Made in New York: The Shoemaker

There is no sign out front, but if you are wandering through Williamsburg you might stumble upon a studio on Roebling Street where half-made shoes hang from the walls, piles of leather and suede and fabrics of all kinds are stacked, and the owner is working in the back with a customer for the fourth day in a row. Her name is Keiko and this is her shoe space. 

Keiko Hirosue began shoemaking in 2003 as a hobby. At the time, she was working for an arts and events consulting firm, and making shoes in her bathtub. “But, you can’t really use a lot of equipment in there,” Hirosue said with a smile. “Eventually, its like a lot of dust, a lot of mess.” 

Hirosue eventually decided to open her own studio space and acquire proper equipment to pursue her hobby more full time. In 2009, inspired by companies like WeWork, which opened shared workspaces, Hirosue opened up her studio and equipment to other shoemakers in New York. Thus, her full-time business began. 

Four years ago, the Brooklyn Shoe Space moved to its current storefront in Williamsburg. The space offers access to a workplace for members, or shoemakers in the area, and classes for those willing to spend anywhere from three to six days working on one pair of shoes. Not to mention, spend a grand or so to do so. 

The cost of classes depends on the type of shoe. They are taught by longtime members or Hirosue herself. A pair of sneakers, for example, requires a three-day workshop at $950. For the more patient and willing, $2,000 will pay for a six-day intensive workshop for shoes with more complicated designs. Memberships range from $20 per hour to $500 unlimited access per month for shoemakers looking to work on independent projects (such as making customized shoes for their own clients) and need studio space to create their shoes. Currently, Hirosue has about a dozen of these members. 

Sharing a workspace has benefits. “We elevate each other,” said Hirosue. “We help each other out.”

Six years ago, Hirosue met another shoemaker, Yuji Okura, to bounce inspirations off. On a recent day he sat outside, perched in front of the studio, with a calm demeanor, smoking a cigarette. He’s both a member of the studio and teacher there. When he’s not a shoemaker, he’s a skater. Hirosue encouraged him to move to New York, and he did. 

Okura has been making shoes for 12 years. From Yokohama, Japan, he moved to New York four years ago to pursue his independent work making sneakers and bespoke shoes, which for the non-shoemaker is essentially a custom made church shoe, typically constructed out of leather or suede.

Okura learned his craft attending two years of shoemaking school in Japan, after being inspired by Chihiro Yamaguchi, a Japanese bespoke shoemaker . Prior to his shoe obsession, Okura was a chef for three years, but now he spends up to 10 hours a day making shoes. 

In his years in the craft, Okura says he has made about 200 pairs of shoes from start to finish. This doesn’t include the shoes he took part in making in a shoe factory in Japan prior to moving to New York.

Yet, he says, “I’m still not good enough.”

Okura spends about 40 hours working on pair of sneakers. First, he begins with a shoe last, a mold in the shape of the human foot, and some tape. After completely taping the last, Okura draws the design on the tape. He then cuts the taped form off of the last, and uses the form to make his pattern. 

“The pattern is everything,” said Okura. 

Once the pattern is made, he cuts the fabric in line with the pattern. The process is essentially the same as making designs and patterns for clothes, except when it comes to stitching the fabrics together. Then Okura uses a 3D sewing machine so that the fabric can be sewn in a tubular shape. Finally, he stitches the fabrics to the sole of the shoe. 

Sneaker culture has made Okura’s craft a lucrative business. Clients often will ask for a reconstruction of previously bought Nikes or Air Jordans, using components they like from the shoe. This means spending a base of $100 to $200 on the original shoes, and then another $1,500 to $3,000 on the customization (this largely depending on the material used, which can include leather or even python). 

This shoe culture led Keiko Hirosue to expand from her studio space and co-create an entire factory, in Hoboken, New Jersey, ironically called the BK Shoe Factory (it originated in Brooklyn). The factory allows clients of the studio to take their prototypes and mass produce them in an American factory, one where designers are closer to their product. 

“When I had my own line of shoes and I had to send everything like sketches, overseas. It was phone calls, travels, emails. And that wasn’t really what I liked about shoemaking,” said Hirosue. 

“It was fun to actually make the shoes.”