Most artisans aren’t usually noted for their business acumen. But bespoke shoemaker Edwin Neo, founder of Ed Et Al, is the rare breed who has that winning combination.
He has even got the attention of Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who highlighted Neo this year in his Budget speech as someone resolved to deepen his skills. Tharman, who was elaborating on the new Skillsfuture Study Awards and Fellowships that aim to help Singaporeans develop specialist skills and gain mastery in future growth clusters, said: “He is doing well…selling both ready-to-wear shoes and upmarket bespoke creations. Not cheap, by the way.”
Neo was one of the first to ride the maker movement when it hit Singapore about five years ago. He discovered his passion for shoemaking after working at his brother-in-law’s shoe-repair outfit for five years in the early 2000s, and went on to apprentice with Hungarian master shoemaker Marcell Mrsan in Budapest. He returned to Singapore in 2011 to set up a one-man show, with just $14,000 in capital. Today, he has a staff of nine, a standalone boutique in Millenia Walk, four points-of-sale with local menswear retailer Benjamin Barker, and a turnover that’s expected to cross the million-dollar mark soon.
The Internet revolution – not renewed interest in traditional menswear – has been key to his success. Neo says: “I think we set up at the right time. If we had started five years earlier, we probably wouldn’t have got to where we are so quickly. As a very small company with zero budget, it was due to Internet forums, Facebook and word-of-mouth (marketing) that we got our start.”
Support from friends and clients has been essential, too. In 2011, photographer Dominic Khoo lent Neo a retail space at his urban art gallery 28 Fevrier, then located at Jalan Kilang, in exchange for 20 per cent of his monthly sales, a good deal in a retail landscape as competitive and expensive as Singapore’s. Retired property consultant Victor Ow introduced his friends at the Ferrari Owners Club Singapore (FOCS) to the brand. FOCS member and prominent aesthetic doctor Chan Kok Weng has since become a fan, ordering bespoke shoes such as one in full fuchsia with a tinge of purple at the ends and champagne gold buckles.
Besides bespoke orders which start from $2,500 and are entirely handcrafted and hand-welted by Neo and his team, Ed Et Al also carries an entry-level Ready-To-Wear (RTW) line – each pair costs $349 – made by craftsmen in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The next level up is the By Request collection, where customers choose from RTW models and have them customised to their specifications for $700 a pair. Last month, Neo launched the Prestige range. At about $1,200 a pair, this new semi-bespoke line has finishing that’s “close to, if not the same as, bespoke”.
The shoemaker is setting up a workshop in Vietnam run by a Singaporean team for better quality control of the RTW and By Request lines. While there are plans to expand internationally, he is not rushing into it and has engaged partners in Hanoi and Sydney to organise trunk shows for potential customers.
And in an effort to nurture the next generation of craftsmen and “keep the gentle craft of shoemaking going”, he intends to set up a communal workspace for other makers and brands. He says: “I took a long route as I was mostly self-taught and eventually had to fly to Europe to learn. I want to create this opportunity for promising Singaporeans.
“To be a good footwear designer, it is very important that one understands the process. Even if they do not become shoemakers themselves, the knowledge of shoemaking will give them an advantage.”
Find out why Louis Kwok and Jonathan Chiang gave up lucrative careers to pursue woodwork and tailoring respectively, in our digital edition here.