In Osaka, Japan, Akiyoshi Nishiyama of Ann Bespoke has created a footwear brand with a distinctly unique personal character – without having his own house style, at least according to himself. Shoes I’ve admired for many years. A few weeks ago I finally got to see them in person, and have a conversation with the man behind them.
Crisp clean finishing. Aniline dyed box calf and various embossed and natural grain leathers. Focus on semi formal to casual make-ups. Well-balanced lasts. Four sentences that describes the shoes of Ann Bespoke. Might not sound too special one by one, but put them all together in the same way as Akiyoshi Nishiyama do and something special is what you get. It’s not shoes that scream at you, they more lure you in and you have a hard time to look away.
One floor up in a rather anonymous building close to Shin-Osaka Station, 39 years old Akiyoshi Nishiyama, or Aki as he is called, has his combined showroom and workshop. Next year the brand celebrates its 10 year anniversary. As often is the case though, it wasn’t a given that Aki would become a shoemaker. His interest was more in fashion, and when he was 20 he went to fashion business school to pursue a career within that territory.
As a hobby, he made some leather accessories on his spare time, and realised that time went faster when he worked with his hands.
– Since I also had a shoe interest, I started to look into how shoes were made and got my eyes open for this area, Aki says.
So, when he had finished fashion business school he started working for the Osaka based shoe company Bamkifu. He made some lastmaking but mainly bottoming, done with machines.
One of his colleagues at that time nowadays go by the name Yuriko Kawaguchi, she’s married to Shoji Kawaguchi, and together they run the bespoke company Marquess Shoemaker. Yuriko had been to England and worked within the shoemaking scene there, and Aki was highly inspired by her stories. He also wanted to go abroad and learn to make shoes by hand. Yuriko helped him send letters to makers in Italy, France and England, and he got an invitation to come and work for George Cleverley.
– After just a few weeks I was off to London. But I wasn’t skilled enough, both them and I realised, so it didn’t work out, says Aki.
So instead, he ended up at the lesser known London bespoke shoemaker Jason Amesbury, where he got to try out a bit of everything. Now it was no doubt it was a shoemaker he wanted to be. After six months in London in 2009 he needed to go back to Japan to do a proper visa application. It got declined the first round so he spent a bit over a year in Osaka again. He worked at a vintage clothing store, where he became close friends with his co-worker Akira Tani. Those who read my article about Akira already know this story from his point of view, how Akiyoshi Nishiyama was the one who inspired him to get into shoemaking, and how they worked together making shoes during this year. Akira then went to Florence, ended up working for Stefano Bemer, until he started his own brand in the Italian city a couple of years ago.
For Akiyoshi, he was back in London and Jason Amesbury again in 2011 and continued to learn the various skills in shoemaking, this time with focus on lastmaking. To make money, he also did outwork for Foster & Son and John Lobb, mainly repairs but after some time also new shoes.
– After two years in London I was due to go back to Japan. The intention here was to start a brand together with Akira, but he had settled in Florence and wanted to stay there.
So instead, along with mixing outwork for the British brands he set up his own: Ann Bespoke.
Launched in 2013, it got its name from his calligraphy teacher Ann. Sort of like the floating technique of calligraphy, he approached shoemaking with Ann. When I ask Aki to describe the style of Ann, he sits silent for a minute, and then says:
– I don’t think I have a house style. I guess my base is from English shoemaking, but for example I don’t have a master last or anything like that, and I don’t think about my making that way.
For someone looking at his shoes from the outside, the four sentences in the beginning is a good description, I think. The fact that he buys a lot of the leathers together with Akira Tani, that they have worked together at one time, and that they still exchange a lot of ideas between each other, makes you see a lot of resemblances between their shoes. They have the same laid back, classic yet relaxed styling, but while Akira Tani has his base in the traditional Italian design, Ann Bespoke has its in British style. The two friends still see each other every time Akira Tani is in Japan for trunk shows, and Akiyoshi has visited in Florence. So even if the mutual brand never happened, they are still close and their shoemaking journeys follow each other.
It’s not just me who appreciate the shoes of Ann. Relatively quickly the brand found a solid customer base, and before Covid he had a customer base consisting of half domestic customers, half international, and half of them were businessmen, half of them entrepreneurs, to do a quick generalisation. He used to go to Singapore and Hong Kong twice a year, which he intends to restart now when things are opening up again.
He use an upper maker in Nara, a city close to Osaka, but apart from that he makes everything himself. It means production is small, between 20-30 pairs per year.
– I’m not a quick worker, only the bottoming takes maybe 50-60 hours, but I can’t seem to speed up much more. And it’s fine, I’m pleased with how business is going. It was down during the pandemic of course, but now back to sort of normal again, even if I currently have a larger amount of Japanese customers.
Prices start at €2,500 / $2,500 (363 000 yen) including lasted shoe trees, waiting time is 12-14 months.
– I’ve been thinking about getting some MTO models in place, with some more outwork used for them. We’ll see if I can get that into place.