The once European-dominated industry of bespoke cobbling has seen the rise of a new generation of artisans from Japan. According to Yohei Fukuda, a Tokyo-based bespoke shoemaker, there are at least 40 in Tokyo in 2017 and maybe as many as 100 in the whole of Japan. Fukuda credits the boom to Japan’s bubbling appreciation for luxury footwear in the early 2000s, which led to a rise of bespoke shoemakers openning shop to meet the nation’s demands. One such shoemaker is Noriyuki Misawa, the man behind the shoes worn by the directorial likes of Spike Lee and Park Chan Wook at this year’s Cannes Film Festival red carpet—a feat considering his competitors were Jimmy Choo and Prada.
“He [Park] was a nice person,” said Mr. Misawa, “I watched all of his movies,” he continued in Japanese. I low-keyed blurted out how obsessed I was with both the directors; Old Boy and The Handmaiden were both undoubtedly amazing.
On a Saturday morning at TAF.tc’s head office, I met up with Mr. Misawa to talk about how he stumbled into the craft. In town to conduct a workshop at the textile school, teaching other leather aficionados his technique of handmade shoes, Mr. Misawa came dressed in a striped shirt, black trousers and a navy blue chore coat. He greeted me with a courteous bow before unpacking his creations to display.
The shoemaker’s artisanal work is not your typical derbies and loafers. He does makes custom, wearable shoes, but his non-wearables are “extra” (in his own words), over-the-top and outlandish footwear that is meant to be appreciated as art.
I’ve seen them in pictures, but I was awed after examining his creations up close. Nicholas Tan, business development executive of TAF.tc, mentions that each creation carried Misawa’s signature craftsmanship: 14 bottom stitches per inch on the soles, which is double of what a standard Goodyear machine is capable of; no mean feat considering that the stitches are done on a relatively thick leather sole. The details on each shoe are impeccably stunning. Each stitch is as meticulous as it is precise, putting Goodyear-welted shoes to shame. The most valuable and most vulnerable asset to a craftsman is his hands. It’s no wonder Misawa’s hands look like they’ve been through a lot, evident from the bumps and scars all over his fingers. I quizzed him about his bandaged hand. "I was involved in a minor accident," he explained. “But it’s alright now, thankfully.”
ESQ: How did you first get involved in shoemaking?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: I became increasingly interested in shoes when I spoke to the owner of a shoe shop that I visited every day. That's how I became fascinated with shoes as a business. I spoke to the owner about my struggles with my future career, and he asked me, “Why don’t you make shoes?”. It had never occurred to me that I could make a living out of it.
I was a literature major in school, so academically, nothing really linked to the career I have now. But since young, I loved making things. I loved art, I loved creating, but somehow had forgotten about it during my years as a student. Speaking to the owner made me remember how much I loved crafts.
ESQ: How do you approach shoemaking? Has your artistic background shaped the way you make shoes? I notice that your pieces have a very maximalist European aesthetic to them, which is starkly different from the usual clean-cut Japanese aesthetic.
NORIYUKI MISAWA: When I make my artistic shoes, I start by searching for inspiration. I constantly think about what shoe to make next. When I discover new textiles or just artwork that I really like, I think about how I can incorporate that into my next piece. When I come to Singapore, I was intrigued by how the Singaporean culture uses unique patterns and colors. It’s not something I find in Japan often, thus offering me a very different design perspective.
In terms of my designs, I should start by mentioning how I am very ‘extra’ in terms of the way I do things. It’s just my character. It isn't my nature to make something simple. In my 20s, many people told me that my designs were too much and that it wasn’t good. Thus I focused on studying design from the basics to have control over my way of doing things. I realised then, that if I was able to do that, I would get more approval from the people around me, which builds up my self-confidence over time.
ESQ: Any artists, designers, or art pieces that you draw influence from?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: During the end of my 20s, I went to Vienna to study art and was inspired by the art of the Hapsburgs. I really wanted to just ‘see’ the artefacts there while studying shoes at the same time. In Vienna, I felt that I had created a concrete basis in art. That's probably why my aesthetic leans closer to a European maximalist rather than the Japanese simplistic and authentic flair.
I also look up to Gustav Klimt as an artist, especially his artwork, The Kiss. But right now I'm particularly interested in ancient Egyptian and Japanese art.
ESQ: How long does it normally take for you to completely finish working on a shoe?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: On average it takes me about 6 months to create a pair of shoes. The artistic ones can vary; some can take only about a month or two, others can take much longer like for 6 months for example. I don’t work on my artworks all day; I often do my artistic pieces after I complete my bespoke orders, and it doesn’t mean that I work every day for 6 months though.
ESQ: Directors Spike Lee and Park Chan Wook wore your shoes for this year’s Cannes Film Festival red carpet. How did that opportunity come about?
For Cannes, it all started when I held an exhibition at the InterContinental Hotel, and the person who owned the space really approved of my work. He brought me to a place where I was able to exhibit my work exclusively to the VIPs attending the festival, and that was where I first met people like Spike Lee.
ESQ: What are your favourite shoes to make?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: I enjoy making women’s shoes the most. Bespoke shoes for men have certain limitations to what I can do with them. The world of men’s bespoke prioritises technique and is focused on how 'traditional' we can make it, which I do like how challenging it is. But once I've reached a proficiency in my skill, I wanted to do more with my shoes. I enjoy making women’s shoes more because I have room to explore my artistic side, not just fixated on the detailed skills when making men’s shoes.
ESQ: Do you make heels for men then?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: Actually people do ask me to make high heel shoes for men, but they are often for events.
ESQ: What are the kinds of textiles that you like to work with?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: I like working with calfskin. It comes from a living animal which is always different depending on the animal you take it from and the part you take it from. Even with my years of experience, it is always a challenging task. Animal skin is different from other materials because it is at its worst form when it is first delivered to my workshop, compared to other materials that are already at their best state when they arrive at my studio. When I work with leather, the material gets better and better the more I work with it in the process of creating shoes. No matter how far innovations in textiles have come these days, I believe they have yet to produce a material that works its way backward in terms of quality compared to other elements.
ESQ: Having been in the business for 15 years, do you prefer teaching or making?
I like teaching better than making because I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. That is how much I like teaching. I feel like I’ve been making shoes and artworks so I can build myself a platform to teach others.
ESQ: Your work involves both classic, wearable styles, and more avant-garde, sculptural pieces. Which of the two do you enjoy doing the most and why?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: I do like creating both classic, and avant-garde style shoes. But in terms of which I feel is more important to me, I would have to choose the ones that are more unique because when I think about what separates me from other shoemakers, it's probably my own style that nobody else possesses. When I think about what kind of shoes are desired in this world right now, it is more meaningful to incorporate what people want at this moment into my shoes, in the form of my art.
Both styles are very essential in the world of shoes. If I hadn’t had the skill to make intricate bespoke shoes, I probably wouldn’t have been able to create my artistic style shoes, because I wouldn’t have the skill to be able to do that. On the other hand, if I hadn’t explored the world of artistic shoes, it will reflect on my bespoke shoemaking, where all my works will be boring and uninteresting.
I teach bespoke shoemaking because I feel that bespoke shoes aren’t the goal for shoemaking. I feel that they provide a platform for everyone to create new shoes in their own style which will open new potential doors to styles we haven’t encountered yet. That's why I'm here in Singapore.
ESQ: Have there been instances where you’ve had to kindly reject projects? Or have you always been open to taking up any design challenges?
NORIYUKI MISAWA: There have been instances where I have had to reject offers because they couldn’t give me enough time. Nevertheless, I do take most offers because I am always up for challenges and I see them as an opportunity to explore different aspects of shoes that I haven’t tried looking into before.
Interview translated by Michuru Agarie