Similar to many Japanese expatriates, Masaru Okuyama came to Hong Kong in the late 90s under the expectation of a temporary dalliance. Just like many others who’ve fallen under the city’s spell – a heady concoction of business opportunity, mixed with eclectic urban culture – he ended up staying much longer than anticipated. Originally intending to return to Japan within three years, Okuyama threw caution to the wind shortly thereafter, sacrificing a salaried existence to open his own bespoke shoemaking workshop. 12 years on, his business remains – a living rebuke to the notion that you must be Huawei or Apple-big to thrive in this economy.
Okuyama crafting a shoe in his Hong Kong workshop.
Undoubtedly, the decision to set his business amidst one of the world’s busiest shipping and aviation hubs has helped Okuyama reach an audience of international scope; though one imagines he’d eventually attract a similarly discerning clientele anywhere else he might choose to roam. Described by men’s clothing writer, Simon Crompton, as “[tending] to a finely made slim shoe on an elongated last”, each commission from Okuyama – made mostly by hand, start-to-finish in Hong Kong – is a study in understatement. That is a lesson likely learned at Nihon University, where Okuyama was formally inducted into the world of traditional craftsmanship under the tutelage of Chihiro Yamaguchi – part of the first wave of Japanese shoemakers to graduate in Britain.
On what passes for a crisp winter morning in Hong Kong, we stop by Okuyama’s workshop – a modestly appointed space in the easterly district of Wanchai – for a chat. At uncharacteristic length, the revered bespoke shoemaker tells us about his predilection for simplicity; the ideal ‘two-shoe collection’; that time he made a pair of sneakers; and in an uplifting twist, why the pandemic doesn’t have him worried.
As usual, let’s go right back to the beginning: what set you on the path to becoming a professional shoemaker? Were you always passionate about classic men’s footwear?
I’d say so. I was a shoe lover before I ever began learning about the product formally. Prior to that, I’d been working in the jewellery industry...
Making use of old tools and techniques.
And that’s how you came to be based in Hong Kong?
Yes – for a niche Japanese brand called 4°C. At the time, we had four boutiques interspersed throughout Kowloon and Hong Kong island. [Pauses] Sadly I think they’re all closed now! I’d been sent to Hong Kong to advise on production control at our Mainland Chinese factories and it was around the same time my passion for classic men’s footwear was maturing: buying; polishing; leaning about it through magazines, et cetera.
Then, there came a moment (around the time I turned 30) that I realised I was profoundly unhappy. Hopefully, that’s because of all the soul-searching you do as you get older [laughs]. So, I remember asking what aspect of life I did find enjoyable, and almost immediately the answer had something to do with shoes. Above all else, I knew that if I were to pivot into the men’s footwear industry, the only meaningful way to do so would be with an original point of view. Ultimately, that meant crafting shoes by my own hand.
I’m assuming it was around this point that you decided to return to Japan, to pursue a formal education, as it were?
Yes. In Tokyo.
I think, among those familiar with the prominent names in bespoke Japanese shoemaking, that makes you somewhat unique. Guys like Koji Suzuki and Hidetaka Fukuya (to name a few) made it a point to travel to Europe to learn the craft of bespoke. Do you ever regret the decision to remain largely in Japan during your training?
Actually, at the very beginning I was quite keen on finding an apprenticeship in Europe. After completing my initial training in Japan, I travelled all throughout France and Italy, visiting numerous shoemakers in both countries – but the result wasn’t particularly good…
Adding the finishing touches.
In what sense?
I wasn’t very welcome. During that trip I must have visited around 10-15 ateliers, roundly being rejected at each one. Thankfully, on my final stop in Milan I had the good fortune to meet Riccardo Bestetti (who sadly passed away several years ago). I remember being so delighted when he told me how surprised he was by the quality of my shoes (I’d brought a range of samples)...
Pleasantly surprised, we hope [laughs].
Yes, yes [laughs]. He questioned me at great length about those samples: everything from the ‘last’ to making the uppers and how I attached the welts. I think it became apparent to him fairly quickly, based on my answers, that I was capable of crafting a whole shoe from start to finish. Then and there, Bestetti’s advice was surprisingly blunt. He said, “if you come to Europe and work for a local shoemaker, you mightn’t be able to hone your skill further. Because they’ll put you to work on a single process”.
Something simple and repetitive, we gather?
[Nods] I’d probably be stuck making shoe trees or carving lasts, rather than learning how to build a complete product. Ultimately, I think what Bestetti taught me was that I shouldn’t waste time: he encouraged me to forge my own path. As soon as I returned to Japan I began making shoes (for little to no profit, mind you) for people around me – friends, relatives, basically anybody curious enough.
Okuyama sat at his workbench in Hong Kong.
What was the biggest advantage of those early commissions?
Experience. I was constantly refining the product and discovering my style.
Let’s break off from the professional side of things to talk a little bit more about shoes as a passion. A mutual friend of ours once mentioned that you have a longstanding fondness for John Lobb...
Right [laughs]. Would you describe them as your favourite shoemaker? And does Lobb exert any stylistic influence over the kind of bespoke you’re making today?
Lobb has definitely always been one of my favourite shoemakers, but the style I like most nowadays tends to be a blend of English and French influences. There is a certain elegance you get with the French shoemakers (even ready-to-wear) which is hard for outsiders of the culture to replicate.
And the British influence? Which aspect of that heritage do you find to be the most desirable?
Hmmm, I want to be careful about how I describe it [laughs]. I think when you pick up a good benchmade English shoe, there’s a sense of tradition that you can feel – almost stoic. The designs tend to be very basic but, as a consequence, they feel timeless.
So the Okuyama ‘house style’ is a blend of English and French heritage?
I’d say that I’m always trying to make something in-between.
Putting the finishing touch on a customer’s last.
Let’s dwell on that for a moment. Whenever you have clients who are unfamiliar with the tradition of bespoke shoemaking (much less in Japan specifically) how do you describe what you’re making to them? Let’s assume for a moment they’re completely new to the subject.
Simplicity is an integral characteristic. I tend towards a subtler aesthetic – what certain people might go so far as to describe as plain. The reason for that is because in bespoke shoemaking, the ‘last’ (i.e. the shoe’s shape) is the most important aspect of the product, it’s unique to every single client. So, I keep the details as simple as possible because I don’t want to interrupt the actual shape of the client’s shoe. People say this all the time, but I suppose it’s a very Japanese attitude: to express something in its truest form, without too much decoration or unnecessary embellishment.
For you, is it the case that visually intricate decorations like broguing can often interfere or worse yet obscure all the work you’ve done on the last?
Yes, absolutely. At the same time however, that doesn’t mean I only want to make wholecut Chelsea boots for the rest of my life [laughs]. I’m always excited by the prospect of creating something that everybody else has overlooked. But when you’re working within such a – how should I say? – traditional prism, you can’t simply be novel for novelty’s sake. Whether it’s a shape, design or colour combination it all has to feel refreshing while also respecting what has come before.
A small selection of styles that Okuyama is capable of.
We’re sitting in your atelier this afternoon. Aside from the fact that it’s a very active, lived-in workspace the other intriguing detail is the location – right in the middle of Hong Kong island. It’s an interesting base of operations, and an undeniable change of pace from locales like London or Tokyo. Tell us why you decided to set up shop here in Wanchai (and Hong Kong in general).
It all harks back to the time I initially spent here with 4°C. What I really appreciated was the working style in Hong Kong, which is entirely different from what I’d experienced in Japan...
How would you describe that “working style” to readers who aren’t necessarily familiar with the culture?
I mean, in Hong Kong there are just so many small business owners – a lot of people are in business for themselves, at a variety of different scales.
“I think when you pick up a good benchmade English shoe, there’s a sense of tradition that you can feel – almost stoic…”
There’s definitely a palpable sense of entrepreneurship...
Right. And that’s something I became increasingly aware of when I was meeting lots of business owners during my first three years – I actually aspired to be like them. For Japanese men my age, the typical trajectory was to graduate from university and then enter the workforce as an...
Yes. In all likelihood, you’d be at the same company until you retired.
We can understand if that certainly wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea...
Myself included. The first several years I spent living in Hong Kong expanded my mind completely. The culture here motivated me to take a chance on something I truly loved, and transform that into my living.
Right. And more particularly, you set up shop in Wanchai because...
Well, for one thing, it strikes the right balance between location and price.
Okuyama overlooking his neighbourhood of Wanchai.
Naturally, a persistent headache for anyone operating a retail business in Hong Kong. Still, a really great location if you’re an intrepid eater [laughs].
Right – it’s a very eclectic neighbourhood. I like the atmosphere in Wanchai because it’s a healthy compromise between the chaos of Causeway Bay and somewhere more polished like Admiralty. Everywhere you look you’re liable to find old and authentic sites, but around the corner there will be cafés and design stores – even a really good, Ginza-style cocktail bar. I think that’s very evocative of the Hong Kong ‘brand’: a little bit of everything.
As in tailoring, there’s often an expectation amongst the public that bespoke footwear offers a perfect fit on the first go, when the reality is that many of the refinements appear with time and repeated patronage. In your experience, what is the true underlying value of having shoes made bespoke?
So, of course, whenever a bespoke shoemaker takes on a new client the goal is to come as close as possible to crafting something ‘perfect’. At the same time, you acknowledge the reality that there will inevitably be some aspect of the shoe capable of improvement – either immediately or upon making a subsequent pair. Invariably, throughout this process of refinement, a client’s idea of their ‘dream’ shoe will change and grow. That’s one aspect of bespoke I always emphasise to newcomers: that the process is as important as the finished product, because it’s a kind of dialogue with the shoemaker which helps to hone your own taste.
The early stages of a unique commission.
Any memorable examples of that which come to mind?
The typical aversion among newer clients will be towards creasing: the idea that a ‘perfect’ shoe will never develop creases. But of course, that’s impossible. When walking, leather is going to bend -- particularly around jointed areas like the in-step or forefoot. So, I spend a lot of time explaining to clients that having a crease is not a sign of imperfection…
“People say this all the time, but I suppose it’s a very Japanese attitude: to express something in its truest form, without too much decoration or unnecessary embellishment…”
Rather, it’s a natural part of the process?
Of course. Then conversely, I’m conscious to elaborate on aspects of fit which a layperson mightn’t necessarily be aware of – such as the insole. How that section of the shoe fits is extremely important, but because it’s at the bottom (hidden away from external view) it’s often overlooked.
Interesting. Do you think that’s an aspect of fit most shoemakers (especially ready-to-wear) have not been able to adequately address?
I’d say so. Then again, it’s all but impossible to, every single person’s feet are shaped differently and in the case of most ready-to-wear brands they’re making just one standardised size that has to account for all of that.
We’re already starting to touch on it with the topic of insoles, but what are some of the other small, seemingly trivial issues of fit that you can adjust for when clients opt to go bespoke?
I don’t necessarily know that I’d call this “trivial”, but with bespoke one of the big advantages is how you’re able to smooth out the less pleasing features of an odd foot shape and then enhance what is beautiful. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but having given some years’ thought to the matter, not everyone has naturally shapely feet.
Okuyama has kept true to the traditional techniques in bespoke shoemaking.
[Laughs] To be controversial for a moment, have you ever turned away a client because of how difficult it was to fit their feet?
Oh, that’s a very extreme case! In the past I’ve only had one or two individuals who I’ve had to refuse because they had orthopaedic issues which were of a medical grade. But generally, it’s about recognising certain systematic issues.
Well, take my East Asian clients for example. Generally, men in Japan, China and Korea have feet that are wide, flat and then with either a very low or high instep – those qualities don’t make for a great looking last. But by the time the final product is completed, we’re able to achieve a kind of – how do I put this? – harmony between look and feel. Of course, if the client is able to move very comfortably, then that also adds to the elegance of the shoe.
Watch writers are always going on about the ultimate two-watch collection. If we were to explore that notion in the realm of bespoke footwear, is there an equivalent ‘two-shoe’ rotation?
If I were to pick something from my own collection, then simplicity would be the underlying factor. So, a very very restrained one-piece Oxford; and then a single monk-strap.
The Oxford is really well-suited to playing the role of a formal shoe – in the right shape you can even wear it with something like a tuxedo. Then the single-monk (while certainly still dressy) can be worn with a range of casualwear – I personally like chinos or wool gabardine trousers...
[Nods] even denim.
A couple tools of the trade.
What sort of material would you advise these to be made in? Historically, in bespoke shoemaking there’s a lot of discussion about the paramount importance of fit, but what about the kind of leather? The texture and colour imparted by Cordovan is going to be wildly different from say, box calf...
For me, the only hard and fast rule is that the recommended material be extremely durable. Remember, the goal of bespoke is to create a shoe that will (hopefully) last a lifetime.
In the example you just mentioned, I’d probably advise the client to make his Oxfords in calf leather – my favourites always come from the French tanneries – and for the single monk, something a tiny bit trendier. Like suede.
“With bespoke one of the big advantages is how you’re able to smooth out the less pleasing features of an odd foot shape and then enhance what is beautiful…”
Another style question for you: conventional wisdom suggests men should always try to pair dress shoes with a watch strap in matching shades and textures of leather. What are your thoughts on that?
[Laughs] I think that is a sort of ‘ultimate’ rule, no?
Right. But personally, do you find it useful?
I’d say so. That’s because leather is a material that’s best used to express your ‘seriousness’ – attention to very small details. Similarly, when it comes to classic menswear (the origin for this ‘matching shoes & strap’ rule) I think it’s best to let the accessories express their own personality, the kind that only emerges with age and wear. For ‘fun’, you can always add something like a tie or pocket square.
Tell us about your favourite style of shoe to wear versus your favourite type of shoe to make. Are they, in fact, the same?
Not at all, thankfully [laughs]. I always enjoy making the more formal styles: something like an Oxford, for instance. For somebody who knows footwear, they’re a strong illustration of the main differences between a factory-made and artisanal product.
Quiet corners in Okuyama’s workshop.
Right. But they’re not necessarily your favourite thing to wear...
Well, recently I’ve been wearing a lot of Norwegian-style loafers – what clients often refer to as “slippers”. They’re ideal because they’re very relaxed, great at the weekend and in most settings in Hong Kong can even be worn outdoors.
Do you make these yourself?
Surprisingly no! For this sort of thing, I like Baudoin & Lange.
[Nodding] of course. Since we’re already on the subject of casual footwear: do you have any interest in making sneakers?
Certainly! Why wouldn’t I? In fact, previously I have made a pair of fully bespoke sneakers for one of my regular clients.
Some of the more formal styles that Okuyama creates.
Intriguing. Tell us more: the process must be quite different from traditional leather shoemaking...
Actually, the construction was done with as many traditional bespoke techniques as possible: we hand-sewed the uppers, manually attached the welt...
A hand-welted sneaker?
[Nods]. If anything, most of our experiments were on the material front. If I recall correctly, we used seal skin for the uppers; added cushioning to the internal walls (just like you would with a commercial sneaker); and then added a crepe sole.
It required a completely different headspace to when you’re making a classic dress shoe. In the latter, there’s always a certain tension to the design – you can’t make the shape look too relaxed, if you take my meaning. Otherwise you lose some of the elegance.
I see. One last question before we wrap up, and I must admit – it’s a derivative one [laughs]. In light of how the wider fashion industry has been evolving in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, do you worry that independent craft-focused businesses might lose their relevance?
Honestly? Not really [laughs]. In comparison to a multi-brand e-commerce or whatever, what we’re doing is really very small – so there’s no need to maintain a massive inventory or large space.
Okuyama in his showroom, in bespoke suiting by his friends at Il Negozio.
Right. Your fixed costs are more manageable.
Very, actually. And then, speaking idealistically, I believe there shall always be a desire and need for traditional craft. So long as I make enough to feed my family, the bigger question is whether I still feel happiness every day that I make shoes.
Based on what we’ve seen here today, I’d say the answer is pretty clear.
Masaru Okuyama currently offers two tiers of custom-made shoes: bespoke and made-to-order (MTO). Bespoke commissions commence at HK$38,000 (including individually lasted shoe trees) and require a 10-month turnaround. MTO shoes, which are based on a preexisting ready-to-wear last, start at HK$17,000 and will be delivered within four months. To learn more, visit Masaru Okuyama online.
Our gratitude to Masaru-san for taking the time to articulate the finer points of bespoke shoemaking. We would also like to credit Hong Kong-based photographer Stephanie Teng, who contributed the images you see throughout this story.