An artistic conversation with Leonard Kahlcke, Bespoke Shoemaker, Frankfurt am Main
Dear readers, back in few weeks ago, I have mentioned about ‘getting out of our comfort zone’ when it comes to menswear, meaning, to explore something new, intriguing yet artisanal and sophisticated at the same time, now I am doing this again and we are heading to Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Perhaps it might sound a bit awkward as Frankfurt am Main isn’t known for its men’s sartorial clothing, rather, a more modern financial and commercial hub, having said that, there’s one bespoke shoemaker (and lastmaker) whose work did draw my attention that I’d like to bring it to you all as well! Mr. Leonard Kahlcke, Founder and Bespoke shoemaker of his namesake atelier, this German artisan has been in the bespoke shoes (as well as made-to-order shoes) business since 2016; Obtained a diploma in fine arts, and holds an MA with distinction in shoe design of London College of Fashion. Leonard has cultivated a special bond with the art of shoe and last making since he was a young man, adding his experience working in an esteemed bespoke shoe maker’s workshop in Vienna, which shapes his shoe making technique and knowledge that eventually motivated him to start his very own establishment: to create some exceptional and timeless bespoke classic shoes, for discerning gentlemen. Today, I am pleased to invite this German bespoke shoemaker for a chat, having him to talk about his work, passion over bespoke shoe making as well as men’s lifestyle; without further ado, let’s dive right in!
My Modern Darcy: Hi Leonard, a pleasure to have you with us today! First thing first, can you tell us what fascinates you so much about bespoke shoe making? And how did you find that as your life profession?
Leonard Kahlcke: The pleasure is on my side, and thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you and your audience. There is more than one reason for me to participate in the given field. Attracted to high quality footwear I have been all my life, from performance shoes to elegant women’s footwear I like to look at them all and always had an affection to wear the best possible footwear expressing my style. I wanted to continue having my name exposed to the streets like I had with my creative output within all other works of my life. I always wanted to create something visible and make an aesthetic contribution. I am working as a designer in a field that is very much restricted, like that of a type designer and I accepted the challenge to make a serious contribution to tradition. Becoming the best last maker known and also contributing original designs to the canon of men’s traditional shoes having the quality to challenge and become part of the tradition at the same time.
I stand surety with my name of the product in charge and my wholistic approach as a designer found perfect confirmation in the realm of fine handmade and bespoke shoes, it is vital to me to work within a trade that does no harm to our environment or at least less than any industrially produced product. Bespoke shoes totally make sense to me in all concerns, in addition to the clear advantages of high quality and durability the product is wanted and only made on commission, not to forget we are living in a time where people becoming “Cyborgs”, still wearing terribly bad fitting shoes; the challenge of meeting all aspects involved is everlasting and I believe to be able to continue to work like this until my last days.
MMD: As I know that your parents are also creative professionals, can you tell us a bit more and what positive impact does it make over your work?
LK: I come from a long tradition of craftsmen and designers, my great grandfather who was a carpenter was trained in a specialist school that taught design long before the word design became popular in Germany. My father was able to accomplish to create a so-called classic within his work as an industrial designer of Braun’s kitchen supplies, developing the best-selling filter coffee machine in the world, that is still in production up to this day. I grew up in a household where the majority of furniture, carpets - nearly everything was designed by my parents and custom made or executed by my uncles. It comes naturally to me to think of the design aspect of nearly every man makes things. The aesthetic education of my parents that I enjoyed is most definitely more influential to my work than anything else I learned within my fine art and design studies. I know where I come from and it feels good to be aware of the legacy and the heritage that comes with what I am doing, I am contributing and challenging tradition, building my own legacy committed to the present and future of fine intelligent shoemaking.
MMD: With your experience in London and Vienna etc., working with some experienced master last/shoemaker in the past, what are the most memorable experiences that you have? And what is the most valuable lesson that you’ve learnt from these mentors that still applies to you even today?
LK: I started out creating a collection of men’s shoes with ready-to wear lasts working out of Maftei’s workshop in Vienna, where I had great examples of bad and very good lasts of the Viennese bespoke tradition. Materna and Rudolph Sheer lasts for example, as Maftei used to make shoes as an outworker of these more famous companies. But especially St. Crispin’s RTW (ready-to-wear) lasts where helpful studying from not to forget the knowledge of my theoretical mentor, Rainer Maria Willhelm Mark, who had lasts made with Germany’s most prestigious company of Fargus lastmakers. Also finding help with fellow makers online was really something special, as I found people in the trade are very much of help and friendly, as for example, Bootmaker D.F. Frommer, who directed me to famous lastmaker Bill Tippit working for Nike. In London I had the pleasure to speak to the late great Bespoke shoemaker, Jason Amesbury and Northamptons, Last Man Michael James of Springline, here I was able to study from lasts made for Gucci and other famous brands. It is my aim to go down in history as a master lastmaker, recognizing that every master knows that he is the greatest student ever.
MMD: I am quite intrigue about your ‘house style’ as you set yourself apart from a pure traditionalist cult of shoemakers. Can you elaborate more about what makes your bespoke shoes unique? Does it tie into any roots of German classic shoe making for instance?
LK: I am making lasts and shoe designs for each client respectively and I am glad you are able to recognize a certain style within my output. The main approach, after getting the fit right, is to create elegant shoes that suggest maturity; I don’t want to establish a single type of toe shape recognizable throughout all of my offerings, as seen within other firms like Lobb or Cleverly for example. I am a well-trained designer and lastmaker pursuing a couture approach, respectively establishing as many original styles for my diverse clientele; I am designing shoes and developing lasts for individual toe shapes every week and do this since 2009. In comparison to other shoemakers - who are involved with all of the other tasks of the making process, I explicitly concentrate on fit and design. It is my aim to create something original, which is hard in a world that is aesthetically becoming one via internet and globalization. There is for sure a threat of a cultural synchronization, and thank you for reminding me of a design lineage, that plays homage to one’s own heritage. The German shoemaking tradition is not as rich as the English or Austro-Hungarian one, still, the German history of last making is the world’s most renowned and I study this part more as I am becoming part of it.
MMD: In the bespoke shoe making progress, what is the most challenging part? And what makes you feel satisfied the most?
LK: As I am mainly involved with last making, shoe design, model making, shoe-tree making and finishing, here I will be challenged forever. Sourcing high grade leather has become a major challenge in the recent years; It‘s a big problem for all those who really care about the materials they are working with; actually, this holds true for all of the components used within fine bespoke shoe making. The foot is as complex as the person it carries, and it is my enthrallment to understand where my client is coming from and where my shoes can bring him to. The bespoke process is a true luxury, not only about what you can buy, but very much also an experience that needs some courage from both sides to be a satisfactory. The ideal bespoke shoe is elegant, provides support to posture while complimenting character and attitude. I am satisfied the most when all these challenges are made and my client is able to appreciate them.
MMD: In your opinion, how do you define a pair of well-made bespoke shoes? What are the essentials?
LK: First and foremost, I regard correct fit as the number one criteria; judging the quality is possible best after some time of wear as the signs of use give exact information about that part. As we are talking bespoke, I value the shoe that suits the client’s style, uplifts him and expresses a certain elegance, I don‘t use the word ‘comfortable’ even though it is used mostly regarding the fit of shoes. I like to define more precisely and believe a fine pair of bespoke shoes has qualities far better than what you would attribute to a sofa or couch for that matter. A well-made shoe includes so many aspects that needs to be done right, with the right materials, to be able to keep the qualities of fit for its life span it would go beyond the scope of this interview to list all of them.
Still, the work of the world's best shoemaker isn't worth much if the shoe doesn't fit or please the wearer, that is why the best shoes in the trade are made in cooperation of masters in their field of expertise. Naturally one needs to know what the best methods and materials are to be able to design a bespoke shoe of excellent quality. From a customer’s perspective, you can judge a well-made shoe by it‘s snug fit, while not only length and width needs to be ideal: It’s all about the last’s proportions. Intelligent distribution of volume, right placing of the ballpoint, a balanced heel and toe spring that leads to a healthy roll motion movement, providing enough room for the toes to play the sharps, naturals and the flats. The direction and size of front creasing while bending the forepart also gives a good first impression to judge the forepart. Over all proportions, clean stitching of uppers, stitch per inch diameter and it’s all over visible meticulously crafted way. The quality of leathers used on uppers is best judged with all senses involved. A visible natural grain that is not plasticized, but having a certain lustre and depth of color. Also, the smell can tell a thing or two.
MMD: Being apart from those major bespoke (menswear) capitals such as London, Paris or Napoli, how did you manage to keep yourself and your work relevant, and connect with the bespoke shoe community?
LK: The relevance of my work is judged by my customers whom I refer to as ‘clients’. In the bespoke trade, we build on more than the buying aspect of consumption, therefore I manage to create an experience whether working out of my atelier or abroad. As for my comrades in the trade, I am open as they are, we all connect somehow and tricks of the trade are exchanged with pleasure, there is quite a nice community aspect within the so-called ‘Gentle Craft’, tt‘s nice seeing new faces coming up keeping the culture alive and relevant. Frankfurt (am Main) really had the very first German Gentleman’s outfitter, but menswear wise this part of the world does not get much sartorial light.
MMD: As a business owner and an artisan yourself, can you share with us what are the obstacles that you have encountered before? And how did you overcome them?
LK: Business wise I would do things differently in many ways; I started out opening a small shop without a single customer, and working all night in a cocktail bar making ends meet. I would definitely borrow much more money to invest and promote my MTM (Made-to-measure) and MTO (Made-to-order) options better for a wider audience; collaborating in this field with shops and a digital solution I am developing since 2017 has come to fruition now following the Septimal law.
MMD: As we have entered the Fall Winter season, what is your recommendation when it comes to bespoke classic shoes?
LK: I always recommend after knowing about the existing shoes in my client’s wardrobe, whether the Chinchilla is talking to the Gators in the closet or if there is no closet at all, herein lies the beauty of the bespoke process. We define what is really wanted and I come up with a solution that is making total sense, meeting all aspects of the formal aesthetic codes, personal style, existing wardrobe and society occasions. I do sketches and provide my client with a thoroughly thought trough option for him that meets his needs and desires. In general, I recommend a type of shoe that either complements or forms the cornerstone of the existing wardrobe. Don’t have no fear but courage to speak on developing your personal wardrobe and style, people need to understand that they ruin their outfits with those lousy shoes all the time, while there is no other way around in this concern, as the matter of fact, shoes are not the finishing touch to your outfit but the foundation!
MMD: OK let’s talk about you, can you tell us a bit about your personal style? What is your signature ensemble during the day? And what is your favorite pair of shoes and why?
LK: I always dress as I feel from Tennis suits to bespoke suits and shirts with ties; I buy vintage and have shirts and suits made bespoke that I mix and bring in contrast. Like black Oxfords, night blue calf length socks, grey flannels, brown slim alligator belt, navy blue Hopsack blazer with grey gun metal buttons and an 80’s Chevignon Bonds bomber Jacket either green or black. Regrettably I was never able to make a pair of bespoke shoes for myself; so far, I am wearing sample shoes of my MTO collection, black cap toe Oxfords made on the Wiener Reform last mostly.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Stahr
Photo credit: Killa-Schütze
MMD: When it comes to the word ‘style’, what does it mean to you?
LK: I am consciously concentrating on style since I was fourteen years old, working on my hand style, writing Graffiti since 1989 taught me a lot about what it means to find your own style within the restricted framework of the alphabet letters plus the use of colors. Obviously, my upbringing in a family of designers and crafts men and women gave me the chance to reflect on the topic a lot; reading magazines like the German design magazine and Vogue Italia from a young age also shaped my perception of style and attire. The word ‘style’ of course contains “aesthetic“, and aesthetics if followed consistently leads to ethics: they are both based on love beyond the realm of the conceptualized, so dealing with style can really help shaping life for the better.
MMD: besides being well-groomed and dress nicely, in your opinion, what other qualities that a modern gentleman should have?
LK: I believe we all should restore honor to the way we live! All men for himself.
MMD: if someone comes to you one day and ask you how s/he can become a great bespoke shoemaker, what is your advice?
LK: If that person came to me, I would assume that they would want to learn from me, since I could only teach what I mastered, I would share my knowledge and in return ask the person to choose of my original designs, to inherit into their range offered and served to their clients in the future.
Special thanks to Mr. Leonard Kahlcke.
Image courtesy of Atelier Leonard Kahlcke, Frankfurt am Main.