Tokyo tryst

Yo­hei Fukuda, an epony­mous Ja­panese shoe­maker, is the ma­jor­domo among the new wave of Ja­pan’s highly- skilled be­spoke shoe­mak­ers


Yo­hei Fukuda is the ma­jor­domo in a new wave of Ja­panese be­spoke shoe­mak­ers

IT TOOK A crush­ing heart­break to mould one of Ja­pan’s finest be­spoke shoe­mak­ers. Shortly af­ter com­plet­ing high school, Toyama na­tive Yo­hei Fukuda planned to move to Amer­ica with his girl­friend.

Hours be­fore their flight was to take off, she changed her mind. He was left aban­doned at the air­port.

Fresh out of high school, Fukuda had to re­think what he wanted to do next with his life. He de­cided to head to Eng­land to learn English at a lan­guage school. Af­ter get­ting there, one night he made his way to the Northamp­ton shoe mu­seum with a friend where he came across a hand­made pair of black Ox­fords made by an anony­mous shoe­maker in the 1990s. It was enough to re­duce him to tears and pro­vide one of those life-chang­ing epipha­nies. Fukuda sud­denly re­alised what he wanted to do next with his life.

He en­rolled at the Tre­sham In­sti­tute in Welling­bor­ough where he learnt the craft of mak­ing shoes.

“When I was a stu­dent at the shoe in­sti­tute, I had op­por­tu­ni­ties to work at sev­eral clas­sic shoe fac­to­ries,” says Fukuda. “I learnt be­spoke shoe­mak­ing and made two pairs of shoes by hand within six months.”

In a way, Fukuda showed promis­ing signs of be­com­ing a shoe­maker be­fore he was even a teenager.

“When I was 12-years-old, I wanted an orig­i­nal vin­tage Nike trainer, but it was very ex­pen­sive. So in­stead, I bought a pair of vin­tage Nike boxing shoes that looked sim­i­lar but were cheaper. When I put the boxing shoes on, I re­alised that I couldn’t wear them out­side of the house as the soles were de­signed only to be worn in­doors. So I went out again and found rea­son­ably priced train­ers with good rub­ber soles. I don’t re­mem­ber how I did it, but I swapped the soles in the Nike boxing pair with the ones from the train­ers that I had bought.”

The day af­ter he com­pleted his shoe­mak­ing course in Northamp­ton­shire, Fukuda headed to Lon­don to search for a job. He was of­fered one as a shoe pol­isher at John Lobb. The 22-year-old was told that in­stead of money, he would be paid in shoes. Al­though ini­tially taken aback, he couldn’t let the chance to work at one of the best shoe­mak­ers in the world pass him by. He ac­cepted and started work­ing, only to be told that he would in­deed be paid real money and the of­fer to pay him in shoes was only a test to see his de­ter­mi­na­tion to work in the shoe busi­ness. Fukuda had passed.

He spent the next few years work­ing in Lon­don along­side leg­endary shoe­mak­ers like Ni­cholas Tuczek and An­thony Clev­erly, hon­ing his skills by re­pair­ing

be­spoke shoes. By 2008, he de­cided to re­turn to his home coun­try and set up his own busi­ness in Ja­pan.

When Fukuda es­tab­lished his epony­mous shoe­mak­ing com­pany in Tokyo in 2008 he de­cided to skip the busier dis­tricts of Ginza, Shibuya and Shin­juku and in­stead set­tled on the wealthy en­clave of Aoyama. Back then he was one of only two or three be­spoke shoe­mak­ers in Tokyo. To­day, there are more than 30 be­spoke shoe com­pa­nies in the city with the other stel­lar names in the lineup be­ing Shoji Kawaguchi of Mar­quess and Hiro Yanag­i­machi.

At Fukuda’s ate­lier, there are pri­mar­ily four types of shoes made by the man him­self and his team of five as­sis­tants, all of whom are grad­u­ates of shoe col­leges from around the world. These pairs in­clude ready-to-wear (four house style Ox­fords), made-to-or­der, house style be­spoke (a com­bi­na­tion of madeto-or­der and cus­tom fit) and full be­spoke, which are the pin­na­cle of his craft and are com­pletely cus­tomis­able.

“It takes about 120 to 150 hours to make the first pair of be­spoke shoes. We make about 100 pairs of be­spoke shoes and 200 pairs of ready-to-wear ( in­clud­ing made-to­order) shoes each year.”

The wait­ing time for a be­spoke pair can be any­where be­tween six to 12 months and can even go up to 18 months now that Fukuda has be­come an es­tab­lished name. There are mul­ti­ple stages from the ini­tial ap­point­ment to another meet­ing to de­cide style, ma­te­ri­als and cus­tomi­sa­tion de­tails, the mea­sure­ments and at least one fit­ting (some­times more) be­fore the shoe is ready for de­liv­ery.

While a be­spoke pair starts at JPY400,000 ($3,600), the ready to wear are priced from JPY240,000 ($2,100).

Fukuda favours ma­te­ri­als used by tra­di­tional English shoe­mak­ers. For the bot­tom­ing – be they of Ox­fords, Der­bies or Monk Straps, among oth­ers – he uses ma­te­ri­als by Baker while for the up­per he uses leather sourced from sev­eral coun­tries. “I mostly buy leather from Europe. But as long as the qual­ity of the leather is good, I don’t mind where they come from.”

For the mo­ment, the 38-year-old Ja­panese shoe­maker has just the one per­ma­nent store in Ja­pan, and it’s al­ready at­tract­ing a fa­mous crowd. Fukuda’s clien­tele in­cludes menswear ti­tan Jeremy Hack­ett, who or­dered a pair of be­spoke two-tone apron front Derby shoes two years ago to cel­e­brate the open­ing of Mr Clas­sic’s new store in Ginza.

“I have many clients from Dubai and the Mid­dle East too. All of them come to our store in Tokyo.”

Fukuda doesn’t rule out trunk shows in other cities around the world and even­tu­ally hav­ing his own stores out­side of Tokyo and Ja­pan it­self. But he in­sists that ex­pan­sion will not come at the cost of qual­ity.

“When we have more great shoe­mak­ers, we will make more shoes. The most im­por­tant thing for us is to fo­cus on qual­ity, rather than on mak­ing more shoes. The com­pany will even­tu­ally grow in size.”

Fukuda is on Face­book and In­sta­gram and those are the pri­mary ways that many peo­ple get in touch with him. Al­ter­na­tively, stroll down the streets of Aoyama un­til you stum­ble upon the name­plate with these words writ­ten across it: “The Art of Shoe­mak­ing.” You’ll know you’ve come to the right ad­dress.

It takes about 120 to 150 hours to make the first pair of be­spoke shoes

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