In a new El Paso shoe factory, artisans divide and conquer. One employee cuts leather to size, while another stretches fabric over the mold of a foot. A third, wearing AirPods and an L.A. Dodgers T-shirt, navigates the perimeter of the shoe through a sewing machine. This type of handiwork has been practiced daily for more than 130 years in the Boot Capital of the World, but these men and women aren’t making cowboy boots. Instead they’re handcrafting a centuries-old style of Turkish slippers.

Founded in 2013 by Dallas native Mickey Ashmore, Sabah began production in its El Paso facility this past year. Leading the team is Ricardo Hernandez Jr., who is well qualified for the role: the man was born in a cowboy boot workshop. His family ran the operation out of its home in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, eventually opening a factory nearby. By the time Hernandez Jr. settled in El Paso, he knew the trade well enough to open his own hand-tooling outfit, carving designs in leather for the likes of Lucchese and Old Gringo. Now Hernandez Jr. manages about fifteen fellow leather artisans, including his 84-year-old father, Ricardo Sr., whom he describes as “my best stitcher.” 

The slippers are based on the yemeni or çarık, a simple shape, formed with supple, often brightly colored leather stretched over the sole, that shoemakers have been crafting in southeast Turkey for almost seven hundred years, by some estimates. Hernandez Jr. and his team incorporate modern adjustments, such as rounded toes (in lieu of the traditional curled-up style) and rubber soles, but the hand-stitching has remained the same. The longer the slipper is worn, the more its shape adheres to the foot—especially helpful during the time before shoes came in “right” and “left” variations.

Ricardo Hernandez Jr., the El Paso workshop’s head of production.
Ricardo Hernandez Jr., the El Paso workshop’s head of production. Photograph by Wynn Myers
An assortment of Sabah heels. Photograph by Wynn Myers
Left: Ricardo Hernandez Jr., the El Paso workshop’s head of production. Photograph by Wynn Myers
Top: An assortment of Sabah heels. Photograph by Wynn Myers

The slippers became popular in the U.S. a decade ago, thanks in large part to Ashmore. The financier had become so enamored of the comfortable and wearable style while living in Istanbul that when he moved to New York, he launched Sabah (“morning” in Turkish) as a small operation. He imported the shoes, made of high-quality leather, from a factory in Gaziantep, Turkey, on the Syrian border, and would invite friends and friends of friends to pop-up events in his East Village apartment. Within a few years, the brand, which has a price range of about $170 to $315, was featured in profiles in Vogue and T, the New York Times’ style magazine, and the hype has never really died down: in 2022 Bad Bunny donned a hot pink pair in the pages of GQ

Ashmore has worn his slippers down to the rubber soles to build the company into a global brand over the past ten years. Sabah now has stores in Austin, Dallas, London, and San Francisco, as well as two in New York state—a flagship in the city and an outpost in tony Amagansett. Ashmore has developed long-standing relationships with Sabah’s Gaziantep artisans, with whom some customers are familiar because each pair of slippers comes with a biography and photo of the shoemaker behind it. After almost a decade of selling the Turkish-made slippers, Ashmore decided it was time to launch an additional manufacturing operation stateside. He complemented the Turkish factory with one in his home state.

Softening the leather on new pairs of Sabah slippers.Photograph by Wynn Myers

Walking into Sabah’s welcoming 1,600-square-foot flagship store, on Bleecker Street in New York City, I find Ashmore at the cocktail bar tucked into one corner of the room, where he and an employee are chatting warmly with two customers. Perhaps in homage to its origins inside his apartment, the store has the feel of a living room, albeit that of a well-traveled and wealthy friend. (It’s to Sabah’s credit that I can vividly picture the brand’s target demographic: someone who would never stay in an all-inclusive resort, who makes a big deal out of “meeting the locals.”) The 36-year-old Ashmore, tall, smiley, and not wearing a fedora although it seems as though he should be, walks me around the shop to point out the nonfootwear retail offerings: a backgammon set (the game is popular in Gaziantep); a leather overnight bag; incense; and various types of bulbous millennial candles. We land in front of a big backlit wall of shoes, arranged soothingly by color. The majority of these pairs are still made in Turkey, but a few new options have rolled in from Texas.

“The Turkish folks we work with are incredible craftspeople, but they do one thing very specifically, and that’s how it should be,” Ashmore says as jazz plays in the background. “But we wanted to tinker. We want to work on maybe some boots one day, or we want to try using velvet.” It takes skilled, nimble artisans to play and pivot with design, and for that type of craftsmanship, Ashmore turned to El Paso, where he found similarities with Gaziantep.

Leather cutting for a new pair of Sabahs.
Leather cutting for a new pair of Sabahs. Photograph by Wynn Myers
Stacks of soles. Photograph by Wynn Myers
Left: Leather cutting for a new pair of Sabahs. Photograph by Wynn Myers
Top: Stacks of soles. Photograph by Wynn Myers

Both are border towns, so they share a tradition of cultural exchange, Ashmore notes. “There’s a history of leatherwork, a history of craft. And in both towns, there’s an embedded generational skill, with families of makers,” he says, pointing to the Hernandezes. Ashmore is committed to training a new generation of shoemakers, including eighteen- and nineteen-year-old day laborers. Because wages at many boot factories are low, young people prefer to work at places such as fast-food restaurants, which pay about the same but for less skill. With its paid vacations and living wages (at least $14.67 an hour), Sabah is drawing in a new crowd. According to Ashmore, three footwear novices have learned the “A to Z of handmade leather shoemaking” and have now settled into permanent roles in the workshop. 

The El Paso factory produces two styles—the baba, a backless version closest to the shape of centuries past; and the sabah, which looks like an elegant, leather Vans slip-on—as well as limited-run specialty shoes. The Texas models are a bit heavier than their siblings from the east. The signature El Paso baba is made of vegetable-tanned, undyed saddle leather, which is slightly stiffer and thicker than the Turkish material. “The saddle leather is, as it sounds, more akin to a cowboy boot, so it just breaks in even more,” Ashmore says.

Just as with their Turkish-made counterparts, all El Paso shoes come with a miniature biography. One striking difference, however: some of those Texas bios include women. (Strict Islamic rules make it harder for Muslim women in Gaziantep to work outside the home.) Brenda in El Paso made my beloved shearling babas, which a friend recently described as my “hipster errand shoes.” 

Members of the Sabah team, including 84-year old Ricardo Hernandez Sr. (far right), at the El Paso workshop.
Members of the Sabah team, including 84-year old Ricardo Hernandez Sr. (far right), at the El Paso workshop.Photograph by Wynn Myers

Sometimes cowboy boots look better after they’re broken in, and Sabahs are similarly built to age into their prime. With wear the slippers mold to your feet, the material softens, and the leather takes on a patina. My pair has survived snow-salted roads and a nasty brush with a dropped bottle of olive oil. The slippers look even better now that they’re a little grizzled. Perhaps because Ashmore conceptualized Sabah while gallivanting abroad, there’s a third-day-of-vacation feel to the brand—the day when you start to feel comfortable but are still thrilled to be on the road.

Texans will recognize some familiar names and designs among Sabah’s recent collaborations, most notably hotelier Liz Lambert. Ashmore worked with her to design babas for Hotel Saint Cecilia, in Austin. These shoes, which are available for sale in the gift shop for $185, come in cerulean and sand. Sabah also produced a striped baba modeled after the signature robes at Lambert’s El Cosmico hotel and campground, in Marfa. The hand-painted slipper, in shades of green and orange, retails for $315. Part of the plan for the El Paso workshop, Ashmore says, is to find more collaborators on these kinds of one-off projects. The factory recently teamed up with Nashville-based denim outfit Imogene + Willie on a 150-pair run of denim patchwork slippers. 

This February, two days after Ashmore had traveled back to the U.S. from Gaziantep, it was hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake—the epicenter was just 23 miles west of the city—which was followed hours later by a 7.5-magnitude aftershock, killing more than 50,000 people. When operations temporarily ceased at the Sabah facility in Turkey, the company relied on the El Paso factory for all of its production. 

Before the earthquakes hit, Ashmore was working on a visa for a member of the Gaziantep team to visit his new colleagues in El Paso, a meeting of the makers that is set to finally happen in September. Despite the cultural differences between Texas and Turkey, Ashmore is interested in the similarities. “The language of handmade craft is the same everywhere. I can’t wait to get these [makers] together in a room,” he says. “Let’s see what happens.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Surprising Pair.” Subscribe today.