While Yohei Fukuda was learning the art of shoemaking in London in the early 2000s he applied to work at John Lobb, one of the oldest and most prestigious footwear firms in the world. He was offered a position, but was asked if he would accept payment in shoes — not money. Somewhat taken aback, Fukuda nonetheless accepted. On starting work, he was surprised to be told that he would, in the normal way, be paid after all. “It was a test,” he says now, explaining that he thinks it may have been a way of gauging his dedication to the sacred art of shoemaking. If it was, he clearly passed.
Fukuda is now one of the most highly regarded of the new wave of bespoke shoemakers in Tokyo. And he’s on an impressive list — estimated to number between 35 and 40, it includes the world-renowned Shoji Kawaguchi of Marquess and Hiro Yanagimachi. The astonishing number of bespoke shoemakers easily tops that of similar establishments to be found in London, Paris, Florence and Milan, and it may even surpass the figure for the whole of Europe combined. The wave is still gathering strength — “Every month there is someone new,” says Fukuda. But it’s not just quantity that the capital is becoming known for. Tokyo’s shoemakers are fast acquiring a global reputation for excellence, superior service and relative affordability.
Fukuda’s office and workshop are located on a busy little street in upscale Gaienmae, in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. All but the sharpest of eyes will miss his discrete nameplate, which simply states “The Art of Shoemaking.” The only other clue to the rarified activity that takes place within is what at first glance looks like a row of dead pigeons, hung up in the window after a day’s shoot. These turn out to be lasts (wooden molds on which bespoke shoes are shaped) dangling from shower-curtain hooks in his workroom.
The shoes to be found inside are as different from everyday footwear as a Michelin-starred meal is from a Yoshinoya beef bowl. In the reception, a long wooden shelf displays a selection of shoes from his Heritage and Classic collections, including Oxfords, Derbies and Monk Straps, in a rainbow of muted colors, bringing to mind an extended sushi board. They are sublimely beautiful —simple but elegant, cool but also classy — an amalgam of art and craft that makes you seriously wonder: If these are shoes, what have I been wearing all my life?
Fukuda took a circuitous route to shoemaking. He had planned to move to the United States with a girlfriend, but was left abandoned at the airport when she changed her mind at the last moment. But if his heart was broken, his determination to experience life abroad remained intact, and on a whim he decided to try his luck in England instead. Having a somewhat Downton Abbey-ish impression of English life, he packed his best suits and shoes, and set off.
He experienced the usual immigrant complications: food and language problems; not one, but two burglaries; and an eccentric host family that didn’t feed him, or replace light bulbs, forcing him to bathe by candlelight. But despite the challenges, he found the argumentative, spontaneous nature of the people stimulating, and felt strengthened by the difficulties — “It’s important to survive,” he says. And through it all he discovered that, for all their idiosyncrasies — or perhaps somehow because of them — the English really did make wonderful shoes.
His suits remained unworn, but his good brogues proved ideal for striding around his new haunts, the boutiques of Savile Row and Jermyn Street, where he became acquainted with the works of the very best shoemakers in the world. A key moment on his journey was at the Northampton Shoe Museum, where on the first of over 100 visits he experienced an epiphany at the exquisite beauty of a century-old pair of handmade black Oxfords — maker unknown.
Inspired, he enrolled on a shoemaking course at the Tresham institute in Northamptonshire (since closed) and was then apprenticed to the maker Ian Wood, before honing his skills at John Lobb and George Cleverly. He set up his own shop in Japan in 2006, a pioneer of sorts as there were only three or four other bespoke shoemakers active at that time. Since then, Fukuda has witnessed a veritable boom. So why Tokyo? And why now?
Fukuda believes the traditional Japanese approach to craft — keeping things small and working for the satisfaction of producing a superb product, rather than the maximization of profit — blends perfectly with the philosophy of bespoke footwear. The first-rate Saruwaka footwear college in Asakusa provides a flow of new recruits, and there is a ready supply of quality materials from dealers in Tokyo happy to accept small orders from boutique outfits. “In England you need to be a large established firm to justify an order,” he explains.
As to why all this is taking off now, Fukuda credits the internet as the decisive factor. “In around 2000, everyone got their own PC, and everyone shared information and customers,” he recalls. Later, Instagram in particular was key to his own success. And then there are the bloggers. When English style guru Simon Crompton of the influential menswear blog permanentstyle recently visited, he gave Fukuda a glowing review, and commented that he would, if he had the time, “jump at the chance” of commissioning a pair — an endorsement that helped raise Fukuda’s profile.
The avowedly small-scale nature of Tokyo’s master shoemakers, however, means only a limited number of commissions can be accepted. Fukuda takes seven a month, and has no desire to expand. This results in very long waiting times, with a year to 18 months being not uncommon, but also guarantees a personalized service and meticulous attention to detail. “It’s the simplest things that are the most difficult,” he says, explaining that it takes 120-130 hours to make a pair of shoes, but they could outlast 20 inferior pairs.
Such dedicated skill and craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap. Bespoke anything is not for the faint of wallet, so don’t expect much change from ¥350,000 for a pair of Fukuda’s shoes. This, however, compares positively with those of the London makers, which can easily reach ¥500,000, and very positively indeed with John Lobb Paris, which can cost up to 1 million.
As Coco Chanel once said: “The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.”