Japanese master shoemaker takes English art and makes it his own

Master craftsman challenges Japanese norms with micro-stitched, English-style shoemaking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 10:04am

Chihiro Yamaguchi, founder of luxury Japanese shoe label Guild of Crafts, is busy hand-stitching his next creation. He pauses for a moment, holding up his left hand to reveal a calloused and hardened thumb, the product of decades of making shoes the traditional English way - albeit with a Japanese twist.

With up to a six-month wait for a pair, Guild of Crafts shoes have gained an almost cult-like following and not only for their curious blend of East and West, evidenced, for example, in the way bamboo is used.

"There's not much difference between my shoes and English shoes. But my character, the Asian character, comes through," says the 53-year-old.

"Asian people care very much about small things, tiny things. So I've tried to make the stitching tiny, for example," he says, showing a shoe with incredible micro-stitching.

The Japanese master shoemaker visited Hong Kong recently to promote his work at the Independence Gallery in the Pedder Building, where he recounted his journey to becoming a master of English shoemaking.

"I came from a country where shoes were made by machines," says the craftsman, who first worked in a tyre factory that also made sneakers. "I realised that every piece of shoemaking could still be done by hand. So I decided to study shoemaking from the beginning, but there was no school in Japan."

There's not much difference between my shoes and English shoes. But my character, the Asian character, comes through
Chihiro Yamaguchi

Yamaguchi's thirst for knowledge led him, in the 1980s, to England's prestigious Cordwainers Technical College (now part of the London College of Fashion), which also trained Jimmy Choo and Patrick Cox.

The young Yamaguchi proved a natural. His talent was recognised early and earned him a sought-after apprenticeship. "I won a design competition at college and the prize was working with Tricker's at their factory in Northampton.

"After Tricker's, I went to work for a shoemaker in Pisa, Italy, called Cloud. I tried to gain any experience that would help me with shoemaking.

"I am a man with many masters, and these were real intense apprenticeships. Just shoes, nothing else."

In 1991, Yamaguchi was elected a member of the "Guild of Master Craftsmen", an honour bestowed upon a select few shoemakers.

Heading back home, Yamaguchi set up shop in Tokyo, but business was very slow, as he clashed with the culture of shoe-buying in Japan and struggled with the fact that his brand was unknown - and expensive. At the time, he charged 300,000 yen (HK$23,400 today) for a pair.

"Becoming a shoemaker is almost impossible, as you have no customers to start with. And in Japan 25 years ago, there was no market for such expensive shoes," he says.

He supported himself by freelancing for brands like Dr Martens and Fubu, and teaching shoemaking at a college he established. Then his luck changed when he was introduced by friends to a journalist, who gave him glowing reviews. "He wrote about me and he still has the shoes I made for him. He is still my customer," Yamaguchi says.

Producing more than 300 pairs a year, Guild of Crafts now has no problem finding a devoted clientele. "I have one shop now, in Ginza. That is enough," says Yamaguchi.

Still, he has ambitions that might bring his career full circle: "My dream is to have a shop in Europe, maybe in Paris. Or London, of course."