Marquess is one of the brightest stars on the growing Japanese bespoke shoe heaven. When I visited Tokyo the past fall I met the married couple Shoji and Yuriko Kawaguchi who are behind the brand, and talked the 30’s, aesthetic balance and quality as a main weapon.
This article was first published on the Swedish menswear site Manolo.
On the outskirts of central Tokyo in an area of lower residential buildings, you find a tiny sign on a concrete wall. It says Marquess Bespoke Shoemaker. Down a narrow staircase is the couple Kawaguchi’s combined apartment, showroom and office. It’s very symptomatic that the first thing you face when you pass through the small hallway is a piedestal-like pillar with four Marquess shoes on display at the top, and behind it a glass table with the rest of the sample shoes. For the Kawaguchi couple shoes are everything.
Shoji Kawaguchi do last manufacturing, bottom making (the actual assembly of the shoe) and finish. His wife Yuriko make patterns and closing (stitching of the uppers). Together they run one of the most acclaimed bespoke shoe firms in the world at the moment, which also has grown considerably recently with two apprentices on doing bottoming and one on closing.
The word that perhaps best describes Marquess shoes are delicate. Clearly defined shapes of the lasts, tapered dainty heels, and long narrow waists. Basically only classic models. They look in many ways like shoes from another time, from England in the early 1900’s, who is also the era that mainly inspired Shoji and Yuriko.
– As I see it, it was there and then the finest shoes ever were made. When I finish a pair of shoes, I always ask myself the question: could these have been delivered by one of the foremost bespoke firms in London in the 30s, Shoji Kawaguchi says.
It’s also in England that both Shoji and Yuriko were trained. Shoji had a great interest in fashion and towards the end of the last millennium, he moved to London to try to get into the fashion industry. He met a Japanese who persuaded him to accompany him to the Tresham Institute in Northampton to study shoemaking, a school that unlike the design-oriented skoutbildningen at the London College of Fashion is very practical. There Shoji became aware of the technical parts of shoemaking, the craftmanship, and became stuck. At school he also met Yuriko who shared his newfound passion. After school was finished they wrote letters together to all the major bespoke shoemakers in London – John Lobb, Foster’s & Son, Cleverley – and tried to get apprenticeships. Which of course was tough. Instead, they ended up at Paul Wilson in Newcastle, quite unknown in the shoe world, but well-regarded with a background at, among others, John Lobb Paris. There they had the opportunity to learn the entire footwear manufacturing process, although the focus for both was the bottoming process. As often is, both started by making repairs, but after a time they did the test shoes and later shoes for customers. They also made some repairs for among others Foster & Son.
2006 they left Newcastle and moved to London, and there they came in contact with Tony Gaziano.
– I got the chance to start working for Gaziano & Girling’s bespoke department, Shoji Kawaguchi says. It was obviously a great opportunity, and Tony Gaziano take good care of those who work for him, it was worth a lot.
In London, the couple also had a lot of help from the bespoke shoemaker Paul Davies, who told Yuriko and Shoji and that they should train one of them to become a closer and start their own brand.
They mainly laughed at it at first, but the idea had been planted.
During the period in London Shoji was quite homesick and wanted back to Japan and Tokyo, and in 2008 the couple returned home. There Shoji continued to work as a freelance for Gaziano & Girling. At the same time, they began to realize what Paul Davies had suggested.
– I went as an apprentice at a prominent orthopedic shoemaking firm here in Tokyo and learned more about the work of closing uppers and pattern making, Yuriko Kawaguchi says.
They slowly built up the foundation for Marquess – lasts, patterns, sample shoes and so on – and in 2011 they launched the brand. It was actually quite without a fanfare. They had both the workshop and showroom in their home, but the customers who ordered from them were so pleased with their shoes that they ordered more, and told others, and so the word spread. When the men’s style magazine Men’s Ex wrote about Marquess even more people got aware of them, and since then it’s been going very well.
Today Shoji and Yuriko have moved to a bigger home, where they however as mentioned still has its showroom and office. But it has its own lovely workshop a short distance from the home, where they go on electric bicycles. A glass door opens with a red button, located inside an oblong, light workshop with two workplaces for closes far out, then shelves of shoes and Shoji’s workplace, and fnally two additional workstations for bottom making. The Kawaguchi pair and their three apprentices have still have a quite moderate production rate at 70-80 pairs a year, and they only make full bespoke. Customers are largely domestic, but about 20% are international, from countries such as Canada, Australia and Singapore.
The prices of Marquess start at 380 000 yen, equivalent to about €3 100. A lot of money of course, but roughly in line with bespoke shoemakers in Italy and Spain, and cheaper than the big ones in the UK, where the starting prices of the major today is between €3 500-5 000, and Paris where although the euro is friendlier than the pound the prices are currently starting at around €6 000 and upwards at Berluti and John Lobb Paris.
Marquess is especially known for an enormously high level of craftsmanship, very refined down to the smallest details. Something that the often very discerning Japanese customers appreciate. But what Shoji Kawaguchi speaks most energetic about is the shoes aesthetic balance.
– They have to look good on the feet, on the owner. If the customer has narrow short trousers he needs a different pattern than someone with long wide trousers, for example. And shoes should in my opinion be subtle, they should complement the outgit but not take over, making the whole package better, he says.
Unlike many colleagues in Japan Shoji and Yuriko have no plans to expand the range with MTO and MTM/semi-bespoke. However, they are interested in doing trunk shows in Europe in the future.
– It would have been interesting to see if we can succeed in Europe as well, says Yuriko, and Shoji continues:
– But we want to continue to keep it on a small scale, not least in order to maintain the high quality. It is our main weapon.