Benchwork – Yukiko Okawa (Part I)

On the outskirts of Tokyo resides a cordwaining school known as “Benchwork” which strictly speaking is not a vocational education institution. Graduates do not earn diplomas nor job offers post-school. Gracing their social media accounts are not glamourised photographs of the artisan’s hands and creations but rather of her students at work. More valuable than any accreditation however, is the genuine pride and sense of accomplishment her students experience when they craft a pair of shoes from scratch. At the head of Benchmade is shoemaker Miss Yukiko-Bassett Okawa.

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In rare company, Okawa-San is one of very few notable female shoemakers who also runs her own ateliers. Unlike the typical narrative of a shoemaker discovering his or her passion for shoes later in life, Okawa-San realised her passion for it from a very young age. Whereas most children are given household chores to complete like washing dishes and clothes, cooking et cetera, Okawa-San was tasked with polishing the shoes of her elder household members. From this chore that most people find tedious grew Okawa-San’s love for well-crafted footwear. “That was the beginning of my interest in shoes,” Okawa-San explained “I was always very curious how the outsole was created as I found them beautiful.”

Despite the interests that came and went at a young age including the formation of a band and production of a single record, it was her passion for shoes that never faded. From her graduation of university, she took employment at a shoe manufacturer. “As I did not know how to become a bespoke shoemaker, I joined a shoe manufactory and became a shoe designer. I figured after I became a shoe designer, I would be able to get in touch with bespoke shoemakers and eventually learn from them,” Okawa-San explained. She soon realised that the assembly line and factory made shoes were not for her, so she moved on to work for a small shoemaking workshop. Her passion continued growing from her time at the workshop and two years later, she crossed the pond to study at a Cordwainers College in London. From there, she eventually joined John Lobb which is where she developed most as a shoemaker.

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Following several years at Lobb’s, she returned to Tokyo to establish Benchmade, a shoemaking school following the English shoemaking tradition that she hoped to pass down to future generations in Japan. This was during a time that bespoke shoemaking was not very popular in Japan with very few notable shoemakers in the territory. She persevered however as she was addicted to the craft and philosophy, noting that even for a single customer, each foot was not a mirror image of the other and that each shoe would have to be created individually to accommodate each foot’s idiosyncrasies.

On the day that we arrived in her workshop, there were no classes being taught and we were surprised to find only several pairs of bespoke shoe samples on hand for us to admire. She did not seem to mind the company of three strangers, as she welcomed us to look around the premises and poured three cups of tea that she set on top of a workbench near the rear of her workshop. We joined her eventually and had a 2-hour conversation over the tea as the sky outside darkened to a blush.

“I don’t have a distinct house style in that I create what the customer wants. Each pair I create is one of a kind and they belong only to the client, following the unique shape of his feet and his own aesthetic.” She continued, “Even if an accident happens and my customer’s feet change drastically, I will happily adjust or create new lasts to accommodate their new shape.” This lack of a house style is quite unique in the industry as I have found that most shoemakers now are quite adamant on adhering to their own style. Okawa-San ultimately hopes that her customers will enjoy wearing her shoes for a lifetime, and as such she thinks it is of utmost importance that she understands their lifestyle and their desires, which is also why she particularly enjoys conversing with them during their first appointment.

When taking a look at her samples, what immediately stood out were that they were all classic and subtle designs. From a workmanship standpoint, her creations are quite different from what we see coming out of Japan in that the handwork is not the finest or most delicate. Rather for her, the most important aspect of her bespoke shoes are that they must be comfortable and the fit has to be precise. In order to ensure this, Okawa-San insists on using rubber lasts over wood lasts, as the material is more stable under varying conditions and does not expand and contract to the extent wood lasts would, a major issue many shoemakers have to work around over the course of the 8-12 months bespoke shoes normally require. On a similar note, Edward Green has also changed to rubber lasts in order to improve the consistency of their sizing.

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Perhaps it is because Okawa-San spent so much time in London before she returned to Japan that she spoke English with a fluency we did not find with other Japanese shoemakers of her calibre. From a short conversation, we could really sense the genuine passion and care she has for bespoke shoemaking which we found encouraging for the industry as a whole. Her parents were also very supportive of her career choice when she returned perhaps as most Japanese parents are, providing her with a place to begin her own business. Interestingly enough, her son who is now in his teens also seems to be quite interested in bespoke shoemaking, although whether or not he desires to pursue the profession as a lifelong career has not been discussed at length.

Unfortunately, Okawa-San does not seem to be very interested in traveling abroad at the moment to take orders on trunk shows as her schedule is very full with teaching classes, fulfilling her Japanese orders, and of course with family time. In my opinion, her philosophy alone warrants a personal visit to her atelier in Tokyo as she is an anomaly in the world of bespoke shoemaking. Unusual in that she creates shoes for her customers with the tenderness and meticulousness of the stereotypical Japanese woman, and also in her persistence to pass down the English shoemaking tradition.

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Finally I placed an order for a pair of black Balmoral oxfords. Overwhelmed with a plethora of leather choices, one black box calf in particular stood out to me. When she saw it in my hands, a smile grew across her face as she explained it was old Carl Freudenberg box calf that she had collected from her time at Lobb’s! This is the box calf that was considered to be the best in the world, quite unlike the box calf produced by the tannery of the same name nowadays since their production was moved out of Germany. Finding such a special and rare leather at Okawa-San’s atelier perhaps is one kind of destiny!

I am looking forward to report back on them very soon!

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For Okawa-San, her ultimate goal for her bespoke shoes is for them to bring their owners happiness. Following a long day at work, she hopes when a customer’s gaze droops and falls over his bespoke shoes that a smile takes the place of weariness. Aside from the inherent beauty of her shoes, Okawa-San hopes her shoes are like a constant companion and reminder that you are not alone after all.

(Content from this blog cannot be reproduced nor repurposed without written permission by Prologue)

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