers through employment.

The Rana’s employed almost 3,000 people. Despite being a liability during Covid-19 and lockdowns, they did not lay off anyone. And this helped plead Goldstar’s case.

“I also explained to the ministers I talked to about how low-quality and inexpensive illegal imports were affecting people like our employees. We could have laid off people citing genuine reasons during Covid-19, but we didn’t. But if illegal imports continued, it would be tough for us to keep people on job,” she said.

From Maoist symbol to Gen-Z fashion

Post-Covid-19, the world became more digitised, causing a shift in consumer behaviour, and an increase in online shopping. With this shift in mind, Vidushi decided to change the company’s marketing strategy. “We began focusing more on branding. Now people want products to be delivered to their doorstep. And so, Goldstar began selling shoes online.” She added.

However, customers wanted to ensure the quality of the product before putting their faith into it. They had to touch to believe. At the time, Goldstar had very few outlets. So Vidushi set out a plan to launch showrooms and franchise outlets across Nepal into motion, successfully inaugurating 38 outlets.

Today, the company’s three units, the Kiran Shoes Manufacturers, Modern Slipper Industries and Life Step International employ 3,300 employees — 300 corporate staff, 2,000 regular workers and 1,000 seasonal workers, who together produce 75,000 pairs of shoes every day.

The online business model also forced the company to change its marketing strategy, now targeting a younger, more fashion-conscious customer base.

For many years, especially during the civil war, Goldstar had a specific design focusing on comfort and durability, but now customers focus more on variety and trends. And so, Goldstar began making shoes for women and children — sneakers, school shoes, casual wear, formal, trekking shoes, and sandals.

But despite all the changes at Goldstar, Amir makes it clear that the brand would never compromise on its three golden rules: “quality, durability and affordability” — whether it attracts Maoists or not.