There is a bewildering number of shoemakers in Japan, somewhere between 35 and 40 depending on how you count.
Although many have people working for them, they are all essentially sole operators. One person founded the house, is in charge, and there is little thought to building a bigger operation with potential succession.
Within Japanese culture, this seems perfectly natural.
Masters in most crafts are sole operators, working purely for themselves and their reputation. They even take a slightly dim view of apprentices - as we saw in the piece on Sasuke last week.
The set up has both advantages and disadvantages for the customer. On the plus side, you deal directly with the maker and get consistent quality and design.
The shoes are also relatively cheap. Given many work at home, by far the biggest cost is their own labour, and they’re trying to do little more than make a living.
On the negative side, waiting times are long. Eighteen months is not uncommon.
Smaller operations always find it harder to deal with fluctuations in demand, and it’s a particular problem when you’re doing everything in-house. With many bespoke customers, this means a maker’s availability can be as big a factor as how much they like the shoes.
“I don’t think it’s that much of a problem though: customers are willing to try lots of people, and to wait,” commented Yuki Shirahama when we met him in Tokyo last month.
“It also makes the industry very creative, with everyone coming with new things all the time.”
Yuki was one of three makers we met in Tokyo, along with Yohei Fukuda and Shoji Kawaguchi - picked largely based on recommendations rather than anything systematic.
We have written about Hidetaka Fukaya (‘Il Micio’) before of course, based in Florence, and we did want to see Koji Suzuki's workshop but he wasn’t in Japan at the time.
Yohei is one of the bigger, best-established names in Japanese shoemaking. He also has a rather interesting set of products.
There is a range of four levels, each with the same level of quality and hand-stitching, but different fit adjustments (they range in price from ¥280k to ¥430k, plus tax). They are:
- Made to order, from a range of in-house lasts and sizes
- Made to order with some adjustments to those lasts (similar to Saint Crispin’s)
- Bespoke fit, so a personal last, but from a set range of styles
- Full bespoke, with no limit to variation in design or fit
This enables Yohei both to reach a broader range of customers, and to cater to people that are travelling to Japan just once, or that he meets in Hong Kong once (he visits The Armoury twice a year).
Those that try him at any level get to experience a fineness of finishing that puts most English and Italian makers to shame - but is becoming increasingly familiar to those in Japan.
There is the delicately bevelled waist, of course, but more noticeable is the shape around the heel - its pitch forward, its segue into the heel cup of the shoe, and its narrowing on the bottom to perfectly line up with that shaped waist.
Yohei trained in the UK, going first to Brighton for a year to learn English (a big advantage over other makers) and then to the Tresham Institute in Wellingborough for a one-year course, which became two years when three of the students carried on.
He then went to work at some of the Northampton factories, including Edward Green, but wanted to focus on bespoke. So Tony Gaziano introduced him to a maker, Ian Wood.
After eight months learning part time with Ian, Yohei got a job with Cleverley, and was there for three years. He also learnt lastmaking with Jason Amesbury. (In both cases, after much pleading or letter writing.)
In 2006 he returned to Japan. “When I set up in Tokyo there were perhaps four other bespoke makers in the city - now it has exploded,” he says. [That's his workshop at the top of this piece.]
“The increase in awareness of Japanese makers, helped by social media, has come at just the right time. Ten years ago we weren’t ready to compete with the Europeans. Now we are.”
Another maker easily ready to compete with the rest of the world is Shoji Kawaguchi, who goes under the brand Marquess.
Shoji is easily the most smiley person I have ever met. He never stops. Occasionally there will be a serious moment when he discusses arch height or welt width, but basically he smiles all the time.
Shoji also studied at the Tresham Institute (the course has since closed) and met his wife there. In fact, he says 80% of the people on the course at the time were Japanese.
From there he moved to Newcastle to work with Paul Wilson, doing work for both Cleverley and John Lobb Paris.
Later he worked for Foster’s in London, while he his wife worked for Cleverley.
It was Tony Gaziano that really inspired Shoji, however, and whom he still refers to as “my hero”. He worked for him when Tony was at Edward Green, and continued to do so after he moved back to Japan.
“If it wasn’t for Tony, I never would have been brave enough to set up my own company. I just wouldn’t have thought it would be possible,” he says.
Shoji’s workshop today comprises five people, including two outworkers that work solely for him. The place is scattered with vintage English shoes - the collection of which is particular passion of his.
The style is very English. Similar to Yohei in line, but more conservative in design.
“It’s the understatement of English style that I like the most,” Shoji says. “The beauty of getting little things just right and perfectly balanced.”
A nice example is the two black wing-tips pictured above.
Shoji has focused on making the top, city shoe just a little finer in every respect than the more chunky, bottom shoe. So not just a thinner welt and slimmer waist, but a thinner sole, an imitation brogue on the wing, a denser brogue pattern, closer stitching, flat laces rather than round, everything. This is the ‘balance’ he refers to.
Marquess shoes cost ¥346k plus tax. Shoji travels within Japan and has just started visiting Hong Kong - at Attire House.
Yuki Shirahama (above) was holding a trunk show in Strasburgo when we met him - one floor down from the Tailor’s Lab where Sartoria Domenica and shirtmaker Yamagami were based.
Shirahama’s style is an interesting mix.
Where many of the shoemakers can be easily identified with either the English or Italian style, he deliberately tries to blend together both with his French experience (at Altan) into a range of models.
So those on display included slim, formal shoes alongside Norwegian-welt walking boots, plain chocolate-brown derbys and brightly patinated brogues.
Yuki lives and works in the south of Japan, in Fukuoka. He uses the Strasburgo shops to travel around and see clients elsewhere.
“At the moment my waiting time for a pair of shoes is a year and a half, so demand is good,” he says. “Like most Japanese makers I don’t really think of everyone else at all - I don’t see myself in competition with them.”
“I think this is why makers are unlikely to ever combine into a bigger house. It will probably only happen if demand drops and people can’t make a living anymore.”
Yohei agrees, also pointing out that most shoemakers teach in their spare time, which helps to stabilise their income and spreads knowledge around.
“It’s a good time for Japanese shoemaking at the moment, but we need to be strong enough so that, if import taxes ever drop on foreign shoes, we can still compete.”
On this evidence, they will have no problems at all. I didn't take the plunge and commission a pair of shoes on this trip, as I have no plans to be back in Japan or Hong Kong. But if I did I would jump at the chance.
Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man. Above: a Marquess bespoke women's shoe with a beautiful hand-stacked heel.
Thanks go to Masaichi Hasegawa of Gaziano and Girling and Jason Yen of Gaziano and Girling/Camps de Luca for their help with organisation and translation.