Each shoemaker and artisan has his or her own various reasons for deciding to pick up a craft. Whether that is giving up promising careers to pursue a dream or following a legacy of craftsmen, these are all valid and beautiful reasons to embark on a journey for the sake of art that is wrought with hardship. Perhaps the stereotype of the struggling artist is a prerequisite stage all artisans must persevere through in order to reach their full potential. For one shoemaker to shine amongst a sea of talent found on Instagram today is like finding a needle in a haystack. Tomoyuki Watanabe is one such shoemaker, whose work caught my eye around two years ago. Unlike most shoemakers however, his entrance into the world of bespoke shoemaking can only be said to be a fateful encounter if not a calling.
“I started learning shoemaking from 12 years ago” Watanabe-San said, “Before that, when I graduated from school, I packed my backpack and traveled”.
Prior to shoemaking, Watanabe-San was a backpacker by and large, with a hunger for traveling the world and desire to experience life as it was in each place he found himself. He was not someone who believed in finding a steady occupation to go through a life of routine and tedium. It was in this time of backpacking that he encountered a Japanese master shoemaker who had been working in this industry for more than 50 years. This was intoxicating to him, because as with most shoemakers, he loved shoes from early on and wanted more than anything to learn how to construct them, especially in the classic style that he loved. He had previously considered traveling to Europe to learn from one of the established masters, but after spending significant time with this master, he decided to stay behind in Japan to learn from him directly. This was not the end of his story as he was resistant to committing to this vocation as a full-time apprentice. He took on many jobs on the side – driver, waiter, as well as others just to sustain his life, as he continually returned to his master’s workshop to continue his learning. It was really only until he opened his own atelier – Bolero Bespoke Shoe & Bootmaker Nagoya, that he answered the call and became a full-time shoemaker. From his retelling of his story, I could sense the genuine joy shoemaking brought Watanabe-San. Perhaps this is what life should have always been about. From growing up in a large city, I think sometimes that we have become too distracted by noise to find what truly matters – Living fulfilling and gratifying lives.
I enjoy listening to such stories when making a bespoke commission as one can sense the potentiality of life through the journeys of others. From Watanabe-San and his wife, I found a sense of modesty and genuine joviality that is not easily found in those accustom to city life. I would say that it was this kind of simplicity which can be found in Watanabe-San’s work that drew me to it. If I had to describe his style, I would describe it as “vintage” in that it carries an air of authenticity of the past. Like an old locomotive train, his shoes are classically elegant and purpose built from the get-go to fulfill a need.
From a bird’s eye view, an interesting feature of Watanabe-San’s work is a fuller heel cup. He explained “Asian feet in general are usually quite slender at the heel, so if a customer specifies that he would like a Cuban heel, I will always take special care with the size of the heel”. Perhaps this is to achieve a sense of balance from the front to back, and to avoid too slight (or feminine) of a shape in the heel. On the topic of heels, I too have noticed what Watanabe-San says seems to be true with my Asian friends’ feet that their heels tend to be relatively slender, but wider at the ankle. For European makers who are accustom to making shoes for European feet, which are usually the opposite – wider heels and slighter ankles, their shoes tend to feel very tight around the opening but are roomy around the heel for Asian feet.
Returning to Watanabe-San’s work, the vamps of his shoes are on the shorter side and wider. This coupled with his sharply beveled waists make his shoes seem somewhat severe. If “George Cleverley style” is stone chisel-like and “Foster & Sons style” is banana-like, “Bolero style” could only be said to be dumbbell-like. I personally love his round toes in particular. Making an attractive classic round toe is very difficult as making the toe too round looks clumsy, while making it too sharp looks stingy. Finding the correct proportion, to achieve the trifecta of balance, a “generous” appearance while maintaining classical elegance is an art form in itself.
That is not to say that his chisel toe is any less appealing. His chisel toes are relatively soft and begin sloping down to the toe from higher up on the toe box, making for a more gradual descent that makes the overall silhouette “neater” while visually elongating the relatively short toe box to prevent it from looking too sharp or too blunt.
While technique can be honed, a unique aesthetic sense is one thing that only a select few are born with. This is a pitfall of many Japanese artisans, as while their attention to detail and technique are second to none, many seem unable to achieve breakthroughs with their style, often creating work that resembles their masters’. This is why I consider Watanabe-San to be a prodigy in this field, as while he has not been in the industry very long, he has already been able to find his own “aesthetic voice”. Besides this, from my first fitting experience, Watanabe-San has already achieved a very very good fit for my right foot while the left was only lacking as my foot has since healed from a traffic accident I suffered prior to placing my bespoke commission. This will be addressed in the second fitting and I am confident Watanabe-San is more than up to the task.
Aside from the style, the finishing of his shoes is admirable. From the high density of outsole stitching (apologies that I did not have the chance to measure precisely), to the lack of pulling marks on the upper (resulting from excessive tension during the lasting process), I was very impressed with this young shoemaker to say the least. As expected, the outsole stitching was invisible along the beveled waist and the welts were trimmed very closely to the upper and the overall work was very neat and tidy. As for the outsoles, they were exceptionally clean with the stitching expertly concealed and no knife marks to be seen anywhere.
Naturally, each shoe fan has different expectations and preferences for aesthetic style for shoemakers they choose to engage for bespoke commissions, which is why there are so many makers today offering their own takes on such a ubiquitous clothing item. For those searching for beautifully handcrafted, classic, elegant and “generous” shoes, one needn’t look much further than Bolero Bespoke Shoe & Bootmaker to satisfy this desire.