The Last Emperor: Yohei Fukuda
There’s a distinct sense of understatement surrounding Japanese shoemaker Yohei Fukuda, who strikes The Rake as a man that likes to let his work speak for him. And speak for him it does, as our Online Editorial Assistant explains.
In eras gone by, if one was to happen upon a wonderful shoemaker hidden in a corner of Japan that few had had the fortune of discovering, that shoemaker would remain a well-kept secret; the travelling elite, the rich and famous, and those in the know would guard his name and whereabouts like precious treasure. Wearing the shoes of said artisan would become an unspoken insignia amongst them, a silent nod, a tip of the hat, but those not in step with high society would be left behind, longing for footwear as fine. As much as The Rake is a devout advocate of tradition and heritage, we’re also becoming increasingly aware that, alas, things are not as they used to be. But it’s not all bad, for if nothing had changed, you wouldn’t be reading this on our brand new website, and I might not have stumbled upon Japanese shoemaker Yohei Fukuda on the highly regarded, extremely exclusive medium that is… Instagram. With 52 million photographs uploaded to the social media platform daily, how does a bespoke shoemaker from the other side of the world stand out? For me, and no doubt thousands more, a picture of his heritage collection stopped me mid-scroll. Polished to the point of flawlessness, it was the shoe’s curious lacquered finish and rich patina that arrested me. It had the same mouth-watering effect as that of a freshly opened bottle of Scotch, the perfectly glossy surface untouched and unblemished, and turned out to be similarly moreish; I was quick to add my name to the 53k-strong list of followers. Speaking to Mr Fukuda, he is eager to point out how much social media has made a difference to his business; “Word of mouth is very effective, and it’s so important especially in the bespoke business, because bespoke is kind of hidden – it’s difficult to know what’s going on. It’s great to introduce viewers directly to what companies want to show.” Three years ago, Fukuda tells me, his client base was dramatically different – “now, more than half of my customers are foreign, and I’m glad they find my shoes through social media.”
Fukuda’s story began in Northampton (where else?) where he was moved to tears by a pair of handmade black Oxfords at the Shoe Museum, and quite literally fell head over Goodyear-welted heels for the craft. Sartorialists will understand the feeling “of goose bumps all over my body” that accompanied the pivotal moment he decided to become a shoemaker, and it’s refreshing to speak to someone whose connection with their craft is emotional, and openly so. This sensitivity also allows Yohei to establish deeper understandings of his clients, and he is unashamedly philosophical in many respects. “Shoemaking is complicated. Big people tend to like sleek shoes, and slim people tend to prefer chunky shoes to solve their complex. When older customers retire, that’s when they accept what feet they have, and I don’t have to twist the rules for them.” It’s clear Fukuda thinks differently to a lot of artisans. “I hold fast and adhere to traditional shoemaking rules, but even if shoemaking is a classical music score, and everybody has the same music in front of them, the music produced in the end is still different.” The team with which he creates his masterpieces – bottom maker Akira Ikarashi, pattern cutter Akihito Fujita and apprentice Amane Yamaguchi – are like family to Fukuda. “Skills and experience are very important for making good shoes, but I feel passion is more important; if someone doesn’t have passion, shoemaking will be a very tough job for him or her.” Yamaguchi has been at the workshop for four months, Ikarashi five years, Fujita three years, and Fukuda hopes his shoes will one day inspire another generation, just as he was inspired in Northampton. For someone whose passion runs so deep through every hand-stitch, when I ask Yohei anything about his own personal preference – towards materials, style, technique – I’m surprised that my questions are quickly batted away and his response is always the same. Put simply: “it is not about me.” Every decision and design is focused solely on the customer, the sign of a truly uncompromising craftsman. “Making customers happy is more important than my favourite leather choice. Luxury for me is something that is defined by the customer; it comes from inside-out not the outside-in. If a customer feels and looks good in their shoes, it projects outwards.” Having said that, the beauty of a Fukuda shoe is its inherent sense of identity – they are recognisable without anything so generic as mass produced branding, and their quality is incomparable. It’s no surprise that a pair of Yohei’s shoes take around 150 hours of handwork, when he himself confesses that what he aims to create isn’t just “something to consider and create now, but something that will still be natural and universal 10 or 20 years from now.” Drawing on his experience with Edward Green, George Cleverley and Ian Wood, “British craftsmanship is the foundation,” Yohei says, “it is authentic and has tradition, but Japanese craftsmen are incredibly dexterous and talented with their hands – we tend to be more focused on small details.” Yohei is self-aware and humble enough to realise that however good the details are, they are only as good as the way they come together, adding “I always try to remember to see the wood for the trees, so to speak.” www.yoheifukuda.jp