Noritaka Tatehana probably won't be an unfamiliar name to you, unless you have escaped the clutch of pop culture. This might look like I'm coming too late to the praise of Tatehana given that since Lady Gaga has acquired no less than eighteen pairs of his shoes, his name has probably popped up in the blogosphere more than most Japanese fashion designers. Despite my awareness of Tatehana's work, I didn't want to contribute yet-another-post that just marvelled at the freakish quality of the shoes. Instead, I waited to meet the man himself in Tokyo on this trip to come away with a Tatehana experience, that goes beyond just pointing out his famous clientale and the fact that he's only 26.
For a start, however 'cray cray' his heeless phantom shoes might seem, they are heavily rooted in Tatehana's degree of learning Japanese dyeing and weaving techniques and in fact, he first began crafting wooden clogs aged 15. It's actually quite scary to read his 1985 birth year in his bio. It's easy to see the foundations of his present work in these archive 'pokkuri' and geisha 'geta' platform shoes which he made at university, where strict Japanese classicism is abound. It's even more interesting to see how extreme we regard his current work, which contrasts so heavily with the traditions that Tatehana strongly abides by. The complete handcrafted process of his shoes just can't be over emphasised. When you consider the process of carving out the shoe heel (often made of wood and hollowed out), testing out the angle, securing the balance of the shoe and then hand dying the embossed leather to get the desired effect or fixing on the crystals), it's no wonder that each pair takes three months to make. In total, Tatehana has made around sixty pairs of shoes ever, which isn't that many by a well-known shoe designer's standards but considering the artisanal process of Tatehana (who only has two assistants), you end up wanting to give him a giant bear hug to say "Bloody hell…. better you than me….!"
It is these embossed leathers which retain the strongest link to those traditional Japanese clogs that Tatehana made. Interestingly, his family come from a background of working in the red-light/entertainment district in Tokyo called Kabuki-cho, which might go some way to explaining Tatehana's vision of women's feet as "beautifully tortured". Tatehana is well aware that he isn't the first male in the world to restrict a woman's footsteps – from China's tradition of binding the feet and the heavy Japanese geta sandals causing women to take babysteps to the vertiginous heels of today's high-end shoe designers. Instead Tatehana embraces this trajectory, trying to fit himself into this timeline somewhere by creating these shoes as labours of love to the best of his ability. If you can't see the beauty of the shapes, at the very least you can admire the savoir faire.
It's therefore a crying a shame that a designer as seemingly obscure as Tatehana is now the victim of poor rip off versions which I suppose is the negative effect of Lady Gaga's patronage. The shape of Nasty Gal's leopard versions are less extreme (clearly they didn't have the time/energy to perfect the balance of the shoe and took a lazy shortcut instead) but the imitation is quite clear. There's no getting away from inspired versions of the catwalk but a designer/craftsman like Tatehana is probably the last person I expected to be ripped off. You can pull the "But they're two different customers…" line all you want but the problem is of course Noritaka Tatehana's name could potentially not be strong enough to fight off the cheapie versions should he wish to expand his shoe line in the future and produce footwear that goes beyond his made-to-order system at present.
These crystal encrusted shoes were created for a Dom Perignon event in Le Baron, Tokyo where pole dancers in Somarta catsuits (Tatehana has collaborated with this Tokyo designer on previous occasions) wearing these shoes showed that agile movement is totally possible. This YouTube video is full proof.
Tatehana insisted I try a pair on even though I turned up wearing the most inappropriate outfit for pairing up with his shoes. I'm pushing my luck if I think a childish Mexican dress with a funny little embroidered man on my chest is going to do these shoes justice. Still, I had to seize the one opportunity to walk in a pair of Noritaka Tatehana shoes and walk I did – well, I teetered three metres down the Comme des Garcons Trading Museum store in Gyre where I met Tatehana. I was petrified at first but once I took a few more steps and got used to Tatehana's clever shaping of the shoe, I can just about see how Daphne Guinness teeters about. By tilting the degree of the shoe to an extreme angle where the foot is dipped forward, the balance of the person wearing them shifts so that you end up feeling like you're lurching forward and gradually you lose the fear of tilting backwards and falling on your arse. Once I let go of the walls and stopped grabbing onto the ledges, it felt somewhat empowering to walk on air. Gaga's consistent orders for Tatehana's shoes could certainly be rooted to a reason beyond aesthetic pleasure.