Why this Taipei shoemaker takes five days to craft a bespoke pair of shoes
A perfectionist at heart, Taiwanese bespoke shoemaker EJ So personally oversees the making of each pair of shoes from start to finish, from classic Oxfords to trendy Chelsea boots.
With his straggly locks, fedora hat, faded vintage jeans and baggy shirts, that give us a peek at his tattoo-filled chest, EJ So is just the kind of guy you want designing an unabashedly hipster pair of shoes.
“Since young, I knew that I was a rebellious kid. People considered me to be a problematic student. But my rebellious nature made me more courageous. I wanted to challenge myself and try new things with different perspectives,” he said.
His love for shoes began at an early age when he started collecting special-release limited edition sneakers, which subsequently led to a deep dive into the art of shoemaking.
“I started doing lots of research to learn how shoes were made; why a certain approach was used; how these techniques made the shoes look better; how they have evolved. That was a starting point for me and I just threw myself into it,” he recalled.
His keen interest in the trade led him to Osaka, where he studied traditional shoemaking from master craftsman, Kazuo Hanada. Four years later, he moved to London and worked for Italian shoe brand, Sergio Rossi. While in London, So launched his own shoe label in 2014, calling it Kazuo Craft, after his Japanese mentor. When the time was right, he returned to Taipei in 2016 to market bespoke footwear on home soil.
Best described as “reviving retro romance”, Kazuo Craft gives traditional English shoes a refreshing update using So’s special brand of quirk and originality. In his repertoire, you’ll find plenty of Brogues, Oxfords and Derbies – styles from the early 1900s – which are crafted by marrying traditional English techniques and styles with time-honoured Japanese craftsmanship.
He constantly challenges the rules of design by incorporating fun details like cut-outs or blending the leather with interesting fabrics or materials. “I like to use more modern materials or design ideas to give traditional leather shoe styles a new look. Rather than focusing on trendy patterns or colours that are in season, I’d like to design something that customers would still like to wear after 10 to 20 years,” he attested.
Working together with his customers, So’s creative process begins with an idea followed by a sketch, and the final product is ready for collection after five days of meticulous craftwork. From making the threads to hand-sewing the soles and stretching out the leathers, So personally oversees the creation of each pair of shoes, from start to finish.
“It takes quite a number of steps to make sure we know where every single thread should go, whether the stitching will join at the seams, and whether it would be uncomfortable to customers when they’re wearing it. These are important points we take into consideration,” he explained.
A perfectionist at heart, So continues to push boundaries with designs that he is proud of, ensuring he never makes the same pair of shoes twice. “When it comes to traditional handcrafted shoes, we glue on the leather layer by layer, and sand the leather along the edges to a suitable shape. A shoemaker needs to calculate the angles of the layers precisely, so the heels will be flat and steady. These require constant practice and experimentation,” he added.
“Even though I have made so many pairs of shoes, every time I witness a pair being completed, I get very moved. To me, it may be just a pair of shoes, but to my customers, it could be a pair they made for their wedding or to their first job interview. At those key moments … I bring them more confidence to help them get through that stage. I’m so moved by those emotions,” he gushed.
Footwear artisan by day, shoemaking teacher by night, So also runs Acid Lab – a co-working space for independent creatives to share resources and ideas, like bag-maker Daria Melnikova. “I think EJ has a really unique style. He’s a person of details and everything he creates, including this working space, reflects his inner world. He’s really creative, helpful and always ready to share,” she said.
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living. Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 8.30pm.