An increasing number of shoemakers form Asia prove to be real talented artisans. I noticed most of them are located in Japan and some in Southern China and they both learned skill of bespoke shoemakeing very well. How did you learn to make shoes?
Actually I’m Japanese based in Hong Kong and also I learned shoe making in Japan. I was born in 1976, graduated from Nihon (Japan) University College of Art. Before I started learning shoe making, I was working in a Japanese jewelry brand which sent me to Hong Kong for 3 years. After moving back to Japan I started to wonder what the real meaning of life is…Working in that company wasn’t bad at all, it was a listed company, salary was OK nice colleagues, good working environment in the center of Tokyo… But I couldn’t have a feeling of living my own life. I was pretty sure that if I stayed in that company until I retire, life would be very stable and not bad but I would end up my life with the question “Did I really live a life that I can call my own?”
So I wanted to try something I truly love and live with it. The only answer I had was “shoes”. I decided to quit the job…. But I didn’t know how to start with shoes…..find a job in at shoe maker? Study shoe design? Import European shoes with a bit of trading knowledge that I learned in Hong Kong? Finally I told my self, if I have to start “shoes”, why not start it from absolutely the original point….making them by my own hands. And I knocked at the door of a shoe making school in Tokyo. I was 29.
I spent 2 years in that school, it was a fantastic days which allowed me to think about shoes 24 hours a day 365 days per year. Those days were probably the most intense days of my life.
After graduating that school, I wanted to have some working experience in France. Because I thought it is kind of prerequisite to have an experience in Europe to be successful as a shoe maker in Japan. What people ask when they meet crafts man is, “ where did you learn?” if the answer is Europe. It sounds perfect…. So I went to Paris to find a job.
I visited most of the shoe maison in Pairs – John Lobb, Corthay, Massaro, Dimitri Gomez, Berluti, Aubercy…….but all the answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But on the other hand, towards the end of the trip I started feeling kind of doubt whether it is really a right thing to stay here to make the shoes I want? Aren’t I just trying to make my story as a shoemaker sounds nicer?
There was one person left to meet, my friend in Italy did me a favor to arrange a meeting with one shoe maker in Milan when I talked about my plan to visit Paris.
I went to Milan from Paris by night train. And I met Ricardo Bestetti. He let me know what I was thinking at that time was right. After seeing my samples, he told me “ You shouldn’t come to Europe” since you learned shoes making from 1 to 10 in a school, you can make a pair of shoes by yourself from measurement and last making until polishing. If you come to Europe and stay for years… you will lose something. What you can do in Europe might be only shoe tree making or polishing… not all the process. What you have to do now is slowly improve all the things you know from pair after pair. You should start making for somebody close, family, friends, relatives….I went back to Japan with a clear mind.
I started making shoes for my family and their friends for little money in my homes garage. In this period I learned the difficulty of satisfying each person’s requirement.
After 1 year, I got married and my wife was from Hong Kong. Our original plan before marriage was to live in Japan together… but just before our wedding I came up with a new challenging idea to move to Hong Kong and to start there a bespoke shoe work shop.
I knew many Japanese shoe makers who learned oversea and choose either to come back to Japan to start their business or to stay in where they learned and start their business there. But I had never heard of someone who starts bespoke shoe business in the third country. So I thought it would be a very interesting challenge. I decided to move to Hong Kong.
I started making shoes in my apartment’s balcony. That was the hardest period of my bespoke career until I got the first order. After that more orders came all by reference. Slowly my name began to be known. I opened my own work shop in 2010. Now I am working with 2 apprentices.
You are located in a very interesting and cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong, with both English and Asian influences. How did this influence your shoe design?
In fact, the location doesn’t influence my shoe design. Hong Kong is a very interesting city. It is a very small place with only 7 million populations. But there are every year 40 million tourist and frequent business travelers from all around the world. It’s a very stateless city. I can have many different influences which are not from Hong Kong. You may call it the influence of Hong Kong.
How does is born a pair of Okuyama?
Now I’m only making full bespoke shoes.
The process goes, measurement → last making → fitting → adjustment (fitting and adjustment may need 2, 3 times) → making → delivery. I mainly use French calf, British suede for the upper part and German (JR) bends or English (Baker) bends for soles. I have only 2 machines in my work shop, skiving machine and sewing machine.
In your opinion what part of the process you think is the most rewarding, in terms of satisfaction?
Since I’m making bespoke shoes, the most important element of my shoes is the comfortableness. But each customer has different requirement for the comfortableness of their shoes. Some may needs a simply good fitting, but some may need good looking shoes sacrificing even the good fitting. Finding out each client’s requirement for the fitting is the essential factor of satisfaction.
Can you describe the most unique shoe that a client has ever ordered for bespoke?
There is one very good client of mine. He has ordered a couple of bespoke shoes so far. He always requires the strangest pairs. I enjoy his orders; it gives me the possibility of new discoveries every time.
What are the preferences of Hong Kong Gentlemen and how would you describe in three worlds your style? Are there any shoe particularities preferred in this region?
Hong Kong has very long rainy summer, so some clients prefer rubber soles. And as in most of the Asian county they take off their shoes inside, so people prefer shoes without laces. But of course bespoke shoe lovers are classic lovers, so many of them go for leather sole and lace shoes.
In terms of shoe style I admire French elegance and British simplicity and dignity. I’m trying to point these 3 elements in my shoes.: elegance, simplicity, dignity.
I have noticed that you have presented your shoes at Aubercy. Can you tell me more about this event? It is a partnership?
I’ve known Xavier Aubercy for about 5 year. At this event he invited me to present my shoes in his shop the main idea being to present talents from out side of France.
What goals did you set for yourself and couldn’t reach until this moment?
I want to travel around the world doing trunk show. I would like to meet more clients with different requirements and later I would like to have a more simply custom made line. And finally ready to wear line.
Now being a new born star of shoemaking what are your ambitions?
I want to have my boutiques worldwide without stopping making shoes with my own hands.
Thank you Mr. Okuyama and I wish you all the best in shoemaking!
Photos courtesy of Mr. Masaru Okuyama.