I'm backdating again as I rewind to my trip to Tokyo (even though I'm currently in Shanghai, and then Beijing, my last leg of my trip) where I had another encounter with shoe designer Noritaka Tatehana. I thought nothing could top his kindness of allowing me to try on a few pairs of his shoes in the Comme des Garcons Trading Museum store, whilst both he and the staff there sniggered at my inefficiency of walking on air and also at the little Mexican man embroidered on my dress. Noritaka went one better and allowed me into his inner sanctum home slash studio slash workshop to see him apply sole to upper and thus finish off a pair of shoes that is intended for Daphne Guinness (his other ardent fan alongside Lady Gaga).
I knew Noritaka ran a small scale production but it was even more intimate than I thought. Noritaka's rabbit Choco wscurrying about in his wee cage in one corner and his sole assistant was at a desk working on tracing out a sole for the shoe in another. The rest of his workshop is occupied by one Singer leather sewing machine, one Nippy leather skiving (I still can't get over that technical term) and a square desk where he set about applying sole to shoe. First he skived the edges of the leather sole so that the edges were thinner than the centre and trimmed it, in preparation for the shoe. Then he made it more pliable with water and then he sets about painting it with a sort of quick-dry dye to give it that black polished finish. After the imprint of his logo and the bending of the sole with expertly cut-out freehand slits means it's ready to be joined with the grey suede and Swarovski encrusted upper (as instructed by Daphne Guinness). Both sole and bottom of the shoe has to be brushed with glue and left for five minutes so that the surfaces will stick together properly. I loved that Noritaka uses a Japanese calligraphy brush to apply the glue. He won't have it any other way. Once both shoe and sole are properly sticky, then he puts the two together, hammering away at the sole so that it sticks there. I thought there might have been a clamping process but it turns out Noritaka uses all parts of the hammer to really press the sole onto the shoe. You can visibly see the bumps being ironed out with the curve of the claw, the handle of the hammer and a super smooth edge forming that comes from the leather having been brushed with water, making it flexible under pressure. It wasn't the full process from start to finish but the sole binding final process is a crucial stage where the shell of a shoe becomes well… a proper pair of shoes.
If the description of the process above sounds a bit dry and stale, then I can assure you that in person, it was quite mesmerising to watch. This was a very different kettle of fish from observing the factory set-ups seen at Dr. Martens or in Portugal. This is one lone Noritaka, living and breathing that inky dye and that pungent glue and really getting to grips with his own personal hammer to craft his namesake shoes, on this teensy tiny scale of production. From the way he works, you get the feeling that he wouldn't want to relinquish that control of forming his shoes with his own hands. I questioned whether Noritaka could expand beyond custom orders but after seeing this, you'd rather than not happen if it means he doesn't get to personally put hand to shoe himself. The shoes may make you feel like you're walking on air but there are some solid and concrete foundations, within this feat of footwear engineering, that people may not realise or see after being blinded by their initial "WOW, that's FREAKY!" reaction.
Oh and there's a little secret about the construction of the super high platform, which really surprised me. But that would be giving it all away…