Making shoes in Asia "the real way"
Singaporean banker quit his job to spend 5 years learning to make shoes 'the real way'
on 6th October, 2015, text and images by Victoria Ho, via Mashable
SINGAPORE — A bespoke shoe made in the old tradition can take two to three weeks of constant labour by an experienced shoemaker.
In Asia, where more and more products are going the way of mass manufacturing, a handmade shoe is rare and less appreciated by a people who aren't as exposed to them, says Keith Poh, a young Singaporean who just spent the last five years travelling the world trying to learn the craft. The making of leather shoes dates back to the 1600s, and remained a handicraft till the 19th century, where mechanisation gradually took over the entire construction process. Handmade shoes are expensive, too, admits Poh. It's not hard to imagine why they would be pricey, if a shoemaker can only make one or two a month. "They'd have to be at least a couple of thousand (dollars) per pair" — and even so, that's just a modest wage, he said.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, Poh left his corporate banking job five years ago while he was in his late 20s to learn how to make shoes "the real way." He started in neighbouring Marikina in the Philippines, the shoemaking district of Manila, where there is a large industry making sneakers.
Finding that he preferred learning how to make formal men's shoes, he went to Bandung in Indonesia, where there is a thriving custom shoemaking scene. Still, Poh was frustrated with the lack of access to raw materials, and how shoemakers in Bandung still relied on mass-manufactured components for their shoes. "They use a lot of synthetic products in Asia, more polymers. In Europe, they take leather in raw forms, and you learn how to treat it, to make every part of the shoe. The process is more refined. "In Asia's (shoemaking industry), wherever they can save time or cost with a machine, they would," he said.
Realising that, he made up his mind to go to Europe — first to Paris. His offer of free apprenticeship to a master shoemaker wasn't met with the welcome he expected: "He didn't want to teach me because he thought I was (from China). 'You're just going to take my skills away and you won't pass it on,' he said." So Poh stood outside the master's door for nearly a week before he relented. He worked for a year under him, making shoes in the day and waiting tables at night. His next stop in Florence, Italy, took him another year of apprenticeship before he felt ready to come back to Singapore and start dreaming up a brand.
"The tough bit here is the appreciation for the craft is not there yet. Most people wouldn't spend a couple of thousand on shoes compared with a $90 pair that's off-the-rack," he says.
That's why he's keen on the Hong Kong market for his launch next year, where he says there is an affluent base that has been more exposed to luxury products. He'll also need to start getting his own apprentices — their journey, like his, won't be a walk in the park, he warns. "Shoemaking is really intense," he says. An apprentice will start the first six to eight months of work just learning how to make an insole. Precision is king, because tiny errors in each layer of the shoe can add up to an entirely different sized shoe in the final product. Poh will also need to figure out a viable business model. For now, he works out of a free workspace provided by whisky maker Balvenie, which has a programme offering workspaces to craftsmen.
Between being the next Jimmy Choo or styling his career after one of his former European mentors, he said he'd like to be something in between. He wants to micromanage the shoemaking process and keep his workshop as authentic as possible, but recognises the need to be financially viable to continue. "Maybe I'll have to find some sort of middle ground, like automating parts of the process with apprentices but to keep everything really high quality. "I don't know. I just know I don't want to do mass market," he says.
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