INTERVIEW: Yukiko Basset Okawa of Benchmade

Japan has a rich tradition of men's shoe making. As we continue to delve deeper into our series  on Japanese shoemakers, we now introduce you to Benchmade shoes and its master shoemaker Yukiko Basset Okawa san. Based in Tokyo, Benchmade is perhaps the only master mens' shoemaker who also happens to be a woman. It takes about five months to get a finished pair of shoes and you have to be in Tokyo. So what are you waiting for?

 

Benchmade atelier in Tokyo

LC: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and when you began producing shoes under your own name?

YO: I entered the shoe making technology course at Cordwainers College in London in 1995, where I began to learn how to make hand sewn welted shoes from Paul Wilson who is a bespoke shoe maker at John Lobb’s. In my final year I won the young designer of the year sponsored by the Shoe and leather news. I graduated with an HND from the shoe making technology department of Cordwainers Colledge. Once I graduated from Cordwainers I started work experience in John Lobb's bootmakers at St James's street in London..

I was the first Japanese shoe maker employed at John Lobbs. After I Joined the company I specialized in Clicking, pattern cutting and closing. I worked at John Lobbs for 8 years. While there I had the pleasure of making shoes for Queen Elizabeth. In 2004 I left John Lobb’s and came back to Japan and opened "Benchwork study" shoe making school. A year later I started my own bespoke shoe brand "Bench Made" by Yukiko Bassett Okawa" in collaboration with Miyuki Hundred Club in Ginza. And in 2006 I moved my "Bench made" brand to setagaya Tokyo.


LC: As a women in men's shoemaking you must have a unique perspective. Can you share with us your thoughts and experiences on the matter?

I can’t wear them. But I’m always thinking if I was a man, I would like to wear these suits or these shoes…. I feel that British bespoke men’s shoes are aesthetically beautiful; they have excellent functionality and durability. Men’s shoes never cease to fascinate me.

YO: Many ladies shoe (and clothes) designers are male, for example Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik. However conversely women have been dressing their men for centuries I think women have a unique perspective on how a man should dress in perhaps the same way as male designers might have for women. I have got a deep fascination for men’s shoes. I can’t wear them. But I’m always thinking if I was a man, I would like to wear these suits or these shoes…. I feel that British bespoke men’s shoes are aesthetically beautiful; they have excellent functionality and durability. Men’s shoes never cease to fascinate me. 

LC: What makes a Benchmade shoe unique?

YO: I talk with my customers to determine the design. I take measurements of customer’s feet, And I make the pattern, cut the leather, do the closing and making. I do everything. So I have the full responsibility for the shoes from start to finish. Whatever the customer desires I am able to grant their request. In this way every shoe I produce is a one off individual creation tailored to each customer.
 


LC: In addition to making shoes you also train shoemakers and run an educational institution. What inspired you do to that?

YO: British hand sawn shoe making requires greatskill, knowledge and experience. It takes 10 years training to become professional.  Now in Europe, classic bespoke shoes shops and shoes makers are become less than less. But I love British bespoke hand sawn shoes so much. I do not want such a great tradition to be lost to the world. And so I want to help this skill to continue.
 


LC: Japanese shoes tend to have a much higher quality of attention and detail than European and UK shoes. Why do you think that is?

Japanese hands have great dexterity, they are very good at fine work. We feel great joy when we put the time and effort in to creating something special.

YO: Japanese hands have great dexterity, they are very good at fine work. We feel great joy when we put the time and effort in to creating something special. This is part of the long history and culture of Japanese arts and crafts. Also we are “OTAKU”. We love that it boils down to details. We have an old saying which we believe “God dwells in the details”.  Also Japanese shoe culture started after the war 70years ago. The shoes business in japan is still developing. So making shoes is an exciting thing in Japan.

LC: Where do you source your leather and soles from?

YO: England , France and Italy.  Where ever I find the best quality leather, I will buy it.
 


LC: Can you tell us a bit more about your lasts and your own designs?

YO: People must combine their feet to the shoes, but 10 people have got a 20 different feet. Most people don’t know about right fitting of shoes. So I make each customer own Last. I make the last so that it is a perfect match for each customer’s feet. The object is to make this perfect connection between the customer and their feet.  I will always make the last and design the shoes to suit the needs of my customers. This process will also take into consideration the customers dress sense, I will often draw a few designs, finally choosing the best in consultation with customer who may make any suggestions or requests as they desire.

 

LC: What are your thoughts on a RTW or MTO line?

YO: Shoes can deform the foot if they don’t fit the foot properly, they may also cause lower back pain and headaches. Everyone’s feet are different in shape and size. I think it is essential to match the feet to match the shoes. I feel there is not only the beauty of appearance without, but also I want you to know the beauty of comfort within.

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LC: How many artisans work with you? And how long does it take to make a pair of shoes?

YO: I have two assistants.  However I advise them to also open shops of their own. Craftsmanship is to make things in one’s self, it should be a free way of life that is not subject to exploitation. I can make a pair of shoes in about 10 days from last making to finish. However since time is also required for the drying process, it takes a lttle more time on top of that.

LC: Can you share with us your process for making a shoe for a customer?

YO: First I will talk with the customer about their lifestyle and dress sense. We will discuss the shoes design and the leather to be used.  Then I draw the design front of customer. Next I will take their feet measurements. From those measurements I can make their Last. After that I make the Pattern, clicking (cutting leather), closing (sewn upper), bottom making. (Trial shoes using cork sole). Then the customer is contacted and should come into to wear the trial shoes to check the fit, shape and design (if necessary any adjustments will be made at this point). If they say OK, I will start to make the actual shoes. 

LC: How can a customer in US or Europe today purchase a pair of shoes from you?

YO: I have few customers in US, UK, China and etc. But It is quite difficult, because customers have to come to my shop at least twice to take measurements and fittings. If it is possible some customers will arrange these fittings for when they are here on business, these times if possible I make several designs at once.

LC: If a customer wished to purchase a pair of shoes from you today how would he do so and how long would it take?

Now it takes 2 and half months until trial fitting, after the fitting is Ok, it will take 2 months and half to complete and to deliver.  To start the process they would need to either contact me through my home page or if they are in the country they may arrange to visit the shop.

LC: In your own collection which is your favorite shoe?

YO:My favorite style of shoe is traditional “OXFORD “shoes. It is the simplest design. So it needs a beautiful last shape and needs to stick to the detail.

LC: Which shoe makers today do you admire?

YO: Of course I respect the shoes and craftsmen of John Lobb at St James’s street.