Macho Bears and Butterflies: The Wonderful Shoes of Tetsuya Uenobe
'Water imp drowns in river'
The designer shoes we’re offered each season are becoming bigger and badder and are continually pushing the boundaries of how crazy cool our feet can look, yet it’s still a fairly narrow view of what shoes can be. And if we’re honest, some of us can’t even walk in them. I have a few pairs of shoes I love the look of, they’re gorgeous and sexy heels, but I can’t leave the house wearing them unless I do like Lady Gaga and have someone push me around in a wheelchair.
What we put on our feet can be so much more than what we’ve come to regularly expect of our footwear, if we allow ourselves to think a little differently. Japanese shoemaker Tetsuya Uenobe is a sparkling example of how superior craftsmanship and the desire to impart some personality in our shoes can marry to produce works of wearable art – for our feet!
When I first laid eyes on Tetsuya’s work I was at once charmed by his playful and humourous approach to shoemaking – he draws inspiration from anything and everything around him from boats to monkeys to hot dogs. While Tetsuya says he isn’t adverse to drawing elegant and beautiful designs like Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and the team at Salvatore Ferragamo, his primary motivation is to make people smile. I challenge you to not crack one while looking at these ‘Macho Bear’ shoes, complete with bear’s own leather moccasins:
Tetsuya designs and makes his shoes in Japan under his namesake label Uenobe. His interest in creating his own shoes came from meeting several craftsman while working in the fashion industry and he soon found himself becoming immersed in their world. He left his job in 1999 and enrolled in the shoe making program at London College of Art, then further honed his craft working alongside a bespoke shoemaker. Upon returning to Japan to launch Uenobe in 2003 he made an impression on Japanese couturier Mrs. Hanai Mori, who offered him the opportunity to show his works at Open Gallery Omotesando in Tokyo. Tetsuya’s influences include Tokio Kumagai and Jan Jansen, who are known for their unconventional approach to shoe design.
He admits he has a tough time letting the shoes go once they are finished. (How sweet!)
I had the opportunity to talk to Tetsuya about his shoes and his process:
What kind of reaction do your shoes elicit? And do you have people asking for your art styles or do they usually opt for the more traditional shoe?
An owner of one of the retailers that deal in my works said customers love my shoes. They enjoy wearing them and appreciate the craftsmanship. I know a woman who is a merchandiser in the fashion industry who purchased the Bird (see right) and wears them at the office. She says she enjoys people noticing them.
I think people understand that my works are unusual. And they love such unusual style. Basically they are fashionistas so they are always looking for a new or rare style. Sometimes customers order traditional styles but the right foot is in red and the left one is in black, via the retailers. The retailers who deal in my works also appreciate individuality. My works are supported by such unique people.
Do you wish to see people wearing your more unusual shoes as an every day footwear choice – an alternative to the ‘usual’ types of shoes we wear, or do you see them as special and meant more for those who appreciate art in their garments?
It depends on the situation. If a philosopher, a doctor or a member of Parliament wears my shoes from my art line at their work place, they will lose credibility. However, wearing them for going out with a lover or to a party would be fine. Actually, I do not mind how people wear my work. My shoes are wearable but also decorative. The important thing is how much people love them.
Your leather sometimes looks as if it has been handpainted with watercolours. How do you achieve that effect?
I dye leather to look like marble. I pour water in a pan and make a a whirlpool, then add a few drops of ink to make the dye then I add the leather.
Do manufacturers actually know how to construct a good shoe? Is it possible to get true quality from a factory?
I think everyone who works in the shoe industry knows how to make a good shoe. The difference between me and others is handmade or factory made. Most workers in this industry do not know how to make them by hand. However, I believe they try to make good quality shoes by using machines. Low price shoe companies have to sell their products at lower prices, so they make chunky shoes, shapes that everyone can wear and this way they can cut costs. These can be seen as good shoes when you look at it from that angle.
What are the most important aspects of constructing a shoe, and what should we look for when buying?
Every single shape of the bare foot is slightly different. The shape of one person’s foot will be altered due to changes in body weight or simply from ageing. So people find it difficult to find the perfect pair at the shoe shop. I think the problem is people do not know much about the shape of their foot. They know and care about the shapes of their body but not the foot. Shoes should be attractive but also have to be practical. If you wear disastrous fitting shoes, even from a respected and famous brand, they are bad shoes for you. Bespoke shoes are ideal but very expensive. When you purchase your shoes, you should check the balance of the shoe and fitting, avoid rough finishing and not put whether they are a big designer brand as your first priority.
For those interested in how Tetsuya constructs his shoes (I know I am!), here's a look into the process of making them by hand:
Insole: cut off extras and adjust the edge
Stiffener: make it thin and flat
Lasting: wrap a shoe form with an upper to fix the shape
Outsole: perfecting the shape
Sewing: securing the outsole on the upper
Tetsuya's art line is inspired by animals and plants:
'Panther' (the front detail is a view of the tail end of the panther)
You can view the Uenobe collection including all of Tetsuya’s fantastical creations at his website.