South Korean president Moon Jae-in buys his shoes from a local co-op called Agio.
The brand was nicknamed The President’s Shoes after Mr Moon Jae-in was seen wearing the shoes at an international meeting. He bought the first pair of Agio shoes in 2012 and has been a client ever since.
AGIO was set up in 2010 by current CEO Yoo Seok-young, who is visually impaired, to provide employment for people with disabilities. The business struggled to survive its first years and had to close before re-opening in Sungnam city in December 2017 after a crowdfunding campaign.
All its shoes are handmade, and only 30 pairs are made per day.
Woo Hyun-suk, manager of the shoe-making department told us: “The co-op was founded due to Korea’s difficult environment for people with hearing impairment, who do not have many job opportunities. There are plenty of people with hearing disabilities who have skills, enthusiasm, and strong will to work.
“This co-op’s goal is to make them feel accomplished in a stable workplace and provide them a decent job. Our founder is blind and those who make the shoes are deaf. We’d like to break one of the prejudices people have, such as that of it being difficult to communicate and co-operate with deaf people.”
Social co-operatives in Korea are multi stakeholder co-ops. Agio currently has 36 member owners. The shoes are popular with other politicians as well, including Rhyu Si-min, former minister of health and welfare.
In spite of its success, the co-op says it will focus on strengthening the business rather than seek to expand.
“The manufacturing market in Korea is very harsh and fierce,” added Mr Hyun-suk.
“In addition, due to the low-quality shoes imported from overseas at a low price, the domestic shoe manufacturing industry is having a very difficult time. In view of this environment, we have introduced a marketing strategy to provide high-quality customised shoes. We do not have a store yet, and sales are mainly through our online channel.
“Some customers even visit our office to get shoes. However, we need more efforts in terms of finance and sales. Nevertheless, our business has developed steadily and continued to provide jobs for disabled people. We expect to be able to employ more people in the future.”