Japan currently has the world’s largest selection of classic men’s shoes on the market, and have in 15 years gone from having just a couple of bespoke shoemakers in the country to over 50. Suddenly it’s not the British, the Italians or the French that drive the development in terms of quality and craftsmanship, but the Japanese – and Yohei Fukuda is one of the standard-bearers.
This article was first published in the Swedish edition of the menswear magazine Plaza Uomo, in nr 10 2016.
Take a moment to consider what you can do during 150 hours. It’s almost a months working hours for a regular full-time employee in Europe. You have time to, for example, see 100 football games, or fly back and forth between Europe and Japan five times, or iron about 1 600 shirts. Approximately 150 hours is what Yohei Fukuda put on an order for a pair of bespoke shoes. It says a lot about the dedication he has for his work.
The Art of Shoemaking – Yohei Fukuda, is written on a small sign at the entrance to a staircase in the neighbourhood Shibuya in the central parts of Tokyo. Up a narrow stair to the second floor is his showroom, and inside to the left is a shelf with lasts neatly arranged and to the right around twenty sample shoes are lined up on a narrow shelf along the wall. In a square glass cabinet stand his latest creations, a pair of balmoral oxfords in a delicious orange-red-brown patina made for the Singaporian tailor Kevin Seah’s six year anniversary.
– It’s rare these days that I have the opportunity to spend time to make shoes which will be just for display. It’s a different thing in a way, a bit like when the shoemakers in the early 1900’s made shoes for the big exhibition competitions held at that time, Yohei Fukuda says.
His workshop is two floors up, and here it’s just as neat and tidy as in the showroom. Some hundreds of different tools is meticulously placed in a shelf. At the far end of the room by the window facing the street Fukuda has his workplace, his two apprentices have their on each long side. One of them is busy making a special type of braiding with the small stitches that are made as reinforcement at the bottom of the lace opening on oxford shoes. Yohei Fukuda goes to a shelf where a bunch of old books about footwear are intermingled with several pairs of vintage shoes he has bought, and comes back with a shoe from the legendary shoemaker Nikolaus Tuczek, who worked in England until the 50’s.
– Here you can see the same sort of braiding, it was more or less standard back then. Today it’s not mant who does it anymore, Yohei Fukuda says.
The regular stitch made there nowadays takes a few minutes to do, Fukuda’s apprentice sits with the braiding for about an hour. The function of the two variants is exactly the same. There are other values involved here.
Just like in most places in the world, the market for classic quality shoes went down massively in Japan until the 90’s. There were some domestic brands of Goodyear welted shoes that survived, and a pair of bespoke shoemakers were active. The last years of the last millennium a passion for Italian tailoring grew strong in Japan, and they had started to become aware of good shoes again. More and more Japanese went to Europe, mainly to Italy or England, to learn how to make handmade bespoke shoes, and then came back and opened up their own workshops. Today there are over 50 bespoke makers in the country, many of them with several employees.
The supply of classic shoes on the Ready to Wear side has exploded. A lot of domestic Ready to Wear brands have been established, and for many European shoe manufacturers the Japanese market is the single most important. For example the department store Isetan Men’s has the world’s largest selection of classic men’s shoes, with a bit over a thousand different models on the shelves.
The now 35 year old Yohei Fukuda grew up in the city of Toyama on the north coast of Honshu, the largest of the Japanese islands. After high school he moved to England and Brighton to learn English. A friend in the English class wanted to become a shoe designer and persuaded Yohei Fukuda to accompany him to study at the shoemaking school Tresham Institute in Northampton. Fukuda who had a great interest in fashion joined, and during a visit to the Northampton shoe museum he saw a pair of fabulous so-called punched cap toe oxfords from 1910 by an unknown manufacturer.
– I was so impressed with those shoes. There and then I realized what it was possible to achieve with classic craftsmanship.
After school, when he really only had time to make two pair himself, he managed to nag himself to a job with the prestigious George Cleverley firm in London to make their repairs.
– It was a very educational time. I could inspect very carefully how skilled shoemakers had made the shoes, and learned to copy it, Yohei Fukuda says.
He worked with repairs for Cleverley for three years, and also made a few new pairs for Edward Green, but he felt it would take time to get anywhere in England, that his development in many ways was slowed down.
So in 2006 Yohei Fukuda returned home to Japan. He spent a year in his birth city Toyama to produce lasts, models and prepare for the launch of his own brand. The year after he moved to Tokyo and set up a workshop and showroom in the small apartment he had gotten.
– It was shoe stuff everywhere except in the bed and on the stove. Not to glamourous, Yohei Fukuda says and laughs.
He had a friend whose neighbor owned a watch shop, and there Yohei Fukuda held his first trunk show. He received a few orders, and so the key had been turned. When a buyer at Isetan Men’s five years ago picked up Fukuda and let him have trunk shows and have his sample shoes on the shelves, there was a rapid increase in customers, and he became one of the most prestigious names on the Japanese scene for classic shoes.
To get that recognition is anything but simple. Competition is as mentioned fierce. What the Japanese are doing is that they go to Europe and learn the basics there, come back home and in the classic Japanese mannerisms refine and develop it. The work ethic in the country is very high, and they have a perfection pursuit that sometimes borders to something unhealthy.
Today there are more bespoke shoemakers than there are customers, making the competition even tougher. Most newcomers live with their parents and are financed to a large extent by them, they make shoes around the clock, and dream of a big break.
Also in the Ready to Wear market the high work ethic and perfectionist streak is noticed. Japanese made shoes are clearly affordable there, many people compare brands that cost the equivalent of €600-700 with European manufacturers who cost €1 000-1 100 in Europe.
Those 150 hours that it takes for an order of a pair of bespoke shoes from Yohei Fukuda includes the entire process from the initial customer meeting with measuring and order specification, last manufacturing, production and fittings of one or two pairs of test shoes, modification of lasts, and so the final production of the finished shoes.
– Now, the time required doesn’t necessarily is decisive for the final result, and it doesn’t always take that long. But yes, if you should do something properly, it takes time, accuracy, and of course skill, Yohei Fukuda says.
Full bespoke shoes from him costs about €3 200, which in terms of production time may be considered low. He also offers Made to Order shoes starting at around €2 100 and a couple of steps with different modification possibilities in between.
A common opinion about his shoes is that they are like works of art, and when you hold them, it’s easy to understand why. They are incredibly elegant and elaborately made down to the smallest detail. It’s obvious that he is trained in England, but it’s a modern form of British shoes he does, neater, more color, more patinated leathers and so on.
Yohei Fukuda is interested in photography, and the beautiful pictures of his shoes that he puts up on his blog, Instagram and Facebook has done its part to make his shoes more famous.
– Internet and social media is a big part of why the Japanese shoe scene has gotten so much attention in recent years. Many of my clients are from various parts of the world, they would never had known about me otherwise.
Despite the fame the production is still small, the three in the workshop can’t do more than about 60 pairs a year, and Yohei Fukuda is worried that waiting times on the shoes will be too long.
– A dream I have is to have a really fine Ready to Wear collection, and have it as a base for trunk shows in Europe and the United States. It would have been an interesting challenge.