THEY SAY WE BECOME MASTERS OF OUR CRAFT after 10,000 hours, or nearly 10 years, of practice. But master shoemaker Yohei Fukuda, who has spent nearly two decades handcrafting obsessively detailed shoes, does not consider himself an expert.
Incredibly, he humbly says he has more to learn. Fukuda’s first taste of shoemaking was with Edward Green in Northampton, a mecca for those looking to train in the art of bespoke shoes, before he landed a job with working amongst some of Britain’s renowned makers of custom footwear at John Lobb and George Cleverly.
“I am 36 years old, I only know maybe 37 percent of shoemaking,” says Fukuda, who gets surprisingly specific about his technical shortcomings. The devotion of this mild-mannered man to his craft is striking.
He plies this craft alongside four assistants at his modest atelier The Art of Shoemaking in Aoyama, Tokyo’s upscale Shibuya district. There are some 40 specialty shoemakers in Tokyo, and the number has been growing over the years.
The appetite for luxury footwear in Japan has been growing. And people like Fukuda, who has made a name in artisanal craftsmanship, is garnering clients visits from all corners of the globe.
To Fukuda, “shoes are just an object”. “It is more important to think about how our clients spend time, where do they go, what they wear,” Fukuda elaborated. “Everything should be able to make clients look nice and feel comfortable.”
Not one to jump on the bandwagon of seasonal trends, the shoemaker states that paying attention to the client is far more important. “I don’t think about trends at all…if the shoes look nice today, they may look bad in thirty years. We try to focus on classic styles. They don’t have to be trendy but I want customers to wear our shoes for at least 20 years.”
After six years of apprenticeship under renowned names in Britain, the Japanese native travelled back to his home country in 2006. Fukuda realised that he was not excited at the prospect of working for a major brand. “I could see the future, and it was not that interesting” he said.
Since Fukuda’s return, he has finessed the skills he learnt under their tutelage. “I wanted to try new things, and I thought I could use the traditional techniques and improve on them” explained Fukuda. While in Britain, he was familiarised with the use of machines. Upon his return, he chose to rely on the labour intensive hand techniques that now set him apart from his British counterparts. By adding his own house style and approaching each design with the clients’ needs in mind, Fukuda has made a name for himself in the market.
Fukuda ensures that the timeless designs meet his clients’ expectations by doing more than just taking measurements. On average, the team delivers seven to eight pairs of bespoke shoes to clients each month and with close to 150 man hours spent on each pair. Clients can expect to pay anywhere from USD $$4,400 for a pair of bespoke shoes or his ready-to-wear creations that command USD$2,100 per pair.
The steep price point, Fukuda feels, is justified by the labour intensive processes he applies into his shoes.
He determines the best fit for a bespoke shoe with a four-step process, with the most important step being the consultation. During this time, Fukuda speaks to the client to understand their lifestyle and preferences before looking at the materials. Next, he provides them with fitting shoes that they try on.
“We have a set of fitting samples so that customers can try the shoes on and they can tell us how they want the fitting,” said Fukuda. His reason for using fitting shoes is simple: “Some customers want a very snug fit while others may want a loose fit. I keep in mind that what is snug for one might also be loose for another.” These are details that shoesmiths would be unaware of when armed with just a clients measurement.
Once the details are ironed out and the measurements are complete, the craftsmen begin making wooden shoe lasts — a mould that provides all the dimensions for a shoe — that will help shape the shoes once the hand welting process begins. Fukuda says that is a crucial factor in the fit of the shoe. “If the last do not fit a customer, even though the quality of shoes are very good, the customer will not be happy.”
He explained that his choice of hand-welting a shoe — a technique that calls for the artisan to pre-pierce the leather using an awl — as compared to the commonly used Goodyear machine welting technique, helps with the fit of the shoe. “There are no limitations when it comes to hand-welting a shoe…the shoes look better because we can make a nice curve and we can do anything we want.”
Fukuda admits, however, that there are limitations to what they can do at the studio. “Some customers come in looking for pointy or trendy Italian shoes but we are not so good at making those,” said the craftsman. “We try to concentrate on the product and do our best at what we are good at.”
The young shoesmith insists he isn’t done learning yet. The ways in which he’s combined a foundation in British techniques and innovation for a modern product and customer is an example of his passion for shoes and the craft behind it. Putting it perfectly: “If I knew everything I would stop making shoes.”