Social media has a lot to answer for – both good and bad. For Karl Chu, of Savile Row boutique Ascot Shoes, it opened up new business opportunities. For it was social media that introduced him to Japanese shoemakers. He was immediately impressed by their near-obsessive attention to detail. “What really stood out was the passion. Whether these craftsmen have been schooled in Japan or trained by bespoke makers in Britain, they have taken what they’ve learnt and refined it to the nth degree. The sole, the upper, the finish – it’s all on another level,” he says.
Many bespoke shoemakers operating in Japan today cater purely to the domestic market or markets close to home, holding trunk shows in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore. But a select handful – including perhaps the most well-known, Yohei Fukuda – can be found in speciality shops in the UK, US and continental Europe such as Sweden-based online store The Sabot (which has free worldwide shipping on orders over £215, and holds regular pop-up shows around the globe) and The Armoury in New York, while others, including Masaru Okuyama and Clematis Ginza, hold regular overseas trunk shows such as those hosted biannually at Ascot Shoes, as well as the London Super Trunk Show and the Swedish Super Trunk Show.
Shoes by Japanese makers are almost too good to wear, says Chu. “Every time I show a pair of Japanese bespoke shoes to a customer in London, they go, ‘Wow, they are so beautiful. I don’t know if I could bear to wear them.’ European bespoke shoes somehow seem more functional, whereas Japanese makers have really elevated what they do to an art form.” Svelte welts, sculpted waists and perfectly pitched heels that slope gracefully inwards at the back win particular praise from connoisseurs – though each maker has their distinct style. The devotion to achieving the perfect fit is an especially attractive attribute of all Japanese shoemakers, who are painstaking in their measurements and will often make two pairs of trial fitting shoes – unheard of elsewhere – before proceeding to craft the final product.
Yohei Fukuda enjoys one of the highest international profiles of all Japanese shoemakers. He honed his craft with top British cordwainers Edward Green and George Cleverley and, unsurprisingly, he specialises in a classic English style, subtly dandified with distinctive flourishes such as a toe reminiscent of Cleverley’s signature chisel shape. Fukuda’s bespoke shoes (from about £3,400) take at least 18 months from commission to delivery; made-to-order (from about £1,900) take around four months; while ready-to-wear shoes (from about £1,700) are considered among the most beautifully crafted off-the-shelf footwear on the market, hand-constructed to the same exacting standards as his custom offerings.
“In terms of design, there are Japanese shoes inspired by Italian style, French style or English style, and those that combine elements from all of these,” says Masaru Okuyama, who trained in Japan and is now based in Hong Kong. “But Japanese shoemakers refine these European styles.” According to Okuyama (whose made-to‑order shoes start from £1,600 – £3,600 – with bespoke prices from £3,800), Japanese shoemakers aim to refine the best footwear from around the world, and if spending 20 per cent more time is required to make the shoes five per cent better, so be it. Characteristically sleek, clean and streamlined, Okuyama’s style is often likened to that of French shoemakers such as Aubercy (where, coincidentally, the in-house master bespoke shoemaker is another Japanese craftsman, Yasuhiro Shiota).
Keitaro Takano, of Clematis Ginza (whose ready-to-wear shoes are priced from about £1,000, and bespoke from £2,400), studied with highly respected Japanese shoemaker Nobuyoshi Seki, but then integrated elements of British and European design and technique into his own approach. Fond of burnished patinas and contrasting hues and hides, Takano says Clematis Ginza has “a unique aesthetic incorporating our specific mix of Japanese, English and Italian style and beautiful details such as sole designs in different colours.”
“Japanese craftsmen make gorgeous soles,” confirms George Glasgow Jr, CEO of leading British shoemaker George Cleverley, which has trained numerous Japanese artisans, including Fukuda and Marquess’s Yuriko Kawaguchi. “They are very precise, highly detail‑oriented, and as a result we employ several Japanese craftsmen permanently. They make great shoes because they are prepared to spend a long time training and dedicate themselves to a specialism.” Which is why Japanese artisans can also be found in the ateliers of other top shoemakers, such as Gaziano & Girling, John Lobb, Edward Green and Foster & Son.
However, it is those who have trained in London and Paris and returned to Japan who are really making waves. Alongside Yohei Fukuda, another notable name to have returned is Yuki Shirahama, and both now attract an international clientele who visit their ateliers, including Simon Crompton, founder of menswear website Permanent Style. “There’s an appealing humility to many Japanese shoemakers,” he says. “Many trained in England or France and some could now be considered superior to those they trained with, but instead of returning to Europe to compete, they want to bring those skills to Japan.”
The married couple behind Marquess, Shoji and Yuriko Kawaguchi, also trained in the UK and are avid collectors of vintage British shoes, specialising in old‑school styles inspired by English footwear from the 1930s (exclusively bespoke, priced from about £2,500). Marquess holds trunk shows at Attire House in Hong Kong, but is exploring the possibility of European appointments in the near future.
Also gaining an international reputation is Yuki Shirahama, who trained in Japan and at Altan in Paris. While his workshop is in the Japanese city of Kyoto, he also meets bespoke clients at the Strasburgo boutiques in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and Kyoto. His designs (bespoke only, from about £2,400) are a mélange of traditional Italian, English and French styles, though in addition to conventional cap-toes, loafers and brogues, he also offers distinctive Norwegian-style split-toe Derbies and boots.
Not long ago, “Being a shoemaker in Japan was not a popular job,” says Takano. But the mindset has changed and “people think craftsmanship is cool”. Okuyama agrees, “In Japan, before the economy collapsed in 1991, people just wanted to go to university and then work for one company for life. But after the bubble burst, many of my generation – ‘the lost generation’ – couldn’t find a job. So we started to think, maybe just going to work and collecting your pay, that’s not enough. We wanted to do something we found meaningful. It’s one reason many people turned to crafts.”
With the scene thriving and competition growing in Japan, “More and more Japanese makers are beginning to travel abroad to open up new markets,” says Jesper Ingevaldsson, one of the organisers of the London Super Trunk Show event and 2018 World Shoemaking Championships, where several Japanese shoemakers, including Clematis Ginza and Tetsuya Shirakashi were showcased, as well as other names hopefully soon to start making waves in Europe: Kiten, Kanpekina, Matsumoto, Miyagi Kogyo and Joe Works (the latter is now available on The Sabot). “With the EU-Japan free trade agreement kicking in soon, I anticipate a big rise in makers visiting the EU,” he concludes. If the shoe fits…