There are many things you can debate about Japanese culture as there is no end to the weird and wonderful things that come from that insular island, but quality is rarely one of them. Regardless of origin, when the Japanese put their minds to something, it gets done – and done well.
So when we tell you that there is a shoemaker in Tokyo making some of the most beautiful English-style bespoke shoes you have ever seen, we’re not expecting raised eyebrows, just raised expectations.
Yohei Fukuda’s shoemaking career began when, studying English in England post high school, the craft caught his fancy and he landed himself a six-month apprenticeship at luxury goods store Bespoke. He then took the two pairs of hand-sewn welted shoes he made to bespoke makers in London in search of a job.
His meticulous attention to detail and eagerness to learn eventually got him work at cordwaining elites such as Edward Green and Cleverley. In 2011, he decided to bring his skills back home and started his eponymous brand. Working with just two other apprentices, Fukuda began the fastidious process of making the perfect pair of shoes for his clients, which often takes about 150 hours just for the first fitting. But it’s well worth the wait, because Fukuda’s shoes glisten like caramel and liquorice, with finishing and detail so immaculate you’d never want to soil them by actually wearing them.
But wear them you must, for Fukuda crafts every pair after taking an inordinate amount of time examining your lifestyle and the role of your footwear in it. We spoke to him about his craft.
Why did you decide to become a shoemaker?
After sitting in on a shoe designing course at the suggestion of a friend, I visited the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, which had a large collection of shoes. There, a simple pair of black Oxfords made in the early 1900s gave me goosebumps. The maker was unknown, but their simple yet elegant appearance pulled me in. I knew then that I, too, wanted to make shoes that could impress people like that.
Which part of the shoemaking process was the most difficult to master?
I think that when one thinks he’s mastered something, he will think that he cannot become better in that field. Even now, I don’t believe I’ve mastered anything. I just think about how I can do better every day. I’d like the shoes I make today to be better than those I made yesterday, and the shoes I make tomorrow to be the best I’ve ever made.
It takes about 150 hours to create a pair of bespoke shoes – what goes into all that time?
No matter how experienced you are, every client prefers a different fit and has a different “sense”. And you can’t know the client’s ideal fit just by measuring him. One person’s idea of what’s tight-fitting might be considered loose-fitting to someone else, and even the most well-trained person cannot remember the curve of the heel or rise of the instep just by measuring. So, in addition to the measurements, we take pictures and use various data to produce a last. Making good shoes takes time, but we are simply doing what we think is obvious in the work.
What makes a good shoemaker?
Training and experience are obviously necessary, but I don’t believe that mere practice makes a good craftsman. So, the more important question is “Why?”. Why make shoes like this? What does this design mean? One of my first jobs was repairing bespoke shoes, and it mainly involved replacing soles, but understanding how they were made and what the shoemaker was thinking when he was making them ultimately made it easier for me to repair the shoes. That experience shaped my method today.
What’s your most popular model?
The Celeste, from the Heritage Collection. They were the first shoes I made for my brand and have become its icon. It was inspired by a model from the late 19th century, because meaningful designs last over time, while the meaningless disappear.
Where do you source your materials?
I mostly use leather from Europe, but as long as the quality is good, materials from any country and any tanner are fine.
Have you made any unusual pairs?
I’d like clients to wear their shoes for many years, so I don’t consider trends when making them. Our shoes are the ultimate in “normal”. It’s a style – like a partner – that you’ll never tire of now, in five- or even ten-years’ time.
What are your thoughts on the shoemaking scene in Japan now?
I understand that these days, when we hear “gentlemen’s shoes” most people would think of Europe. However, there are several wonderful shoes from still-unknown brands in Japan made by many young, motivated Japanese people. I’d like to conduct myself such that more people all over the world know this.