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An artisanal conversation with Ryota Hayafuji, Japanese bespoke shoemaker, Munich

Dear readers, getting a souvenir from a foreign city that we visited is almost like a customary routine, and I am not talking about those cliché souvenir junks, I mean those with delicate handwork and unique cultural details such as a piece of unique leather goods made by a local artisan, an exquisite embroidered fabric or décor with some authentic materials and beadings or gemstones, to let us remember those memorable places that we have once visited, and our interaction with those remarkable local artisans that we have met during those trips. while we seek unique and beautiful creations by the artisan or craftsman locally in order to experience the genuine authenticity from the city we visited, have you ever encounter an artisan who is a foreigner that resides in a city that is not their original home, however, s/he still committed to create some exceptional craft that expresses the same kind of authenticity and artisanship like other local artisans do? Today I encountered one, and that is bespoke shoemaker Mr. Ryota Hayafuji; at first I was intrigued by his exceptionally well-made and sleek classic leather shoes for men, and then I realized that this Japanese shoemaker is actually resides in Munich, Germany, and he has established his own atelier workshop there to make this city call his home now!

Born in Hokkaido, Japan, Ryota has been worked as a shoe salesman in his youth, and he has developed a bond with classic men’s shoes, and apparently, fell in love with the craft, he then headed to London and studied in Cordwainer’s College while became a part-time shoe-making apprentice at the same time, after graduated and obtained his higher national diploma in footwear technology, Ryota then embarked his shoemaking career journey, being in Paris for few years to further learn about the craft, and then returned to Japan and worked on shoe repairing in Tokyo for a couple of years before moving to Munich, and established his own bespoke shoes atelier since 2012. Today, I am pleased to invite this Japanese bespoke shoemaking artisan to talk about his work, his passion about shoes, and how does an artisan’s life look like as a foreigner in a European city; here we go:

My Modern Darcy: Hi Ryota, a delight to have you to talk about your work here. Firstly, your passion about shoes has started when you were young, can you tell us more what fascinates you about men’s classic shoes? And why did you decide to shoe-making will become your life career?

Ryota Hayafuji: I was first attracted to shoes as a child by the colour scheme and design of my father's athletic shoes, and they have remained special to me ever since. What fascinates me about classic shoes is that they can be repaired and worn for a long time, even if they get old, and they have an art-piece aspect to them as well, they become more attractive over years since you got them. My passion for shoes shifted from the pleasure of buying and wearing them to the pleasure of making them.

MMD: How was your life look like when you were studied and apprenticed in London? What are the valuable things that you have learnt from your mentor about shoe-making that still relevant to you up to this day?

RH: As an international student, I remember how happy I was to have time to think about shoes from morning till night, and being able to visit the shoe workshop that I have dreamt of. With a limited budget, I had to save up for my living expenses, sometimes I even have only one meal a day, in order to buy myself some leather and tools to get start, to work on my craft, I have to admit that I was pretty reckless back then because of my youth.

My mentor, Paul Wilson, was a young shoemaker, far from the grey-haired, moustache old master that I had imagined, he was the one who guided me to the way of shoemaking. I still recall the conversation we had from time to time when I was spending time with him, he said: “Ryota, do you like shoemaking?”, and I replied: 'Yes, more than anything else.”. He then added: “I like shoemaking too, and I enjoy it, as a business, and as a way to earn a living. If you make shoes just as a hobby, then don't even think about becoming a shoemaker, don't do it." I feel that after starting my own business, I finally understand the nuances of my mentor's words.

Dimitri Gomez, my mentor in Paris, is a craftsman of great skill and expression, and a man of character who is liked by all. He used to tell me that a bottier (shoemaker) is a craftsman who can make shoes with his own hands from start to finish. I think I was taught this as a kind of preparation to become a shoemaker, as shoemaking has always been, and still is, a team of several skilled craftsmen working together to make a pair of shoes.

I was 27 years old and I was one of the latecomers to study shoemaking, so I sometimes had a vague sense of uncertainty about my vision for the future. One day he gave me an analogy: he drew a picture of a mountain on a blank sheet of paper, with an explanation describing a long, gently winding route to the top and a short, steep but straight route up to the foot, then he said: "I was an artisan who started late myself, but age didn't matter because I took the shortest route up; of course, it was a steep path." I was reassured that if I proceeded with the same determination as he did, I might have a chance to become a shoemaker myself.

MMD: You have returned to Japan after your journey in Europe, worked in Tokyo for few years then go back to Europe again, and established your own atelier in Munich now, can you tell us what makes you return to Europe but not staying in your home country?

RH: My reason for returning to Europe was simply a yearning to live in a foreign country. I also wanted to take in the air, the language, the smell, and the feeling of being a stranger in a different country, because it is essential for me to be able to express myself in the shoes I want to make. I was attracted by the name München, but the longer I live here, the more I feel indebted to Munich for giving me the opportunity to have a workshop here in this beautiful city that is full of depth and nature.

MMD: Being a foreigner shoemaking artisan, how is your life look like? And how did you find yourself connect with local artisans (even community) in the same field as yours?

RH: My lifestyle now is a complete opposite of what I had when I was working in Tokyo. Now I work in the workshop from Monday to Friday (Saturdays irregularly) from around 8am to 8pm, and spending my weekends riding on my antique bike around the countryside, or go for walks along the river, living a low-stress life surrounded by nature. I started making shoes in Munich when I started working as a production assistant in one of the local shoe workshops, and from there it was like I gradually made connections with other colleagues.

MMD: Let’s turn to your craft now, can you tell us more about what is your signature style when it comes to bespoke shoes for men? And what makes it so unique about?

RH: I have to confess that I don't have my own house style, therefore I can't describe it well, but if I had to, I would say that I have my own interpretation about shoemaking and the philosophy from several countries that I visited, and imbued it with certain “Japanese-ness”.

MMD: In your opinion, what defines a pair of well-made bespoke men’s classic leather shoes?

RH: I would say that they should not get in the way of an outfit, they should not be flamboyant, they should be universal, they should not go out of fashion, and they should be a good companion that protects your feet and helps you to walk.

It may differ from the colour of the upper (side of the shoe), but I remember a gentleman once told me that both black and brown colour are good enough as the colour for a pair of men's shoes, but I think there is more to the spirit than just the colour and the material itself.

MMD: As an independent foreign shoemaker, can you share with us what are the challenges that you have encountered? And how did you overcome them?

RH: The challenge of making shoes constantly is that not only it needs to meet the customer's expectations in terms of comfort, shape, design, materials, manufacturing method, workmanship, delivery time and price, but also to continue to create shoes that gives them a sense of the originality of my own. It is an endless quest, a difficult challenge and a task for me.

MMD: You have held multiple trunk shows back in Japan before, despite the pandemic, how did your craft responded in Japan compare with your clientele here in Europe?

RH: It’s hard to compare or pointing the difference between those two in a strong way; in my experience, German customers want shoes with a design, colour, comfort and durability that blend in with their everyday wear, while Japanese customers seem to want special shoes that are made with fresh designs, shapes and materials. This means matching the outfit with the shoes as the main feature.

MMD: Now let’s talk about yourself, can you tell us which pair of shoes in your closet now is your favorite and why?

RH: I don't own that many shoes, but in terms of dress shoes alone, I have self-made Oxfords and Derbys in black and brown respectively, which I wear all the time, from formal to work purpose, not just for special occasions. I basically wear these dress shoes in the workshop. The exception is during the warmer months, when I often cycled to the workshop to work, some days I wear my self-made cycling shoes all day long. During the cold and snowy Bavarian winter months, I often wear military boots. I don't have a particular favorite pair of shoes, I wear what I choose depending on my mood at the time, that's how it is.

MMD: Can you tell us a bit of your personal style, what is your favorite outfit? Or what is your typical ensemble when it comes to menswear?

RH: I was influenced by 60's British mod culture when I was a teenager and admired Fellini and Godard film stars, so I like sharp, clean image clothes from around the late 50s and 60s. I also like classic Italian suits that never go out of fashion, such as the Fiorentina and Napoletana suits made by my sartorial friends, but I also like vintage clothes, and I wear those as everyday wear. Currently, for my professional life, denim, a work coat and a leather apron are my typical outfits; my idea of an ensemble is an outfit that harmonizes the person without being overdressed.

MMD: Apart from dressing well, in your opinion, what other qualities that a modern-day gentleman should have?

RH: Defining a gentleman and talking about gentlemen is a difficult question for me, as I am still doing the work myself.

MMD: If someone approaches you one day and asks you how to become a great bespoke shoemaker, what is your advice for him/her?

RH: It's a mentality after all, but keep working with your hands - sweat a lot. I think people will appreciate it eventually.

Special thanks to Mr. Ryota Hayafuji.

Image courtesy of Ryota Hayafuji Shoemaker, Munich.


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